INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Business, meaning research by historians and nourishment for history hobbyists, is brisk at the Harry S. Truman Library on this 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, the desegregation of the armed services, recognition of the state of Israel and the improbable election of the president responsible for many momentous policies. The library is a place, and now is a time, to ponder the transformation Truman wrought in the presidency and the Constitution, and why that transformation should be debated before the next president is selected.
With a mere 15 million pages of documents, this library is minuscule: The Clinton Library in Little Rock has 77 million pages. Presidential power has grown exponentially in the six decades since Truman augmented the national security apparatus responsive to the president by creating the National Security Council and the CIA. He, however, was crucial to the magnification of the president's war powers.
A 1948 photograph here shows Truman at a lectern delivering a campaign speech in Los Angeles. Seated near the lectern is the man who had introduced Truman, 37-year-old Ronald Reagan. Between Truman's and Reagan's presidencies, between the dawn and dusk of what John Kennedy called the Cold War's "long twilight struggle," Americans accepted extravagant -- or so the Founders would have thought -- assertions of presidential powers. These assertions have been made by presidents of both parties, but have been intensified by the current president in the context of "the long war" against terrorists.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, only one delegate (from ever-bellicose South Carolina, naturally) favored vesting presidents with an unfettered power to make war. Presidents, it was then thought, could respond on their own only to repel sudden attacks on the nation. "The Founders," says former Rep. David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, "counted on the competitive ambitions of the three branches to make checks and balances work." Instead, we have seen Congress' powers regarding war "migrate ignominiously to the executive."