George F. Will: Caesaropapism Rampant

Roundup: Media's Take

Barack Obama recently said, "I believe in our ability to perfect this nation." Clearly there is something the candidate of "change" will not change—the pattern of extravagant presidential rhetoric. Obama is trying to replace a president who vowed to "rid the world of evil"—and of tyranny, too.

But then, rhetorical—and related—excesses are inherent in the modern presidency. This is so for reasons brilliantly explored in the year's most pertinent and sobering public affairs book, "The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power," by Gene Healy of Washington's libertarian Cato Institute.

Healy's dissection of the delusions of "redemption through presidential politics" comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d'être, "agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility." Liberals think boundless government is beneficent. Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls "Caesaropapism" as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor.

War is, as Randolph Bourne said, "the health of the state." And as James Madison said, war is the "true nurse of executive aggrandizement." Today's president has claimed the power to be the "decider," deciding on his own to start preventive wars, order torture prohibited by treaty and statute, and arrest American terrorist suspects on American soil and hold them indefinitely without legal process. But Healy's critique of the heroic presidency ranges far beyond national-security matters.

"Tell me your troubles," said FDR, Consoler in Chief, in a fireside chat with a radio audience. In 1960, the year the nation elected a charismatic (a term drawn from religion) president who regarded the office as "the center of moral leadership," an eminent political scientist called the presidency "the incarnation of the American people in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ." In 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton promised a "New Covenant" between government and the governed. That, Healy dryly notes, was "a metaphor that had the state stepping in for Yahweh."...
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