Today we celebrate Washington, Lincoln, and all our presidents, dead, living, and among the living dead.
We honor Washington who chose to step down after two terms and remarked on the occassion, long before President Eisenhower that our nation must:
"avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty."
Washington went on, in the same address, to warn of the danger of placing loyalties in political parties:
"All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests....
"I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty."
Washington worried, of course, about a future president leading our nation into a war, and warned that:
"nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave."
We also look back today at the president who was compelled by the American people to announce the liberation of American slaves. And we should recall the stand he took when still in Congress against a dishonest war of aggression against Mexico. Abraham Lincoln wrote to his law partner at the time, at the time that Lincoln was pushing toward a possible impeachment of President Polk for taking the nation to war on the basis of lies:
"Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose - - and you allow him to make war at pleasure... The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us."
And we should recall that the framers of our nation quite carefully placed presidential responsibility in the hands of one person, not two. The governance of a Cheney-Bush partnership, assisted by a cabal of advisors whose advice and corrupt deals are kept secret from the public is as far from the visions our past leaders had for us as is our current empire abroad.
And we should recall our less stellar but generally law abiding past presidents as well. After the people's representatives took back the presidency from the abuses of Richard Nixon, the Congress passed something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and President Jimmy Carter added to it something called a "signing statement" which read as follows:
"I am pleased to sign into law today the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. . . . The bill requires, for the first time, a prior judicial warrant for all electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purposes in the United States in which communications of U.S. persons might be intercepted. It clarifies the Executive's authority to gather foreign intelligence by electronic surveillance in the United States. It will remove any doubt about the legality of those surveillances which are conducted to protect our country against espionage and international terrorism."
Remember, it is the existence of past signing statements like this one, which took for granted the president's responsibility to obey laws, that serves as Bush and Cheney's primary defense for their use of signing statements to claim the right to violate laws.
This Presidents' Day, think about what it means to hear an unelected president say
"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
and to watch him behave accordingly, and to not do anything to restore our republic.