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Garry Wills on the Commander in Chief--NYTimes 1/27/07

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January 27, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

 At Ease, Mr. President


Evanston, Ill.

WE hear constantly now about “our commander in chief.” The word has
become a synonym for “president.” It is said that we “elect a commander
in chief.” It is asked whether this or that candidate is “worthy to be
our commander in chief.”

But the president is not our commander in chief. He certainly is not
mine. I am not in the Army.

I first cringed at the misuse in 1973, during the “Saturday Night
Massacre” (as it was called). President Richard Nixon, angered at the
Watergate inquiry being conducted by the special prosecutor Archibald
Cox, dispatched his chief of staff, Al Haig, to arrange for Mr. Cox’s
firing. Mr. Haig told the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to
dismiss Mr. Cox. Mr. Richardson refused, and resigned. Then Mr. Haig
told the second in line at the Justice Department, William Ruckelshaus,
to fire Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus refused, and accepted his dismissal. The
third in line, Robert Bork, finally did the deed.

What struck me was what Mr. Haig told Mr. Ruckelshaus, “You know what it
means when an order comes down from the commander in chief and a member
of his team cannot execute it.” This was as great a constitutional faux
pas as Mr. Haig’s later claim, when President Reagan was wounded, that
“Constitutionally ... I’m in control.”

President Nixon was not Mr. Ruckelshaus’s commander in chief. The
president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even
commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are
federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: “The president shall be
commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the
militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of
the United States.”

When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he
gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy
of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard
today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of
the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our
politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military
discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national
leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in
secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the
enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken
“for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline
imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the
norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than
ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now
the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.

There has never been an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy
than the Bush-Cheney one. The secrecy has been used to throw a veil over
detentions, “renditions,” suspension of the Geneva Conventions and of
habeas corpus, torture and warrantless wiretaps. We hear again the
refrain so common in the other wars — If you knew what we know, you
would see how justified all our actions are.

But we can never know what they know. We do not have sufficient clearance.

When Adm. William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, criticized the gulf war under the first President Bush, Secretary
of State James Baker said that the admiral was not qualified to speak on
the matter since he no longer had the clearance to read classified
reports. If he is not qualified, then no ordinary citizen is. We must
simply trust our lords and obey the commander in chief.

The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in
numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized
in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to
accept those aggrandizements. We are reminded, for instance, of the
expanded commander in chief status every time a modern president gets
off the White House helicopter and returns the salute of marines.

That is an innovation that was begun by Ronald Reagan. Dwight
Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and
as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of
order. (George Bush came as close as he could to wearing a uniform while
president when he landed on the telegenic aircraft carrier in an Air
Force flight jacket).

We used to take pride in civilian leadership of the military under the
Constitution, a principle that George Washington embraced when he
avoided military symbols at Mount Vernon. We are not led — or were not
in the past — by caudillos.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescient last book, “Secrecy,” traced
the ever-faster-growing secrecy of our government and said that it
strikes at the very essence of democracy — accountability of
representatives to the people. How can the people hold their
representatives to account if they are denied knowledge of what they are
doing? Wartime and war analogies are embraced because these justify the
secrecy. The representative is accountable to citizens. Soldiers are
accountable to their officer. The dynamics are different, and to blend
them is to undermine the basic principles of our Constitution.

Garry Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, is the
author, most recently, of “What Paul Meant.”

Copyright 2007
<http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html> The New
York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>