The Dark Side

I recently finished Jane Mayer’s excellent new book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. I thought I couldn’t read another thing about Addington, Yoo, and company, but Mayer’s book drew me in, and taught me a lot. There’s a lot I’d like to highlight from the book and blog about, but probably won’t have time to get to. But here’s an interesting detail she mentions in passing. You may recall this exchange between John Yoo and John Conyers when Yoo was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee recently:

Conyers: Could the President order a suspect buried alive?
Yoo: Uh, Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’ve ever given advice that the President could order someone buried alive. . .

Conyers: I didn’t ask you if you ever gave him advice. I asked you thought the President could order a suspect buried alive.

Yoo: Well Chairman, my view right now is that I don’t think a President . . . no American President would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.

Conyers: I think we understand the games that are being played.

I took Conyers’ question to be (useful) hyperbole, intended to draw out the virtually limitless theory of presidential power Yoo’s perspective entails–much like Professor David Cassell’s earlier question to Yoo: “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?” Yet in the course of discussing acting OLC head Dan Levin’s attempt to draft a replacement memo for Yoo’s repudiated August 2002 torture memo, Mayer writes:

“Levin refused, however to give the administration carte blanche. He had heard rumors that his predecessor, John Yoo, had orally approved especially questionable CIA practices, including the use of mind-altering drugs and mock-burials.” (Emphasis added).


Posted on Sep 3, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Executive Power | 3 Comments

Situational Constitutionalism on the Right

Sam Tanenhaus has a sidebar in today’s NYT Week in Review section called “When Reining in an Imperial President Was the Conservatives’ Cause.” “Odd though it may seem, ideological conservatives used to be fierce critics of “executive supremacy,” he writes.

Tanenhaus, a longtime student of conservative intellectual history, is absolutely right. In Cult, I have a section entitled “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency,” that covers the ideological shift in detail. For a taste, click here.

The right-wing intellectuals who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated powerful presidents with activist liberalism: the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society. Therre was a time when you could hear conservative heroes like Barry Goldwater say the sort of things that would get Sean Hannity to call for treason trials today. Goldwater wrote in 1964 that:

Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Heck, it wasn’t too long ago that you could hear John Yoo complain about “The Imperial President Abroad” in the Clinton years.

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Posted on Jun 22, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power | 2 Comments


My college friend Jerry Russello, author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, has an interview with me running on the website of the Kirk Center’s University Bookman.

I write a little bit about Kirk in the section of the book labeled “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency.” Kirk, to his credit, was never really able to stop worrying. Search his name on the Heritage Foundation website and you’ll find some stuff that would get Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to cry treason. Here’s Kirk in the wake of Gulf War I:

it would be ruinous for the Republicans to convert themselves into a party of high deeds in distant lands and higher taxes on the home front. Such a New World Order, like the Pax Romana, might create a wilderness and call it peace; at best, it would reduce the chocolate ration from thirty grams to twenty. And in the fullness of time, the angry peoples of the world would pull down the American Empire, despite its military ingenuity and its protestations of kindness and gentleness — even as the Soviet Empire is being pulled down today, thanks be to God.

I like this one, too (and quote it in the book):

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. in every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good–so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web-of restraints upon will and appetite–these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.

Man, remember conservatives? They used to believe stuff like that. Some of them still do, but they’re few and far between. Today Heritage’s Russell Kirk lecture goes to the likes of John Yoo. Seriously.

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Posted on May 19, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Uncategorized | 4 Comments