George Will

A crucial event in the migration was Truman's decision to wage war in Korea, taken without Congress and never formally ratified by Congress, other than post facto by enabling appropriations, which are not an adequate substitute for the collaborative decision the Constitution's Framers anticipated for war-making. Since Korea, America has engaged in three major wars (Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom) and many other exercises of military force, but Congress' constitutional powers relevant to war-making have atrophied from disuse. Both presidents Bush declared congressional assent unnecessary even while they were seeking it, in 1991 and 2002, respectively. Congress' passivity in the face of such constitutional impertinences has amounted to the silent repeal of the relevant constitutional provisions.

Because contemporary conservatism was born partly in reaction against two liberal presidents -- against FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society -- conservatives, who used to fear concentrations of unchecked power, valued Congress as a bridle on strong chief executives. But, disoriented by their reverence for Reagan, and sedated by Republican victories in seven of the last 10 presidential elections, many conservatives have not just become comfortable with the idea of a strong president, they have embraced the theory of the "unitary executive."

This theory, refined during the Reagan administration, is that where the Constitution vests power in the executive, especially power over foreign affairs and war, the president, as chief executive, is rightfully immune to legislative abridgements of his autonomy. Judicial abridgements are another matter.

When in 1952 Truman, to forestall a strike, cited his "inherent" presidential powers during wartime to seize the steel mills, the Supreme Court rebuked him. In a letter here that he evidently never sent to Justice William Douglas, Truman said, "I don't see how a Court made up of so-called 'liberals' could do what that Court did to me." Attention, conservatives: Truman correctly identified a grandiose presidency with the theory and practice of liberalism.

It is but a brisk walk from the library, where Truman is buried, to the corner of Main and Maple Streets, where young Harry earned $3 a week cleaning bottles and mopping floors at Clinton's Drug Store. A few blocks away, a plaque marks where wagon trains formed for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails.

A lot started in this town, including, in a sense, an important facet of the modern presidency. That is an odd legacy for a man who is fondly remembered partly because he was, in all personal aspects, beguilingly free of pretense.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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