Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: 'Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy' by Charlie Savage

Review by Susan Gardner
Takeover The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy 
By Charlie Savage 
Little, Brown and Company 
New York, 2007
[Cheney] hoped to enlarge the zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action, to undermine limits imposed by international treaties, to nominate judges who favored a stronger presidency, and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government. And Cheney’s vision of expanded executive power was not limited to his and Bush’s own tenure in office. Rather, Cheney wanted to permanently alter the constitutional balance of American government, establishing powers that future presidents would be able to wield as well.
...The old "inherent power" theory greatly expanded what the executive branch could do, but it was silent about whether Congress could impose restrictions on how the president carried out those responsibilities. The new and improved Unitary Executive Theory said that Congress could not regulate any executive power, but the theory said nothing about the potential scope of such power. When fused, the two theories transformed any conceivably inherent executive power into an exclusive one. The president could do virtually anything, without any check by Congress.
When historians look back at this era in America, Charlie Savage’s Takeover should serve as a primary chronicle of how America went so wrong, so fast. Prior to penning this book, Savage was most widely known as the Boston Globe reporter who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize primarily for his tenacious coverage of the effects and implications of President Bush’s signing statements.
In Takeover, the journalist takes full advantage of having a wider canvas and some intellectual stretching room to connect the dots of the insistent, constant push the Bush administration has launched against the two other branches of government. Savage lays the groundwork by looking backward first, giving an overview of the gradually expanding presidential powers--or executive attempts to expand the power--and demonstrates that this is not a partisan issue.
In previous generations, presidents embracing imperial tendencies had often been Democrats--notably Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Johnson--and their power grabs were opposed by Republicans who embodied a traditional conservative distrust of concentrated government power. But the new generation of conservative activists, who had no first-hand memory of those fights, began to associate unchecked presidential authority with their desire for lower taxes, a more aggressive stance against Communism, and domestic policies that advanced traditional social values. To them, Congress was the bastion of liberal Democrats and liberal values, and the executive branch was for conservatives.
As the new branch for conservatives became an uncompromising Republican stronghold for the current administration, Cheney and Bush began digging in their heels early on, Savage points out. Even before 9/11, there were indications--small and comparatively trivial compared with later sweeping war powers claimed--that Cheney’s long-cherished push to "restore" power to the presidency was going to be a fight this administration wanted to pick at all costs. One of the first fights was over the Energy Task Force and Cheney’s reluctance to turn over notes or attendance records of the meetings. Savage documents GAO head David Walker’s fight over what inside sources labeled "generally uninteresting papers." The eagerness of the administration to engage in an expansion of presidential power precedent over minor issues, Savage speculates, was due to the alliance of Cheney and his henchman, David Addington. "In retrospect," the author writes, "it seems likely that the embryo of the Bush-Cheney administration’s legal strategy began incubating at the moment Cheney’s career-long drive for a policy of expansive presidential power encountered Addington’s theories."
This policy was pushed to a less publicized extent when Bush announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the ABM missile treaty. As Savage notes, "By unilaterally scrapping the ABM treaty, Bush seized for the presidency the power to pull the United States out of any treaty without obtaining the consent of Congress." Yet little attention was paid at the time to the down-the-road implications of this action. It was not until the full flowering of the expansion of the presidential "commander in chief" powers after the terror attacks that the previous wrangling over executive privilege, national security and secrets began to make sense.
It is this portion of the book--when the author lays out the complicated timeline advancing on several fronts--that really shines. Savage constructs a verbal timeline, weaving back and forth between the immigrant sweeps and denial of rights in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to the setting up of Gitmo and the tribunals, to the unauthorized wiretapping and surveillance, to torture. These are complex and simultaneous pressures that the president and vice president were exerting, on several different fronts. This account by Savage is probably the best I’ve run across in making sense of the timing and strategy of the issues implied by the wedding of unitary executive theory and the vast inherent powers the administration was claiming for the executive branch.
The background of  Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Addington, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales are sketched in, and their self-reinforcing, isolated bubbles of non-mainstream legal opinion bounce off each other and amplify truly dangerous anti-democratic thinking. As Savage puts it:
A former senior member of the administration legal team who did not want to be identified by name recalled a pervasive post-9/11 sense of masculine bravado and one-upmanship when it came to executive power. A "closed group of like-minded people" were almost in competition with one another, he said, to see who could offer the farthest-reaching claims of what a president could do. In contrast, those government lawyers who were perceived as less passionate about presidential power were derided as "soft" and were often simply cut out of the process.
This macho one-upmanship extended, as we now know, to the imposition of political appointees on departments that had long traditions of non-politicization and professional civil service employees. The unraveling of these agencies as doctrinaire Bush appointees began to invade has been well-publicized in recent months in the Department of Justice. Other instances--such as in the JAG corps--are only now making their way into public knowledge. These twin pressures of overreaching executive claims and the seeding of the federal government agencies with ideologues and right-wing loyalists are going to present a challenge to the next president.  The purifying of the professional civil service establishment is going to be difficult to achieve without cries of "political retribution" ringing far and wide; even more improbable to imagine is a president willing to shuck the strengthened powers Bush has seized for the office.
Savage’s book is important in this regard: becoming familiar with the details of how aberrant this administration has become is surely the first step in rectifying the unconstitutional overreach. It also serves as a superb introduction for citizens only vaguely aware of what’s at stake in the executive privilege realm and what that means for the permanent loss of our liberties. As the author notes, it’s all about precedent, and that’s what we need to fight the most:
Each time a problem arose--and many problems would arise in the weeks and months after 9/11--the inner circle of key decision makers at the White House looked at their options and then picked the solution that relied upon the greatest possible assertion of presidential power. These policies, usually enacted in secret, transformed their theory into precedent.
In light of Takeover and its crucial examination, readers should also note Savage’s story published in yesterday’s Boston Globe, in which the current crop of presidential candidates explains views of executive privilege and power. The future of American democracy may depend on getting this choice right, after what the Bush-Cheney administration has done to this country.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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