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Presidents And The Constitution

Jerry Bowyer

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What Obama, Roosevelt and Madison really said.

John McIntyre of RealClearPolitics and I were both on Larry Kudlow's radio program on Saturday afternoon. Larry asked us both the same question: "Is there anything that Obama could say on Tuesday that will make you feel good about where he is taking the country?"

I answered that it's not what he might say; it's about what he definitely will say. Obama will swear an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, so help me God." The question isn't whether he'll say it; the question is whether he'll mean it. You see, Barack Obama is, to my knowledge, the first American president to take this oath having in recent memory openly and publicly criticized the Constitution.

In 2001, he said the following on National Public Radio:

But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth...didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution...that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties...that says what the federal government can't do to you, but doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf...One of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was...a tendency to lose track of the...activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.

Obama sees the constitutional limits placed on the power of government set by the founders as creating a tragedy in which the civil rights movement was unable to move from negative liberties to positive entitlement—that is, redistribution of wealth from propertied classes to the dispossessed peoples. No one else who has ever taken the office has so openly stated his disagreement with the document whose protection is his chief responsibility.

I say no one has done it—openly. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it covertly. My friend Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, found this remarkable statement from Roosevelt four years after he had taken the oath:

"When the chief justice read me the oath and came to the words 'support the Constitution of the United States,' I felt like saying: 'Yes, but it's the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy—not the kind of Constitution your court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.' "

So, FDR took the oath with his fingers crossed, and it didn't take long before it showed. In the Inauguration speech he gave, he promised that he would use all the powers given to him under the Constitution to end the depression, and he then went on to say explicitly that if those powers were not enough, he would take additional powers for himself. FDR indeed did give himself powers "flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy," so many, in fact, that the courts cast quite a few of them down. He responded by trying to intimidate the Supreme Court justices into compliance with a combination of harsh personal attacks and legislative attempts at court packing. FDR clearly went far beyond his constitutional responsibilities; 100,000 interned Japanese-Americans can't be wrong.

Regarding Inaugurations: The speech is not the main point; neither are the masses gathered in the District of Columbia (something the founders actually feared). The fireworks, the whistle-stops, the ostentatious humility of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue are not the point either. Contra Shakespeare, the play is not the thing. The oath is the thing. The oath is the only element of all of this that is actually prescribed by the Constitution. (Article two, section one, for those keeping score at home.) Originally, the oath was only regarding the execution of the duties of the presidency, but the notes of the proceedings reveal that James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, moved that an oath to protect the Constitution be added. Good man. Madison saw the tendency of presidents to become kings and of kings to become tyrants. He wanted something with teeth in it: a solemn oath to someone bigger even than the tyrant.

George Washington added the "so help me God" part voluntarily, but it was no shock. It's implied in the word oath. Affirmations were also given as an alternative to oaths, but at the time, that was a concession to highly religious Quakers and other dissenters who thought that oaths were dishonoring to God.

The Wall Street Journal said this week that Washington took his oath on a Bible opened at random that fell upon an obscure passage in the minor prophets. I don't think so. First of all, Washington did nothing at random. Second of all, there's at least one account that says that he opened his Bible to Deuteronomy chapter 28, Moses' farewell address, which is composed of a long list of national blessings and curses which would fall alternatively on just and unjust nations. Than, he gave an inaugural address that said that private virtue was the foundation of public prosperity.

He kept his promise, and the U.S. prospered beyond all expectations.

FDR broke his promise, and the U.S. suffered beyond all expectations.

Will Obama keep his promise?

So help him, God.

Read the entire article on the Forbes Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 22-Jan-2009



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