April 23 I saw Gene Healy speak in San Francisco on his book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Presidential Power. I’d noticed recently that Tim Lee thinks Healy is great, I’m extremely sympathetic to the idea that the temporary dictatorship is a problem, and the event was held on the top floor of (sadly) San Francisco’s second tallest building, with great views.
I found the talk pretty uninteresting, consisting of too many quotes indicating people expect the U.S. president to be a parental figure and warlord at the same time and a standard libertarian critique that simply says presidents who do a lot are by definition bad — Healy likes Harding and Coolidge. I tend to agree (though I favor Cleveland), but none of this is remotely news. Healy used a cute name for partisan interpretation of rules — “situational constitutionalism” — but didn’t bother to spell out why he thinks partisanship leads to the expansion of executive power rather than (or at least more than) a check on it.
Overall I got the impression Healy knew a whole lot of facts about the U.S. presidency and its baneful impact on the polity and culture, but not much more. His responses to questions from the audience indicated he hadn’t really thought about excessive executive power relative to judicial and legislative abuses, executive power in other jurisdictions, nor any approach to limiting executive power, each of which is many times more interesting than any particular collection of facts about any U.S. president or the presidency. To me.
I hope the book does very well and is read by many people who either don’t think the U.S. presidency is too powerful or is only too powerful when their preferred party is not in power.
Jim Lippard blogged about Healy speaking in Phoenix and had a more favorable impression.