Friday, September 14, 2007

the unitary executive in the 1930s . . .

Vive le Roi!

this is deliciously tongue-in-cheek

The abdication of Congress is certainly not as overt and abject as that of the German Reichstag or the Italian Parliamento; nevertheless, it has gone so far that the constitutional potency of the legislative arm is reduced to what the lawyers call a nuisance value. The two Houses can still make faces at Dr. Roosevelt, and when a strong body of public opinion happens to stand behind them they can even force him, in this detail or that, into a kind of accounting, but it must be manifest that if they tried to impose their will upon him in any major matter he could beat them easily. The only will left in the national government is his will. To all intents and purposes he is the state.

We have thus come to a sort of antithesis of the English system, under which Parliament is omnipotent and the King is only a falseface. It would be rather absurd to call the charge revolutionary, for it has been under way for more than a hundred years. Since Jackson's first election, in fact, Congress has always knuckled down to the President in times of national emergency. After 1863 Lincoln ruled like an Oriental despot, and after 1917, Wilson set himself up, not only as Emperor, but also as Pope. In 1864, as antiquaries familiar with Ex parte Merryman will recall, the Supreme Court undertook to bring old Abe to book, but as the same antiquaries know, it had to confess in the end that it could do nothing.

There is no likelihood that it will intervene in the present situation. For one thing, there seems to be no public demand that it do so. For another thing, judges as a class are naturally sympathetic toward arbitrary power, for their own authority rests upon it. Thus there seems to be every probability that Dr. Roosevelt will continue to operate as an absolute monarch, at least for some time to come. If the schemes of salvation concocted by his Brain Trust, i.e., by the King In Council, appear to be working, then no one save a few touchy senators will want to depose him. And if we continue wandering in the wilderness, with our shirttails out and the hot sun scorching our necks, then most Americans will probably hold that it is better to go on following one leader, however bad, than to start scrambling after a couple of hundred of them, each with a different compass.

My gifts as a constructive critic are of low visibility, but the state of affairs thus confronting the country prompts me to make a simple suggestion. It is that a convention be called under Article V of the Constitution, and that it consider the desirability of making Dr. Roosevelt King in name as well as in fact. There is no Constitutional impediment to such a change, and it would thus not amount to a revolution. The people of the United States are quite as free, under Article V, to establish a monarchy as they were to give the vote to women. Even if they held, as some argue, that the Bill of Rights is inviolable and cannot be changed by constitutional amendment, it may be answered that there is nothing in the Bill of Rights requiring that the national government shall be republican in form.

The advantages that lie in making Dr. Roosevelt King must be plain to everyone. His great difficulty today is that he is a candidate for reƫlection in 1936, and must shape all his acts with that embarrassing fact in mind. Even with a docile Congress awaiting his orders he cannot carry on with a really free hand, for there remains a moniroty in that Congress which may, son or late, by the arts of the demagogue, convince the public, or a large part of it, that wahat he is doing is dangerous, and so his reƫlection may be imperiled. To meet and circumvent this peril he must play the demagogue himself, which is to say, he must only too often subordinate what he believes to be wise to what he believes to be popular.

It is a cruel burden to lay upon a man facing a multitude of appaling problems, some of them probably next door to insoluble. No other man of genuine responsibility under our system of government is called upon to bear it. It lies, to be sure, upon Congressmen, but Congressmen, after all, are minor functuaries, and no one has expected them, these hundred years past, to be wise. We try to lighten it for Senators, who are a cut higher, by giving them six-year terms and so postponing their ordeal by ballot, and we remove it altogether for Federal judges by letting them sit during good behavior. But the President has to go on the auction block every four years, and the fact fills his mind and limits his freedom of action from the moment he takes the oath of office.

I am not a Roosevelt fanatic, certainly, though I voted for the right hon. gentleman last November, and even printed a few discreet pieces arguing that he might be worse. But it must be manifest that, in any situation as full of dynamite as the present one, it is a great advantage to have a leader who can devote his whole time and thought to the problems before him, without any consideration of extraneous matters. Yet that is precisely what, under our present system, a president cannot do. He is forced, at every moment of his first term, to remember that he may be thrown out at the end of it, and it is thus no wonder that his concern often wobbles him, and makes him a too-easy mark for the political blackmailers who constantly threaten him

If his term were unlimited, or limited only by his good behavior—in brief, if he were in the position of an elected King—he would get rid of all this nuisance, and be free to apply himself to his business. I believe that any man, under such circumstances, would do immensely better than he could possibly do under the present system. And I believe that Dr. Roosevelt, in particular, would be worth at least ten times what he is worth now, for he is a good enough politician to know that his current high and feverish popularity cannot last, democracy being what it is, and that the only way he can save himself in 1936 is by forgetting the Depression once or twice a day, and applying himself to very practical politics.

What this division of aim and interest amounts to is shown brilliantly by some of his appointments. He has made a plain effort to surround himself with men in whose competence and good faith he can put his trust, but he has been forced by the exigencies of his uncomfortable situation to give a number of important posts to political plugs of the most depressing sort. These plugs were too powerful to be flouted, and now that they are in office they are even more powerful than before. If they remain, they will disgrace the administration soon or late, and if they are turned out, they will imperil it in 1936. An elected King could rid himself of them at once, and they could do him no damage, now or hereafter.

The objections to monarchy are mainly sentimental, and do not bear well under inspection. I shall rehearse some of them at length in a future article, and try to show how hollow they are. Suffice it for the moment to glance at a few of them. One is the objection that a King, once in office, can't be got rid of. The answer is that Kings are got rid of very often, and usually very easily, and that the same constitutional convention which provided one for the United States might also provide for his ready impeachment and removal, and even for his lawful and Christian execution.

Another objection is that the problem of the succession is hard to solve, and that any King that we set up would probably want his son to succeed him, and would root for that son exactly as President in his first term now roots for himself, and in his second term for some favorite in his entourage. Well, why not? I believe that a Crown Price, brought up in his father's office, is likely to make at least as good a King as any other fellow. Moreover, is it so soon forgotten that Dr. Roosevelt himself came in as a sort of Crown Prince?—though I should add that he was challenged by a Legitimist party led de jure by the Young Pretender, Prince Theodore Minor, and de facto by Princess Alice. If His Excellency's name were Kelly, or Kraus or Kaminsky would he be in the White House today? To ask the question is to answer it. Despite the theory that Americans fear and abhor the hereditary principle they have elected one President's son to the Presidency, one President's grandson and one President's cousin, and in at least two other instances they have made motions in the same direction. This is five times in thirty-one times at the bat, or nearly one in six.

But the succession is really a minor matter. I see no objection to letting the sitting King nominate three candidates, and then choosing between them, by plebiscite, at his death. His nominations, at worst, would be far better than any that professional politicians could or would make, and three nominees would give the voters sufficient choice. There remains the problem of starting the ball rolling. But that problem, as I have sought to show, is already solved. We have a King in the White House at this minute, and he is quite as much of the Blood Royal as George V. All that remains is to call a constitutional convention, and, as it were, make an honest woman of him.

H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun
1 May 1933

1 comment:

Quixie said...

This was written in 1933.
Since then, the ratio of five in thirty-one (1 in 6) has not changed.

Seven in forty-four (1 in 6)

(if we add Dubya and Senator Clinton to the tally of contestants to the throne)