The law: textbooks and the president's constitutional powers.

Author:Adler, David Gray
 
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Each year, approximately one million college and university students across the United States enroll in an introductory course on American government and politics. For many, and perhaps most of these students, "Political Science 101" will represent their only exposure to the principles and practices of American government. What they carry away from that experience in the form of lectures, classroom discussions, and reading assignments will significantly inform and shape their comprehension of government and politics, and perhaps mold their behavior as citizens. Assuming that students read the textbooks assigned to them, it is a fair deduction that their impressions and understanding of governmental powers--legislative, executive, and judicial--will be influenced by authors' descriptions and explanations, even accounting for instructors' corrections and clarifications of textbook discussion and commentary. If true, we might wonder how presidential power is discussed, portrayed, and described in 101 textbooks. How will student readers, transformed into citizens, and perhaps active and participatory citizens, come to understand the constitutional powers vested in the Office of the Presidency? In the face of sweeping assertions of executive power by recent presidents, this is no mean question. Indeed, it is a question of great moment, particularly in the age of a "War on Terrorism" which is principally, if not exclusively designed, shaped, and conducted by the president, and at a juncture in history when presidents, like candidates for the office, claim increasing responsibilities and powers in both foreign and domestic affairs, and when the public imposes rising and demanding expectations--security, economic, cultural, and social--on the nation's chief executive. Then too, there is the seminal claim of a unilateral executive power to wage preemptive war that must be considered and evaluated.

In a republican form of government, which emphasizes the premise and promise of self-governance, there is, as Thomas Jefferson contended, a great need for education. Moreover, if it is true, as James Madison explained in Federalist no. 51, that the overarching problem confronting a republic is the issue of persuading the government to obey the law, and that the attainment of that goal requires a principal reliance on the citizenry, how is an unarmed or untutored citizen expected to police presidential assertions of power? The rise of what scholars have variously described as the "imperial presidency" (Schlesinger 1973), the "textbook presidency" (Cronin 1975), and the "personal presidency" (Lowi 1985), in short, what James McGregor Burns described as "presidential government" (Burns 1966), has infused Madison's challenge with a sense of urgency. Viewed in that light, we are entitled to wonder whether 101 textbooks will equip students with enough knowledge about the president's constitutional powers to recognize executive exaggeration, deceit, and sophistry, as well as aggrandizement, abuse, and usurpation of power.

Thirty years ago, Thomas E. Cronin wrote a widely read and admired book, The State of the Presidency, in which he explained the concept of the "textbook presidency" (Cronin 1975, 24). Professor Cronin observed: "The textbook presidency describes and extols a chief executive who is generally benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient and highly moral." "Textbooks," as Cronin noted, "summarize current thinking and guide the work of contemporary researchers. For more than twenty years after the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency, most textbook treatments of the presidency seriously inflated and unrealistically interpreted presidential competence and beneficence." As a consequence, Cronin believed, there emerged a consensus among academics that

If society and our system were to be led, they suggested, leadership would have to come from the White House. Whatever strengthened the president's hand, strengthened the nation. Introductory American government textbooks and related political writings in the 1950s and 1960s endorsed the activist, purposeful, power maximizing model of presidential leadership. They often glorified the manipulative leader, and almost all of them exaggerated to some degree past and future presidential performance. Such distortion risked misleading students and leaders alike about the invention and carrying out of creative civic and political responsibilities. Moreover, these writings hardly prepared the nation for the abuses of presidential power witnessed during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps some of the distorted interpretations of what a president could and should accomplish actually encouraged some of these abuses. (Cronin 1975, 24) Academe's "textbook devotion," what Cronin later described in a revised edition of The State of the Presidency as "the cult of the presidency," mirrored the public view of the office (Cronin 1980, 76). In the wake of Cold War incidents, American citizens "looked to presidential leadership with a mixture of awe, support and trust. Where else could they look?" But the admiration, Cronin explained, served to promote unrealistic expectations and "false notions and myths." There was little expression in the literature about "the possibility of the abuse of power" and the consequent need for improving checks and balances. What was missing in the textbooks, Cronin observed, "was a better sense of proportion and a respectful skepticism about what it was that a president could achieve" (Cronin 1980, 770).

A random survey of some twenty American government textbooks largely confirms Professor Cronin's observations and findings. There remains remarkably little concern about the abuse of presidential power in spite of scandals, travesties, and transgressions that the nation has endured from Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra to unbridled claims of executive power in foreign and domestic affairs. Professor Cronin's study was not primarily concerned with the way in which the "textbook presidency" portrayed the president's constitutional power, but that is the principal purpose of this essay. This review reveals two broad themes. First, most textbooks reflect an inattentiveness to, a general disregard of, and perhaps an underappreciation for the importance of the president's constitutional powers. With few exceptions (e.g., Berman and Murphy 2003; Hudson 2004; Landy and Milkis 2004), textbooks offer little more than a cursory review of the president's constitutional powers. The treatment of the presidential roles in war-making and foreign affairs receives disproportionate coverage, to be sure, but even those discussions leave students in doubt about the constitutional allocation of foreign affairs and war-making powers between the president and Congress. Tellingly, these accounts are located in chapters devoted to discussion of presidential, not congressional, powers, despite the fact that the Constitution vests in the Congress, not the president, the principal authority to formulate, manage, and conduct the nation's foreign relations (Adler and George 1996). The textbook arrangement likely reflects the practice and pattern of executive domination of American foreign policy, and it may also reflect authorial preference for, and celebration of, an expansive executive. The textbook treatment of the president's constitutional authority, moreover, virtually ignores the debates in the Constitutional Convention and various writings contemporaneous with the framing of the Constitution, including the Federalist Papers, which illuminate the meaning of constitutional provisions. Incredibly, the texts ignore altogether Federalist nos. 69 and 75-the two essays most critical to any effort to comprehend the constitutional blueprint for foreign affairs. In Federalist no. 69, for example, Alexander Hamilton engaged in a minute analysis of presidential power in foreign policy as a means of distinguishing the president's relatively meager powers from the full body of authority possessed by the king of England. The most dramatic distinction, Hamilton observed, is to be found in the fact that the king may engage his country in war, but in the United States, that discretionary authority is vested solely in Congress (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1937, Federalist no. 69, 448). And in Federalist no. 75, it fell again to Hamilton, the darling among enthusiasts of a strong executive, to lay bare the essential reason why the Constitution does not grant to the president the nation's foreign affairs authority:

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a president of the United States. (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1937...

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