The U.S. needs an ethical presidency (5/25/2008)

When a historian who knows as much about the modern White House as Robert Dallek asks whether it’s still possible to have an ethical presidency, citizens should take note, writes David Adler.

Those citizens who attended Robert Dallek’s lecture Thursday night, “Is An Ethical Presidency Possible?” — presented as the inaugural Idaho Humanities Council’s Eastern Idaho Distinguished Lecture Series — were treated to an insightful, stimulating and first-rate talk on one of the most pressing issues of our time by one of the nation’s leading historians.

Not only is an ethical presidency possible — it’s necessary. A republic grounded in constitutional principles, with a commitment to separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rule of law and civil liberties, can expect nothing less. Indeed, the very concept of the rule of law implies presidential subordination to the Constitution, the charter that defines and frames the president’s powers, responsibilities and duties. A system so rooted precludes a presidential power to flaunt the law. As a consequence, the president is not merely legally, but also ethically, bound to obey the Constitution.

The fact that the question has been raised reflects a troubling pattern in recent American history. It’s attributable to a half-century or so of executive aggrandizement and usurpation of power, contempt for legal principles and constitutional norms, and mushrooming arrogance and deceit. It reflects as well a rising tide among presidents of both parties that the doctrine of necessity and its corollary, the imperative to do “the right thing,” may be invoked to justify violations of statutory provisions and constitutional principles. These imperious claims ignore the president’s oath to uphold the Constitution and to faithfully execute the laws. It is this pattern that has led scholars to conclude that the presidency represents a permanent threat to the republic.

Presidential assertions of authority to defy the law reflect a presumption that the “president knows best,” an untenable premise that finds no support in philosophy or history. Since time immemorial, executives have claimed to know truths that have escaped others, to possess wisdom beyond compare, and judgment impervious to discussion and debate. In the hands of wicked men, absolutism paved the road to Stalingrad and Auschwitz; in the hands of others, those more benign, if no less confident, lay the path to disasters in Korea, Vietnam and, now, Iraq.

The framers of the Constitution rejected the philosophy of presidential infallibility. They saw nothing in the scope of history that suggested support for executive claims to superior judgment, character, wisdom and decision-making. On the contrary, they recognized the fallibility of men as a controlling principle. As a result, they fashioned a constitutional system that sought to check executive discretion at every turn. As keen students of history, they perceived the folly and dangers of executive unilateralism. American history has not disturbed their wisdom. Rather, it has confirmed it.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.