Supreme Warlord of the Earth
(Page 5 of 8)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt eliminated the last remaining vestiges of the modest presidency. Roosevelt used Wilson’s Trading with the Enemy Act to shut down all U.S. banks in 1933, grabbed the power to approve or prescribe wages and prices for all trades and industries, and authorized the FBI to spy on suspected subversives. He changed the Supreme Court from a bulwark against presidential overreach to an enabler. By the end of his 12-year reign, FDR had firmly established the president as national protector and nurturer.
War was the health of the presidency during the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union as well. “The worse matters get,” Harry Truman’s adviser Clark Clifford told him in 1947, “the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president.” During the Cold War, presidents used national security to justify spying on their political enemies. Richard Nixon might have been the most notorious abuser, but his predecessors also wielded the presidential bludgeon with gusto. When American steel companies raised prices in 1962, John F. Kennedy declared privately that “they fucked us, and now we’ve got to try to fuck them,” then ordered up wiretaps, Internal Revenue Service audits, and early-morning raids on steel executives’ homes.
During the Eisenhower 1950s and the JFK/LBJ 1960s, the newly ascendant conservative movement coalescing around Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley’s National Review was the most potent source of criticism of the imperial presidency.
But enticed by the long-awaited prospect of an “emerging Republican majority” and turned off by the journalistic and congressional attacks on Nixon, conservatives learned to stop worrying and love the executive branch. During the post-Watergate reform era, two senior Gerald Ford White House aides named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld fought tooth and nail against what they felt were dangerous shackles on the executive branch; they were supported by a conservative commentariat that refocused its ire on the Democratic Congress and the left-leaning press. “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate,” National Review stalwart M. Stanton Evans once quipped.
Although Americans finally recovered their native skepticism toward power after Vietnam and Watergate, we never reduced our demands on the executive branch. The lesson we seemed to have learned from the legacy of abuses was to trust less, ask more. In 1998 the Pew Research Center noted that “public desire for government services and activism has remained nearly steady over the past 30 years.” Two years later, a report on a survey by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government put it pithily: “Americans distrust government, but want it to do more.”
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