The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power by Gene Healy Cato Institute * 2008 * 264 pages * $22.95 hardcover; $13.00 e-book
Reviewed by Brian Doherty
Gene Healy relates a sad and disturbing "kids say the darndest things" anecdote in his new book. The story typifies an attitude toward government that Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, rightly identifies in his book's title as The Cult of the Presidency. A little girl, on hearing that President Kennedy had been murdered in 1963, wondered sadly to her mother "where would we get our food and clothes from?"
That little girl with her bizarre beliefs about the powers and responsibilities of the president is a voting adult now - as are millions whose attitudes about government are at least somewhat like hers. She's probably now wondering if our new president can fill the impossible role Americans expect of their chief executive.
As Healy demonstrates, the perceived responsibilities and powers of the president of the United States have metastasized dangerously since their original conception at the American founding. The president was meant merely to preside over the execution of the laws of the United States, not to be an all-powerful superhero unconstrained in an endless quest to right all wrongs, foreign and domestic. When President John Adams craved the title of "His Highness," Congress would have none of it; Pennsylvania Senator William Macley called the notion "base," "silly," and even "idolatrous."
Healy charts the resilience of this constrained vision of presidential power, even after the upheaval and power grabs of the Lincoln era. The accumulation of power and hubris at 1 600 Pennsylvania Avenue accelerated with the rise to power and prominence of men such as Theodore Roosevelt (who wanted to legislate changes in the English language from the White House and started foreign military adventures without congressional approval) and Woodrow Wilson (who declared that God ordained him to be president and cheered a "spirit of ruthless brutality [in the] fiber of our national life. . . . [EJvery man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.").
From Franklin D. Roosevelt on, all the traditional restrictions on the president's powers crumbled. We find ourselves in a political world where, as in a 1992 presidential debate, candidates are asked to "make a commitment [to] meet [the] needs" of all Americans. Not a single candidate even raised his brow at the …