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Restoring presidential power to the people

Rev. Jack Van Ens

Nature doesn’t tolerate a vacuum. Air invades voids, rushing to fill empty spaces.Since Sept. 11, terrorists’ threats have created a vacuum of insecurity. President George W. Bush has rushed in to fill that vacuum. Our nation’s commander in chief believes the Constitution empowers him to take whatever measures he sees necessary to make our nation secure, even without congressional approval. When intelligence experts needed clearance to eavesdrop on overseas telephone calls terrorists possibly place, our president didn’t get the OK from Congress. He gave cursory briefings to congressional leaders but approved this clandestine policy without congressional debate. Prior to the recent Supreme Court ruling that shot down Bush’s insistence that he could hold terrorists without trial, our president ruled by what he deemed appropriate in dealing with captured enemies.George W. Bush spies a vacuum and fills it. As a wartime president, he seizes power to avoid congressional approval for military surveillance and tribunals to judge terrorists.When the Twin Towers fell down after terrorists’ assaults using hijacked airplanes, our president rose up. He has acted, as he sees it, with inherent power of his office grounded in constitutional authority. Working with Congress in matters of national security seems an afterthought for Bush.Where does he get this controversial presidential right for asserting power to protect citizens’ security, habitually short-circuiting their voice in Congress?Since occupying the White House, Bush has read two recent biographies of his presidential hero – Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Over Christmas break 2005, the president took a Roosevelt biography with him to his Texas ranch, urging others to copy his reading habits. On July 3, the Making of America special issue featuring Teddy, “How Roosevelt Invented Modern America,” Time magazine ran an article Bush confidant Karl Rove wrote. Rove raves about Roosevelt’s take-charge leadership. In “Lessons From a Larger-than-Life President,” Rove gushes, “Confident in his own powers of judgment and persuasion, Roosevelt believed in ‘immediate and rigorous executive action’ in times of crisis. And whether they agreed with him or not, Americans knew where this human dynamo stood on the great issues of his time.”Who is Rove really describing? He sees his boss, George W. Bush, acting like a reincarnated Theodore Roosevelt.Bush would do great service to our nation if he balanced his reading of presidential biographies with another Roosevelt – Franklin Delano. Though FDR admired T.R., these two presidents did not see eye-to-eye on Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson tempered raw presidential power, balancing it by the will of the people enacted through Congress. FDR heeded this balance. Bush and T.R. rarely consider it, blinded by their assertive natures. Both presidents are commanders in chief who act. Afterward, they might request congressional approval or forget it.Fresh out of Harvard, 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt wrote a monumental study how the United States must build up massive naval sea power. Controlling the oceans will ensure control of terror abroad, T.R. asserted in “The Naval War of 1812.” In this book, Roosevelt voiced utter disgust for Thomas Jefferson. He mocked Jefferson for his “criminal folly” in failing to prepare for war.In contrast, Franklin Roosevelt applauded Jefferson. At Hyde Park on February 27, 1933, FDR and a key speechwriter, Raymond Moley, worked on the celebrated first inaugural address. FDR interrupted careful editing, reflecting on the Founding Fathers, with particular reference to the presidents he admired most. FDR sized up Ben Franklin as clever but shallow. Judging presidents, he rated Thomas Jefferson “the best.” Why did the Roosevelts – T.R. and FDR – arrive at startlingly different conclusions about Jefferson’s insistence on balancing power? Theodore, like George W. Bush, hyped our nation’s destiny, reading history as showing that only a strong central government led by a dominant commander in chief tips balance of power against terrorists.FDR and Jefferson argued the president and Congress working together form the most effective republic. Their reading of our republic’s history teaches how our personal liberties are best preserved when the people through Congress limit and balance the executive office. The Constitution does not begin, “I, the president, in order to form a more perfect union, … ” but rather, “We, the people. … “Like Voltaire, Jefferson couldn’t wait for the day when the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Jefferson detested concentrated power, even for a president who has the nation’s best interests at stake in a war on terror. Restore the people’s power, believed Jefferson, for then “the light of righteous people beams brightly, but the lamp of wicked people will be snuffed out,” Proverbs 13:9.Joseph Ellis, in “Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation,” catches the spirit of the recent Supreme Court ruling against Bush that struck down the notion that any president acting unilaterally can alone determine how to defend our land. “Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791) captured the essence of (Jefferson’s) vision more fully than any other book of the age, depicting as it did a radical transformation of society once the last vestiges of feudalism were destroyed. … The only legitimate form of government, in the end, is self-government.” This is best accomplished when the president and our citizens work together, lest an imperial executive denies personal rights to ensure national security. Our republic won’t tolerate this hidden terror.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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