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White House Studies

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Everybody wants to be a king, to be free to do what they want. Presidents particularly want to be kings. After successfully negotiating the gauntlet of the modern presidential campaign, they arrive at the White House profoundly determined to realize their visions for the country. The framers would have expected no less. They understood all about this “monarchial” view of human nature. They designed a government to restrain it. At the White House this design of American government becomes, at least from a presidential perspective, a presidential problem. To succeed, Presidents must act “unkingly.” Usually they conform in one way or another to this rule, but sometimes they don’t. They act in a kingly fashion. They ignore constitutional restraints and the law. The Bush administration provides the most recent and the most expansive example. A compliant legislature and public has made this possible. Such compliance is a product of both anxiety and civic ignorance. Anxiety has been a product of 9/11 and the on-going war on terrorism. Civic ignorance has been the consequence of a school system that no longer sees its mission as teaching students, as William Galston wrote, to be willing and able “to engage in public discourse and evaluate the performance of those in office.” A citizenry lacking this capacity opens the door to expanding monarchial behavior, undermining American democracy.


Previously published in vol. 10:2 of White House Studies special issue: President or King? Evaluating the Expansion of Executive Power from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush.



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