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When presidential power expands, eroding checks and balances, who gets hurt? Some say everyone. Others say no one. It’s the constitutional equivalent of a consenting adult patronizing a prostitute: There isn’t an obvious victim. Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, a tautly told tale of executive power lust by Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, argues that we all lose. Legal protections vanish. Treaties tumble. And there’s little recourse. Savage won his Pulitzer for showing how the Bush administration has used the tool of obscure signing statements as essentially a line-item veto, with the president declaring he will ignore laws he believes improperly restrict him. But this cogent book says the presidential position rests on shaky legal theory that has rarely withstood serious scrutiny and exists far outside the mainstream. Savage deftly and properly puts the Bush administration’s push for power in a larger historic context: Forty-three is hardly the first president to push for both more power and the right to exercise it without public scrutiny, though he’s gone farther than others. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon — the list of grabby chief executives is bipartisan, and it isn’t short. In the past, that push has proven one part of a larger cycle. Powerful presidents push for more authority and the chance to exercise it without oversight, and that is followed by a push back against subsequent administrations after the power — predictably — corrupts. But the book shows that this administration, more than most, has upended checks and balances, and done it largely with the complicity of Congress, which sat back as its prerogatives were nibbled away at. Bush has also staked out authority that his successors, regardless of party, will likely prove reluctant to surrender. Like many political stories, this one doesn’t lack for powerful figures operating in shadow, though it suffers from a dearth of protagonists. It traces the theoretical progression of Vice President Dick Cheney, his counsel, David Addington, and a host of other radical executive branch lawyers who have spent decades advocating for expanded presidential power. In George W. Bush, they found a president ready to put their theories into practice. Savage details example after example, many of which have become familiar scandals over the past year: political hiring at Justice, warrantless wiretapping, disregard of the Geneva Conventions via legal arguments later tied to the torture at Abu Ghraib. Why did Congress decide against direct confrontation with the president? For partisan reasons, it appears — as always. Democrats who supported President Bill Clinton’s decision to take action in Kosovo without explicit authorization cried foul on Bush, and Republicans who had challenged Clinton’s prerogative let Bush slide. Republicans controlled Congress for much of Bush’s tenure, and many chose to stay silent. And in the rare cases that landed in a courtroom, judges often proved reluctant to limit the power of a wartime president in the wake of a terrorist attack. The return of the imperial presidency, indeed. Eventually, some conservative Republicans began to speak out and accuse the Bush administration of going too far, sometimes at great risk to their own careers. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, were prepared to step down over warrantless wiretapping, along with a host of senior officials at the Justice Department. Jack Goldsmith, a conservative legal scholar who briefly headed the Office of Legal Counsel, said the office would no longer stand behind some of the less mainstream legal opinions that had been issued before his time. And Arizona Sen. John McCain — a Republican presidential contender who has taken heat for supporting Bush on Iraq — refused to back away from an amendment that forbade torture of detainees. Terrorists “don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies,” McCain said. But throughout the debate, Bush himself is a cipher — the book’s Severus Snape, if you will — with his motivations unclear. The roots of Cheney’s philosophy are in the Nixon administration. What drives Bush? Why was he willing to assert his executive rights so far past established boundaries, unilaterally setting aside ratified treaties and in defiance of (a fairly permissive) Congress? And if he believes his lawyers got it right, why does his administration go to such lengths to avoid adverse court rulings and pitched congressional battles? That’s a mystery the book doesn’t solve. And if Bush gets his way and his administration remains cloaked in secrecy, we may never know.
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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