The imperial presidency (the emergence of a strongman President)

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LITO MONICO C. LORENZANA

Part 2
COINED by the eminent author and chronicler of the Kennedy years, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his book of the same title, The Imperial Presidency, the phrase has entered into the lexicon of political conversation. Writers have since used this expression to describe dictators, tyrants and despots. Even our own bloggers in social media, some critical of the Deegong, have equated him with this catchphrase. They are just partly right. A few writers, however, have avoided this “name-calling,” and refer correctly to the original intent of Schlesinger in writing his book. The book, which reviewed the US presidency from George Washington’s time to the Nixon period, traces the transformation of the office from its faithful adherence to the American Constitution to the seeping deviations that have ruptured its constitutional limits, sometimes leading to unintended consequences – the impeachment and a resignation of the most powerful man in America.

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My take on this book is that the evolution of the American presidency has been impacted and eventually distorted by a combination of the acts of the occupant of the office himself, the non-vigilance of the Congress and the realities and exigencies of geopolitics; thus, giving rise to the imperial presidency.

One or two interesting cases pointed out by Schlesinger is that of the 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, and the 37th, Richard Nixon:

“During the American Civil War, Lincoln assumed war powers as commander in chief of the military but made no claim that the Constitution allowed him these powers. Without congressional authorization, Lincoln unilaterally expanded the military, suspended habeas corpus, arrested citizens, proclaimed martial law, seized property, censored newspapers, and emancipated slaves. Lincoln justified the actions as necessary to preserve the country rather than by the Constitution. However, he stated that the presidential war powers would cease to exist once the national emergency, the Civil War, ended.”(Schlesinger, Wikipedia)

The profile of the presidency was altered in ways not anticipated by the US Constitution: the arbitrary but courageous act by the sitting President; the non-interference by the US Congress; and more importantly, the realities at the time that called for such drastic measures. After the deed was done, the slaves were freed and the war ended. the Supreme Court belatedly stated, “…the President must carry out the law and may not break the law. Presidential power was deflated following the Civil War.” (Schlesinger, Wikipedia). It was just the proverbial “slap in the wrist” but the onslaught on the US Constitution continued, eroding a “constitutional presidency” towards one with imperial character. Lincoln had to eventually pay for his act (the freeing of slaves) with his assassination by John Wilkes Booth and a Southern Confederate cabal.

The 37th President, Richard Nixon, caused the bombing of Cambodia and Laos without the knowledge and consent of Congress at the height of the Vietnam war, that already had made a casualty of Lyndon Johnson, his predecessor. On top of this, Nixon entered into defense agreements with Thailand and funded the Ethiopian Army, again in secrecy, keeping this from Congress. In effect, Nixon unilaterally hammered out a treaty with these two countries without Congress’ approval through a law approving the same. This was clearly a violation of the Constitution, underpinning in effect the imperial attributes of the US presidency.

In America, the impetus for the creation of the imperial presidency was its involvement in geopolitics, concomitant with the role the US carved for itself as the “world’s policeman”. In Nixon’s particular case, his foreign policy initiatives shut out and disregarded his authorizing environment: the Constitution, Congress, the press and the public. “Once established, the imperial Presidency then expanded into domestic issues”. (Schlesinger, Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, Nixon was impeached for his role in obstructing justice in the infamous “Watergate scandal,” not for his Vietnam war transgressions.

This is where I take off from the American experience described by Schlesinger and situate the Philippine presidency within a similar context.

Ferdinand Marcos personified both the “strongman” President and the apex of the Philippine imperial presidency. There was no question about the personality of the President as a singular “strongman”. His charisma and force of character were overwhelming, intimidating his peers and allowing him to fashion a personal following analogous to a “cult of personality” like Mao Zedong of China and Kim Il-sung of North Korea.

Marcos’ method was to create a series of scenarios that gave him “legal cover” for the policies and acts of the presidency. Employing deceit as a trigger (an assassination attempt on a Cabinet member), Proclamation 1081 was set into motion. What came next and over the next decade was the triumph of the Philippine version of the imperial presidency – a regime that did away with any pretense to the traditional democratic checks and balances by the abolition of the two houses of Congress, the emasculation of the Supreme Court and the supplanting of the Charter by a new “Marcos Constitution”.

The People Power Revolution of 1986 extinguished both the strongman President and the imperial presidency.

The governments of Ramos, to the lamented and short-lived Erap, to the corruption-beleaguered Arroyo administration to the incompetent Aquino regime, generated political developments that in the definition of Schlesinger could constitute the re-creation of an imperial presidency.

In last Thursday’s article (“The imperial presidency, or the self-castration of Congress, June 22), a hypothesis was proposed that the Deegong was inevitable; that what was needed by the country was a strongman President in “a weak state populated by weak leaders”.

Next week, we will examine the second part of the hypothesis: that the presidency is institutionally weak, allowing a strongman President to emerge and dominate. Thus, the imperial President Rodrigo Duterte.

(Next Thursday, Part 3 – The imperial presidency of DU30)

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