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Book Review: ‘Mr. President’

By (November 1, 2013) No Comment

“Mr. President”: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Officecover_mr_president
by Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo, 2013

Out riding his enormous roan stallion across the heights that now bear his name, turning along the wooded pathway near the site of the bridge that now bears his name, George Washington, the newly-elected first President of the United States, could have glanced across Hudson River at the rump of the Palisades as he trotted his way down to Morningside Heights, dreaming of treason.

That treason is the central subject of Harlow Giles Unger’s flatly astonishing new book ‘Mr. President’: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office, a book which, with only some minor name-changes, could have come off the printing presses in Pyongyang entitled ‘Dear Leader’: He’s Even Greater Than We Thought! In the long, lamentable annals of Washington hagiography, there hasn’t been so fawning a hymn of praise since Parson Weems laid down his quill pen.

Hagiography is all but inevitable when dealing with Washington, and a certain amount of it can be endured with resignation in order to get to the gist of what any given author really has to say about the man. No 21st century historian is going to talk about the shovel-faced oaf who lost nearly all the military engagements he bungled into, nor the humorless micro-manager who was slow to delegate and swift to blame, nor the vicious tyrant who reveled in exercising the power of life and death over the hundreds of slaves whose labor provided the basis for his wealth. Instead, since Washington was tall, he’s usually called valiant; since he was well-dressed, he’s usually called statesmanlike; since he was easily stupefied, he’s usually called reflective. It’s the price of doing business in mythology, and a reader can be ready for some of it even in the purest-intentioned of authors.

But Unger lays it on with a trowel, and it quickly becomes apparent that his intentions are anything but pure. When he gives us Washington speaking to Congress in 1783, he tells us that “All remembered the great warrior who had soared unscathed through storms of British shells on winged steed and inspired them to impossible acts of valor.” And while you’re still reeling from that winged steed bit, Unger hits you with the single most preposterous thing ever written about George Washington: “An obsessive autodidact, he alone came to the [Constitutional] convention with a vast knowledge of history, law, economics, agriculture, national and international commerce, foreign affairs, and military affairs.”

This perfect paragon came to the aforementioned Constitutional Convention determined to enact all the treasons he dreamed about while roaming the woods up in Harlem. Unger refers to those treasons by a different name. He calls them “the seven pillars of presidential power.”

The original Congresses and the framers of the Constitution were extremely wary of the very concept of presidential power, and rightly so: they’d just fought a long war to free themselves from the arbitrary dictates of a remote and absolute authority, and they had no desire to set up an equivalent in their fledgling country. Thus they invested the office of the President of the United States with virtually no power – a situation Washington found unacceptable. “Poor Ike,” Harry Truman is quoted as saying when the former Supreme Commander was elected President, “It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” And so he did, and if he’d dealt with that frustration by tearing the Constitution to shreds and doing whatever the Hell he wanted, he’d be justly reviled in American history. But Washington, using a combination of extortion, guile, and intimidation, was able to turn his new office into a very near equivalent of the Army command he’d given up, and far from reviling him for it, Unger exuberantly honors him.

Those seven pillars will be familiar to everybody in the world, now: 1) conducting foreign policy (the Constitution dictates that the President may do this only “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate,” but Washington ignored that), 2) making executive appointments (also “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate,” also ignored), 3) overseeing government finance (the Constitution gives the President no such power whatsoever, but Washington – through the establishment of the Bank of the United States, simply took it), 4) conducting military affairs (again, no constitutional authority – Washington simply usurped the power to wage war personally, without the approval of Congress), 5) issuing executive orders that carry the force of law (Congress specifically denied this power to the president, but Washington took it anyway), 6) wielding federal law enforcement (again, the Constitution gives the President no such power), and 7) exercising executive privilege (a concept that was invented by Washington and abused by every single one of his successors in office).

It’s a formidable bill of indictment, and that’s where Unger’s impure intentions come in: he’s not tentative or embarrassed by all this power-grabbing on the part of his hero, he’s happy about it:

After only slightly more than a year in office, he had, in effect, reconfigured the Constitution to give him and his successors to the presidency full authority over executive departments and determination of foreign policy. Not only had he stripped Congress of executive functions, his appointees were under constraints to carry out his policies – not their own or those of Congress.

Loyalty to the President became Washington’s primary consideration in cabinet and other executive appointments, reminding each cabinet member that in swearing“to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,”they were also swearing to preserve, protect, and defend the President of the United States and his policies.

Everything about these stirring declarations is wrong to its very root, and Congressional leaders perhaps even smarter than this awesome autodidact – men like Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts or Patrick Henry of Virginia – saw this fact clearly. And the eerie thing about ‘Mr. President’ is that Unger sees it too … and exults in it. This is the essential perversion at the heart of the book, where bad things become good not through argument or even slippery logic but by calm fiat. An incompetent general gets himself elected president under a set of restrictions he himself helped to draft and then disregards all of them in order to amass power for himself? Good for him! A power-hungry president grabs for himself the authority to print money, hire cronies, and wage war – all completely independent of the people and their elected officials? Good for him! And worst of all, that same power-hungry president works hard to entrench those usurpations, so that his successors all continue to have far more power than the Constitution actually grants them? Good for him! Virtually every Federal iniquity in two hundreds years of American history can be laid at the feet of the man Unger here celebrates, and he’s perfectly able to list those iniquities, but not to see them:

Since World War II, however, Washington’s successors have ignored or forgotten his words, pouring ever-increasing amounts of American resources into foreign soil and leaving American soil proportionately less fertile – even barren. Although some foreign investments – the Marshall Plan after World War II, for example – yielded beneficial returns to the United States, many overseas investments spilled into economic black holes – primarily wars without finite, achievable goals in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere … all waged by executive autocrats and their private henchmen, all to the huge detriment of the country they, like Washington, swore to serve. Unger can catalogue the place-names, but he appears completely blind to what he’s actually writing. He’s waiting for the mail from Mount Vernon.