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November 27, 2005



The Dec. 5 New Yorker has a great cover, featuring President Bush dusting the shoes of his henchman, one Richard B. Cheney.

Bush has been a dreadful president. But Presidents of any party are tempted to stretch the bounds of their power during times of crisis. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans and attempted to stack the Supreme Court. The whole idea of "checks and balances" seems finally to be asseting itself, because Republicans in Congress don't want the dead weight of President Bush to drag them down in 2006.

So I'm hopeful that our democratic experiment, as rickety as it is, is up to this latest challenge. What angers me most is the argument that criticism--such as that offered by Congressman Murtha--is unpatriotic. It's the very essence of patriotism to hold our leaders to account. Cheney's insistence otherwise is reprehensible.

mark D

I love your reminder about the true definition of dictator. You are right about its historical context.

The title of dictator was given to consuls of the Roman Senate when they were voted absolute power for a period of six months. This was usually done in times of military crisis. It was this very power that Caesar abused when he took control of the Senate for ten years until his timely death.

It is accurate to assert that the Republican majority has sought to give de facto dictator powers to this President. The Romans understood the danger of this office (because that is how they viewed it - dictator was a temporary office of the Senate). It is for that reason that they limited the power for six months (there was no provision for extension - until the time of Lucius Cornelius Sula).

Marcus is right about other Presidents and times of war. Presidents have taken extraordinary measures in the past. What makes today different is the nature of the "war." When Roosevelt took extraordinary powers the time limitations were automatically defined. These measures stood until victory was achieved. Victory was easy to difine (and was defined from the very start), the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers.

And it is in this subtle point that the danger of the times rests. The dictatorial powers (using the classical definition) this administration has taken are open ended. There is no defined victory, no defined time limit. When will we win this war on terror? How will we know? Who will define victory? The danger to the Republic rests in the fact that there is no defined end to Bush's extraordinary measures.

Scott is right, the Republic itself is in danger. The founding fathers understood this. It is for that reaon that they warned against adventures such as the one Mr Bush has undertaken.

Thank you for reminding me of these finer points of dictatorship. I used it in a letter to a Republican columnist in the Washington Post just the other day.


I agree completely with your analysis of President Bush, Mark. He wants an open-ended dictatorship, in the classical sense.

But we shouldn't let FDR slide so easily, even though he was a much better President than Bush. Yes--His actions in World War II had limits. But his actions to buttress the New Deal--attempting to add Supreme Court justices for every judge over 70 years old, in order to achieve a sympathetic Court--were an executive over-reach.

Wikipedia has a good entry about this, complete with audio of a fireside chat by Roosevelt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court-packing_Bill

Roosevelt faced unprecedented poverty, and Bush faced the first major incidence of non-state terrorism in US history. In both cases they sought to stretch their powers to the breaking point.

Mark D

Point taken and accepted. Roosevelt should not be let off lightly for his abuse of power.

As you may have guessed, I am a studeny of Roman history. In my view, the Roosevelt cousins are the American version of the brothers Grachii. It was the Grachii who (unintentionally) set into motion the forces that eventually undid Rome.

We will see if our version of the Grachii unleashed the forces that will undo the American Republic.

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