One of my favorite conversation openers around a dinner table is to ask if anyone would vote for a murderer to be president of the United States.
After the first round of vociferous denials, I follow up with this question; would you vote for anyone who is not willing or capable of killing someone?
That query usually gets the folks thinking ... and talking.
I asked that question to a group of golfing buddies on the nineteenth hole one day recently. They were quick, to a man, to answer in the negative. Killing people, at least in the minds of those 60 something white males, is part of the job description of the President of the United States.
I probed. Who should he kill? "Our enemies," they replied. And who are our enemies? "The people who hate us, the people who want to do us harm." And who identifies those people?
That question really got them talking, and perhaps, just maybe, got at least some of them thinking. "Everybody knows. Guys like whats-his-name, down in South America." You mean Hugo Chavez? "Yeah, yeah, Don't you read the papers?" So the media decide who the President should kill?
"No, not the media. The CIA maybe. Or the military. Or the President himself. That's it. The buck stops in the Oval Office. The President has to decide who he should kill."
Including the person running against him for his job? "Well, no, he couldn't do that." Couldn't do it, or shouldn't do it? Somebody else chimes in. "He can't put a contract out on an American citizen can he?" Is that where the line is drawn? You're saying he can only kill foreigners?
The round table discussion breaks down into a talk show style free for all with everyone spouting opinions at once. And once again I shake my head in disbelief at how little the citizens of this great nation know about the law and the Constitution which is their contract with the institutions of government.
Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected in the depths of the Great Depression on the promise to give Americans a New Deal, the Federal government has been moving inexorably toward domestic sovereignty. More and more, we see ourselves as a single nation governed by a single chief executive. The President is expected to set the national agenda on every issue.
What has evolved over the last three quarters of a century is an imperial presidency. A President who has a hand on the big red button which can launch a nuclear holocost. A President who is assumed to have the power of life and death and who is assumed to use that power for the protection and benefit of the people of the United States of America.
When I tell people that the President's job is faithfully to execute the laws enacted by the Congress; that it is the Congress, not the President, which speaks for the people of the United States, that only the Congress can declare war, identify the enemies of the United States and authorize the President as Commander in Chief to employ military force against them, they look at me with glazed disbelief.
I fear that American pragmatism steers our people toward a President who rules like a Mafia Don, a charismatic monarch, a benign dictator, an all powerful potentate whose only restraint is the popular image that he or she loves the people and works for them.
Madison and Jefferson would weep
Enough for now.