Garry Wills Gets One Right

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.