Wednesday, April 18, 2007


In the comments to this post at If I Ran the Zoo, ahab notes that Ed Henry, CNN's White House correspondent, said this after hearing President Bush speak at the Virginia Tech memorial service:

One of the rules of the commander in chief, as you know, in a time this, a time of deep national sorrow, is to try to pull the country together the way President Reagan did after the space shuttle disaster, the way President Clinton did after the Columbine massacre, as well as the Oklahoma City bombings. And that's what President Bush tried to do.

Er, Ed? He is not the country's commander in chief.

Or let me change the emphasis: He is not the country's commander in chief.

Garry Wills explained this, in exasperation, a couple of months ago:

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

... 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."

...We are reminded ... 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....

I should point out that I don't completely agree with what Wills says elsewhere in the piece -- that this is all about "the increasing militarization of our politics." I think it's more than that -- I think it's also about turning the president into an Uber-Daddy, a combination of unquestionable monarch and Dr. Phil (which would make him, for much of the population, equally unquestionable). But Wills's constitutional analysis is correct.

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