“Fear was a big part of it”

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I’m watching the PBS American Experience episode “Ruby Ridge”. Sara Weaver, the daughter of Randy Weaver, is describing how her parents were preparing to move from their Iowa farm to living on a mountain in Idaho. She says they were adhering to the Biblical passages of “an apocalyptic future” and says

“Fear was a big part of it.”

As the episode draws to a close, she adds

“When you operate out of misinformation and fear, things can go wrong.”

These are words worth remembering – not just in the tragic and volatile 1992 “Ruby Ridge” case, but in our society in general today, and in the language that we hear from those who are responsible for guiding us forward as a nation.

Fear is a big part of it.

Listen to what we are being told:

  • Fear those who cross our country’s border from Mexico – they are rapists and murderers and drug lords.
  • Fear those who run from brutality and death in Syria – they are terrorists who hate our freedom.
  • Fear those who report on our government’s actions – they are enemies of the American people.
  • Fear those who teach – they are telling our children what to do, what to say, what to think.
  • Fear those who wear a hoodie on a chilly night – they are armed and looking for a house to rob.
  • Fear those who wear a jihab – they are hiding something, maybe a bomb.
  • Fear those who march in protest – they are paid professional agitators trying to destroy our democracy.
  • Fear those who own large, successful businesses – they are mistreating their workers and hiring illegal immigrants.
  • Fear those who run for office under the (name one) Party – they are only out for (their supporters, their class, their race) and will take away your (rights, guns, money).
  • Fear those who demand your attention – they want to heckle you, mock you, shout at you, shout you down

Sara Weaver is someone who was thrust, unwillingly, into the public eye, under terrible and tragic circumstances. Yet, because of those circumstances, she knows so much more than our leaders do:

“When you operate out of misinformation and fear, things can go wrong.”


Photo: ©AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Ending the Imperial Presidency

I have a theory — that we are living through the end of the “Imperial Presidency”, with the accompanying restoration of the Congress as the center of power in federal government.
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“The Imperial Presidency”. Those who have watched as many presidencies as I have (or more) know that term. It has been around for the entirety of our modern presidency — which I put at all presidents starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration, in the midst of the Great Depression. It was FDR who swung the presidency like a club, sweeping across the economy and the “general welfare” of a nation in dire straits. FDR wasn’t always attentive to the Constitution along the way, and met resistance from conservatives, the opposition (Republican) party and businesses. But his New Deal reforms are entrenched in government programs to this day — and the presidential power that he exercised before and during World War II set the tone for the Imperial Presidency that continued long after he died.

All presidencies since FDR have tried, with varying degrees of success, to deal with the challenge of the Imperial Presidency. We’ve had other Imperials — JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, W and Obama. All of them were accused — correctly — of expanding the dominance of the White House. In most cases, Congress pushed back hard and SCOTUS blocked the way, but the popular perception, at home and internationally, was that of a dominating, celebrity POTUS.

With 45, it’s different — significantly different. First, he is showing himself, unsurprisingly, to be utterly incompetent and ignorant, and has surrounded himself with friends who are equally ignorant, equally incompetent or just too obsequious to resist him. Add to that the departure, by voluntary or forced resignation, of the knowledge leadership in the executive branches, and the slow pace at which that leadership is being restored. The executive branch is in the hands of idiots – and that is widely accepted to be true, at least for the time being.
Second, importantly, Congress is all Republican. This gives Congress the ability to do whatever they want and to succeed in demanding that their fellow party member in the White House go along with it. They are soon to move SCOTUS into their camp as well (because they can), taking down any final barrier to Congressional “overreach”.
This creates the framework for a very powerful Congress that can lord over a much-weakened presidency. The Republican Congress has been testing its strength against the Obama presidency and, by any measure, succeeded beyond their expectations. And while he was frustrated often, Obama was a president with enormous personal strength of will and intellect. He could wield a law-making scalpel to get some things done because he understands the law, if not the politics of legislating. And he surrounded himself with like-minded people, equally knowledgeable.
By contrast, Obama’s replacement is a dolt both in the law and in legislating (or even in simple management) and his posse does not make up for that weakness.
So the stage is set for a dominating Congress to tower over a much-diminished White House in a way that we haven’t seen in 75 years or more. And that shift may be long-lasting. I expect the “Imperial Presidency” to be a concept shuffled off to history, replaced by a presidency marked by weakness at home and abroad.
One very significant implication of this weakened presidency is the role of “Command-in-Chief.” Can a strong Congress permit the president to exercise the military as his predecessors (W and Obama) could? They passed “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) for W, then essentially let it continue for Obama. With a weak president — especially one who is desperate to demonstrate his self-imagined “strength” — the AUMF is a very dangerous weapon. I expect Congress to pull it back and restore its constitutional power “to declare war”.
A second implication of this weakened presidency is how the United States is perceived internationally. If the US — both in Congress and among the people — do not see a powerful president, how will foreign nations relate to the US? Will they invite the president to a state visit and to negotiate treaties if they do not see the president as a true leader? Perhaps the Speaker of the House will rise in importance internationally as the true leader of the United States, in the same way that the Prime Minister is viewed in parliamentary governments. Perhaps the president will become head of state in title only, in the view of our allies and enemy nations alike.
BOTTOM LINE: Presidential elections of the future will mean far less and have far less real impact than the bi-annual Congressional races. Focus.

Image credit: An East View of Gray’s Ferry, near Philadelphia, with the Triumphal Arches, &c. erected for the Reception of General Washington, April 20, 1789 , line engraving (1789) by James Trenchard
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

KEEP BACK 500 FEET

I followed a fire truck for about a mile on the way to work today. The fire truck didn’t have its sirens wailing or its lights flashing — it looked like it was just heading back to the station, maybe after a rescue or maybe after breakfast. As I sat behind it at a stop light, I noticed the words emblazoned on the back of the truck in very large letters:

KEEP BACK 500 FEET

The light turned green and as the truck pulled through the intersection, I held back, following at a much slower speed. I tried to put 500 feet of distance between my car and the fire truck in front of me.
How far is 500 feet? Well, a football field is 300 feet long, so this was 1-2/3 the length of a football field. That would be quite a distance — and I was certainly closer to the truck than that. As I pulled back, further and further, trying to put 500 feet between us, I thought: “Nobody really does this. Nobody keeps back 500 feet from a fire truck.”
I wondered — what is the law here? Can I get a citation, a fine, a court date, for following a fire truck at less than 500 feet? The answer is probably “Yes” — I say “probably” because I didn’t do the research. But here was a very large admonition, in very large letters, clearly stating that I am obligated to KEEP BACK 500 FEET from this fire truck.
How many laws do we have, on the books, that nobody observes? How many laws are never enforced, because they are outdated, because they aren’t taken seriously? And if these laws were suddenly enforced rigorously — if every car within 500 feet of the back of a fire truck was suddenly pulled over and cited — what would come of those laws? Would they stand up? Or would the courts dismiss the citations as “silly” but leave the law in place? Or would the lawmakers repeal the laws?
This may all sound somewhat silly — but, in fact, there are many laws in effect that are ignored, both by the populace that is charged with obeying the law and the police that are charged with enforcing the law. Most — like the law that prohibits tying a mule to the same hitching post as a horse — are long out-of-date. Some — like a law prohibiting certain sexual activities — are ignored until someone has an axe to grind.
We are taught — at least, back in the day, when I went to grade school — that laws must be obeyed and that the whole of government was built to make sure people obeyed laws. But that puts an obligation on the law-makers to ensure that the laws make sense, that the community as a whole accepts the importance of the law and that the law is evenly enforced. Without this even-handedness in the making and enforcing of the law, the law itself becomes weak.
Good government is hard work — it requires that law-makers keep up with the changing attitudes of the populace and the changing technologies and behaviors that permeate society. It’s largely drudgery — but that drudgery is essential to keeping “follow the law” a reasonable rule. And reasonable rules are essential to good government.

Governing is Not Like Running A Business

On the NPR program "Day to Day" (May 4 2006),  Doug Sutherland, Lands Commissioner for Washington State, says:

"I got rid of bare land…As forest land, it had little or no value."

Reporter Austin Jenkins continues: 

Sutherland fiercely defends the land swap as a smart business move. He says the forest was no longer earning any money for Washington schools; by contrast, the Walgreen’s (drug store) will bring in nearly half-a-million dollars (per) year.

In Idaho, the Director of the Department of Lands is "fulfilling his responsibility to maximize long-term profits"….

"Do I feel funny about it? Not really, because we’re running a business and businesses to be successful need to be alert to new opportunities….I just see this as a legitimate outgrowth of the urbanization that’s taking place in a lot of the Western communities".

The thought that running the government is akin to "running a business" is wrong-headed. Governing the public is nothing like managing a commercial business. The motivations are different. The success metrics are different. The engagement is different.

Good Government works in the public trust. Good Government does not make decisions based on profit, even when the profit is for public purposes. The public trust — a long-term view for this and future generations — trumps profit every time.