Garry Wills Gets One Right

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My
high school U.S. History teacher (a fair-minded man) introduced
me to Garry Wills with Inventing
America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence
. I immediately
liked his iconoclasm, which recurs in The
Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power
and other works.

It's
difficult not to be impressed by Wills's prolificacy. He has written
books on everyone from Saint Augustine to John Wayne, authoring
studies of Macbeth and The Federalist Papers to boot.

A
Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

is a problematic book. As David Gordon writes in The Mises Review,
"[T]o catalogue Wills's errors is decidedly not a necessary
evil." I too decline this task.

But
just as a broken watch is right twice a day, Wills hits upon some
truths in A Necessary Evil. His chapter on "Co-equal
Branches" stands out in debunking the notion that the Congress,
President, and Supreme Court are proportionately empowered.

Legislative
supremacy is a conspicuous and key component of American government.
Indeed, the presidential and judicial misconduct so rampant in recent
years would have been impossible if Congress asserted its authority.
(It should take a cue from The Rock of WWF renown and declare, "Know
your role!")

With
typical sagacity, John C. Calhoun identified the abnegation-expansion
relationship in 1841, observing in the executive context, "The
Constitutional power of the President never was or could be formidable,
unless it was accompanied by a Congress which was prepared to corrupt
the Constitution." Substitute "President" with "Supreme
Court" and the observation is just as true.

Yes,
we have an imperial presidency that that legislates through executive
orders and indulges in monarchic saber rattling; yes, we have an
activist judiciary that nullifies autonomy on a regular basis. And
we also have a supine legislature ultimately responsible for these
usurpations. They are all contingent upon congressional countenance,
tacit or otherwise.

Wills
writes, "The Congress can remove officers from the other two
branchesu2014President, agency heads, judges in district or supreme
courts. Neither of the other two branches can touch a member of
the Congress." Of course, it's ludicrous to suggest that Congress
invoke its mandate and restore the rule of law. Eject criminal presidents
and judges? That's just mean!

Congressional
dereliction entails more than ethical poverty, however. In executive
war-making, the upshot is thousands of deaths, fractured families,
and trauma transcending human comprehension. Who knows how many
wives and children would still have their husbands and fathers if
only our legislators fulfilled their oath? To paraphrase Richard
Weaver, negligence has consequences.

Wills
is right to describe inter-branch equality as an "extraordinary
misperception" and a "constitutional myth," just
as executive primacy over war-making and judicial infallibility
are extraordinary misperceptions and constitutional myths. (His
classification of "Sovereign States" as a constitutional
myth is another matter.) More than bogus, it serves to legitimate
lawless conduct. It instills the belief that the federal government
is not hierarchical but horizontal, and therefore Congress has no
right to crack down on rogue peers.

So
the next time the Supreme Court invalidates an exercise of self-government
or the President deploys troops on some humanitarian intervention,
be sure to thank your representatives (a curious word) for letting
the Republic go further down the tubes. Then go to a movie theater
or a bowling alley, and know that there but for the cowardice of
those representatives goes a family.

February
15, 2001

Myles
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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