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Against tyrants

Books | Two treadmill books about the need for restraint in positions of power

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

Just when you think there’s nothing more to be said about the Constitution’s framers, F.H. Buckley’s provocative The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (Encounter, 2014) comes along. Buckley argues that our predecessors disliked the idea of a king or an elected king, and thought they were setting up a government that would be dominated by Congress. The presidency and the Supreme Court, though, turned out to be stronger than expected, and the result was a separation of powers.

Then the plot thickens: Buckley asserts that in the long run a president can readily become an autocrat because power gravitates from disorganized groups to a single person, particularly when he has tens of thousands of bureaucrats and regulators to do his bidding. Buckley also points out that mass media turn presidents into rock stars and egg them on to break deadlocks by unilateral action: They “can make laws by regulation and unmake them by refusing to enforce the law.” Buckley, born in Canada, prefers a parliamentary system that he says won’t lead to the impatience and frustration that empower an executive-order-wielding president.   

He’s right that in our system much depends on the Supreme Court restraining itself and the president respecting his role as administrator rather than legislator. Sadly, the Supreme Court cast off self-restraint a half-century ago and President Woodrow Wilson tried to do the same a half-century before that. Lee Craig’s scholarly biography, Josephus Daniels: His Life & Times (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), is informative concerning his prime subject but also about Wilson, whose pro-British slant during World War I led the United States into war over the vocal objections of Secretary of State (until 1915) William Jennings Bryan, and the muted ones of Secretary of the Navy Daniels.

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While many historians see U.S. entry into the war inevitable, Craig shows that Daniels understood what Wilson was doing and didn’t like it. Nevertheless, the Democratic partisan held his peace and let Wilson lead the United States into upsetting the European balance of power in a way that would push revenge-minded Germans to try again. 

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My dad (see the Father’s Day column, “Honoring Dad,”     in this issue) once strolled through beautiful Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania reading a book rather than looking at the world-famous flowers. That’s a talent I’ve never acquired, so while away from my treadmill for two months and walking on Texas streets I’ve listened to lots of podcasts. If I may deviate from books this time, here are some recommendations. 

Prime place, of course, belongs to The World and Everything in It, our Monday through Friday half hour program (or two hours on Saturday melded from the past week’s offerings). I like the daily news summaries but also Mary Reichard’s Monday review of key Supreme Court cases, John Stonestreet’s Friday cultural analysis, and the interviews by Nick Eicher, Joseph Slife, Kent Covington, and others, plus commentaries on movies, politics, and music. Best of all, of course, are Susan Olasky’s features on the people we meet and places we see while traveling, with the actual sound of Ugandans watching a solar eclipse or Estonians competing in a choir contest. 

People have long spoken of WORLD as the Christian alternative to Time; if so, our podcast/radio show is the Christian alternative to NPR’s All Things Considered. We’re now trying to extend the comparison by adding Warren Smith’s interview show, Listening In. But, being of WORLD but not just in it, I’ve started listening semi-regularly to three other podcasts as well: White Horse Inn (Michael Horton leading a theological discussion), The Briefing (Albert Mohler’s lucid daily commentary on society and politics), and The Gospel Coalition. Two sets of sermons—those of John Piper (from Desiring God) and Tim Keller (available by subscription from Redeemer Presbyterian Church) make my walking joy complete. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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