Back with Book and Blog

After a half-year hiatus, I’ve relaunched my blog (with a spiffy redesign by Jerry Brito). One of the reasons for the relaunch is that I have a new book to promote, The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, or, as I sometimes like to call it, “The Futility of Hope.” The official release date is May 1, but I got hard copies last week, and, after I got over being afraid to look at it for fear that “Presidency” would be misspelled on the cover, it was a great feeling (it’s my first book).

They say that when you’re writing a book, you should have a two-sentence answer at the ready in case people ask you what it’s about while you’re on the elevator. For a long time, mine was “it’s about the presidency. I’m against it.”

A somewhat longer and less flip answer is that when I started researching a couple of years ago, what I had in mind was a book about the post-9/11 Imperial Presidency. But the focus soon became much broader than that. The conventional narrative, which blames a cabal of neocons for the recent growth of executive power, seemed incomplete to me, however much I enjoy cursing neocons.

I realized early on that the story wasn’t that simple. George Bush, after all, is hardly the first president to centralize power in the face of a crisis or to take a messianic view of the presidential role: he stands on the shoulders of liberal giants in that regard. I started to think about the sorts of presidents our scholars and talking heads worship: activists and warriors almost to a man. I started to notice how current candidates talk about the job they’re applying for. Barack Obama told voters in South Carolina last fall that the president could “create a Kingdom here on earth.” John McCain holds out the execrable Teddy Roosevelt as a model because he “nourished the soul of a great nation,” as if soul-nourishing is part of the president’s job. And I started to wonder if maybe we’re getting the presidency we deserve.

The basic idea behind Cult is that Americans ask far too much of the presidency—and that’s a dangerous thing. From the academy, to pop culture, to the voting booth, Americans seem to believe that it’s the president’s role to teach your children well, protect your job, democratize the world, and save you from hurricanes. The public expects the president to be a superhero–and, apologies to Stan Lee, with great responsibility comes great power. That dynamic will continue to operate long after George W. Bush heads back to the branch to cut brush–and so long as it does, the Imperial Presidency will be a permanent fixture in American life.

The Constitution’s Framers never thought of the president as our national guardian angel. They thought of him as a constitutional officer with an important but limited job. Relimiting the presidency thus requires far more than throwing the bum out, or even passing a package of legislative reforms designed to cabin the president’s discretion. It requires recapturing the Framers’ vision–changing how we look at the presidency and what we ask of the office.

Is that possible? Beats me. But I hope that Cult makes a convincing case that it’s necessary.

Further details about the book are here, the Amazon page is here (and whenever the updates to that page go through, you’ll be able to read a sample from the book).

Meanwhile, I’ll be using this blog to comment on the horror and hilarity of our current presidential race, the view of the office that’s on display, and what it all might mean for the future of the presidency. I hope you’ll keep stopping by.

Posted on Apr 9, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power | Comments

5 Responses to “Back with Book and Blog”

  1. Posted by: R. Totale - 04/09/2008

    Glad to have you back, Gene. I’ve enjoyed your writing in the past and am really looking forward to the book.

  2. Posted by: Chuck - 04/10/2008

    Hi Gene,

    I’m really excited to see the book since (1) I think the cause is profoundly important (2) I love your writing and (3) your blog posts are awesome but too short.

    But I have to say that there’s one sentence in the above post that I heartily disagree with.

    Relimiting the presidency thus requires far more than throwing the bum out, or even passing a package of legislative reforms designed to cabin the president’s discretion.

    I think this is almost completely wrong. The way for the country to get its head on straight about the Presidency is *precisely* to “[pass] a package of legislative reforms designed to cabin the president’s discretion.”

    The culture of president-worship didn’t just arise. As you know much, much better than me, it has its antecedents in a complex mix of packaging, procedures, and evolution of the powers of the office that could be described as a malignant tumor.

    So how do we bind down leviathan? It’s foolish and childish to wish for a savior on white horse (e.g., the thought from some that Obama can cure EVERY problem, presumably through charisma, rhetoric, and, I don’t know, the general power of AWESOME.) A direct national debate explicitly about the powers of the presidency is unlikely to be sustained long enough for the wheels of justice to complete their slow grind.

    We need to make new rules. The cool thing about rules is that they can seem innocuous and be impartial but can have lasting, beneficial effects.

    Here’s one simple rule change I’ve wanted for the presidency for a long time.

    Let’s scrap the once-a-year State of the Union and replace it with the once-a-week habit of Prime Minister’s Questions like they do it in Great Britain. The House of Representatives (which should have at least 1,000 members, but that’s another story) is the People’s House. Let’s replace the aloof positioning of the presidency with regularly-scheduled direct questioning. It would make the prospect of constitutionally-limited government more lively, more populist, more accountable, and more effective. It would make great theater. It would make the Presidency less God-like. It would channel the representatives’ ambitions into something useful–checking the power of the executive. It would keep the President thinking about the crackpot Representative from Dubuque rather than getting us into unnecessary, unconstitutional, expensive, ill-begotten adventures with heads of state from Indonesia, Iran, Iceland, and Ivory Coast.

    Changing the rules is the only way to change the presidency.

    A change of heart will never happen any other way. Fish don’t know they’re under water. People don’t realize that this type of Presidency isn’t perfectly normal.

  3. Posted by: Gene - 04/10/2008

    Thanks, guys. Chuck, I didn’t mean to suggest that legislative reforms weren’t worth trying. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope in the short term. It took a moment of extraordinary presidential weakness to pass even the toothless War Powers Resolution over Nixon’s veto. But some of the post-H20 reforms stuck and did some good. I’d love to see a Questions Period, but I don’t see how it could be imposed in our system on any president who didn’t want to put up with it.

  4. Posted by: Christopher - 04/14/2008

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for providing the book (and blog) to which I can now direct my beleaguered friends — the ones who have sat here this campaign season enduring my ongoing complaints on this very topic.

    The rise of Obama, in particular, has illustrated this tendency among modern Americans to imbue the presidency with all manner of magical powers. It’s not simply what the candidates themselves do and say; it’s the degree to which Americans intuitively buy into it all and thus empower the presidential role.

    The media certainly relishes the concept of president-as-king: It’s dramatic, it makes a good story, it’s fun to write about. You can see it even in the dry language of polling, in which respondents are asked to rate such fundamentals as the president’s “handling” of the economy, as if it’s a given that’s what presidents are supposed to do.

    Thanks for writing the book. I look forward to reading it.

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