Governess: a woman employed to teach children in a private household.
President: a term deriving from the Latin prae, before, and sedere, to sit. Thus, “to sit before.” A public sitter, if you will; a head of state or symbolic embodiment of a nation. A man, or woman, who sets the moral tone for a country. By no definition a redeemer or savior, and certainly no silver-tongue demagogue who promises to single-handedly restore a nation’s power and glory. Germany once elected a guy like that. Didn’t work out too well.
So what exactly does a president do?
Although constitutionally ambiguous, the presidency of the United States is inherently dual in character. The president serves as the nation’s head of state and as its chief administrator.
Under Article II of the Constitution, the president’s administrative duties are limited to:
1. Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.
2. Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment).
3. Ensure laws are faithfully executed.
4. With consent of the Senate, nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.
5. Make treaties, by, and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Note these duties do not include issuing laws, creating jobs, fueling stock markets, declaring wars, or imposing immigration, monetary, industrial, and environmental policy. Having freed the colonies from the yoke of monarchy, the founding fathers made damn sure not to grant their leader overreaching powers.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. — Excerpt from the ‘Declaration of Independence’
The constitutional constraints on presidential power thus gave immediate rise to the practice of issuing executive orders to achieve policy goals, manage the executive branch, or outline a view intended to influence the behavior of private citizens. Bear in mind the U.S. Constitution does not define these presidential instruments nor explicitly vests the president with the authority to issue them.
One of the first executive proclamations was George Washington’s call for a Thanksgiving holiday, something I suspect most of us are grateful for.
However, there have been others who have used the ambiguous characterization of executive power to issue directives contravening the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights. Such was Roosevelt’s 1942 directive ordering the removal and internment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over one hundred thousand people — 70,000 of whom were American by birth — were imprisoned in a network of camps across the Southwest. The government made no charges against them nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost their homes and property.
The 5th Amendment states no person shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law.
Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, I get it. I also get that Congress and the Supreme Court backed Roosevelt’s draconian order, making it lawful.
My precise point is that the founding fathers could not cross all the t’s nor dot all the i’s while writing up the instructions on what a president can and cannot do. They could not foresee all the exceptional circumstances which a changing world would bring about. To wit, the assassination of foreign nationals, like the Jan 3rd drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani.
“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” — Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan.
“What constitutes assassination, however, is left undefined, writes Scott R. Anderson for Lawfare. “Subsequent presidential administrations have reportedly interpreted it to mean unlawful killings, which would not necessarily [include] targeting decisions during armed conflicts. Notably, while most of these interpretations are not public, we know that the Obama administration concluded that killings in self-defense are not assassinations in the context of drone strikes against al-Qaeda-affiliated targets in Yemen — a conclusion that likely bears on the decision to kill Soleimani.”
Things are certainly more complicated than they were in 1787. Leading the most powerful country on earth in an increasingly messy and complex world, is, well, messy.
Think back, for example, to the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. A time when the U.S. was in the grip of mass hysteria about the spread of communism across the world. Any foreign leader who dared espouse progressive ideals was labeled red and a potential enemy of U.S. interests.
In 1954, President Eisenhower directed the CIA to launch a covert operation in my country that toppled a popularly-elected, progressive president, ushering-in a civil war lasting over thirty years that cost the lives of close to two hundred thousand people and forced me into exile.
Depending on which side you were on, the event was either justified to contain the spread of communism, or an unconscionable overreach of American presidential power that left a shameful stain on the country’s moral fabric and snuffed my country’s democratic aspirations. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that the true motive behind the CIA-led coup was to protect the interests and profits of corporate America.
Eisenhower made a mockery of the principles of liberty and self-determination upon which the United States was founded. A president faithful to his vow to preserve, protect, and defend those principles upon taking office would’ve never given the order to oust a democratically-elected government in a foreign country. “Do as I say and not as I do” is a sure way to sow distrust, cynicism, and anger, at home and abroad. By the same token, “profit over principle” is a slippery road to a nation’s moral bankruptcy.
Don’t misjudge me. I am not that naive to think that everything is black or white. Geopolitics is a messy affair which often forces a leader to do what’s necessary and expedient even if it forces him or her to temporarily compromise on what is right. It is precisely when a dilemma arises where the end justifies the means that a nation needs a decisive and pragmatic leader but with a steady moral compass. Experience can be hired. A moral compass, however, cannot be purchased.
Which brings me to the governess.
In Victorian England, the governess was not hired to manage a household or to cook or clean. Her primary function was to educate children.
Depending on the age of her pupils, the governess could find herself teaching ‘the three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the youngest, while coaching the older in French conversation, history and geography. If her pupils were teen girls, the governess was expected to instruct them in drawing, playing piano, dancing, and deportment, i.e., how to conduct oneself properly. The governess might also be in charge of small boys up to the age of eight, before they were sent away to school.
The governess was expected to look after her pupils’ moral education too. As well as reading the Bible and leading them in prayer, she was to set a good example of moral behavior. For that reason, employers put great emphasis on hiring a governess who shared their beliefs.
If you were choosing a governess for your children, what would you focus on? Her superb writing skills and knowledge of the world, or her moral character? If forced to choose, say, between a math wizard, previously convicted of child molestation, and a dunce with high moral standards, a clean record and impeccable references, whom would you entrust to guide and edify your children?
How about this guy for president of the United States?
· Four terms in a state legislature, one fairly disappointing term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the United States Senate.
· No administrative experience. Never been a cabinet member, a governor, or even mayor of his hometown.
· Has filed for bankruptcy several times.
· Has never been abroad and knows no foreign languages. His education, he admits, is imperfect. The total time he spent in elementary school was less than one year. Not a great reader. Never finished a novel.
· By his own admission, the humblest of all individuals; a man without a name. Perhaps, he says, without a reason why he should even have a name.
His name was Abraham Lincoln, and while far from perfect, is considered one the great presidents by scholars and historians. Good luck trying to find the “perfect” candidate. We are all a little stained. Perfection often precludes the possible, and in my ledger, if forced to choose, values trump experience.
Of course experience is welcome, but not at the expense of virtuous and wise leadership, especially in a Republic, like the United States, with its sound system of checks and balances and judicious — albeit partly ambiguous — limitations on presidential power. Focus on experience when choosing your state’s representatives, governors, mayors, and city council members — the people charged with getting things done — but not when choosing your president.
The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover
Come November, Americans will choose their next head of state. The man or woman who will become the symbolic embodiment of their nation’s conscience. They will do so at a time when their country, its rule of law and the ideals for which it stands are being torn asunder amid a messy world that seems poised on the brink. Not a good time to focus on rigid ideologies or vote one’s pocketbook, in my mind. Not a good time either to allow fear, hatred, bigotry, or prejudice to mark the ballot. Default to any of these and you’ll soon end up with a tyrant.
When choosing, I suggest you check your emotions at the entrance of the polling station and walk clear-headed into the booth. Then, elect the person to whom you would entrust your children in your absence and further base that choice on the ideals which once made the United States the world’s beacon of hope and shining city upon the hill.
Read this related piece: Making America Whole Again