Now here is an imagined speech for a future president that wrote back in 2008.
I Will Faithfully Execute
January 20, 2008
Exactly one year from now (it will be a Tuesday) the new president will take office. In a grand ceremony at just this hour, a new president will take the oath and deliver an address that will proclaim the vision that person has for the next four years. Despite a year of campaigning already, debates and interviews and analysis of those debates and interviews, we have no idea who that person is and therefore no idea what will be said a year from today.
Let me correct that. We have some idea. One or another of the major parties will win. Those within those parties differ but more about how than what. And between the parties what they differ about is not unknown. Whoever wins will couch their language in grand phrases, but it will be a party platform of some kind. And if you are like me, that fact will cast a pall of resignation over your hopes. As someone said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. And government prose is about as appalling as it gets. Face it, there are too many from both sides with a stake in the status quo to go much beyond a slight turn or a modest change in speed.
The president we want will not be standing there, and the speech we want will not be heard. But does that mean the speech need go unspoken at all? We have a sense that what matters most to the nation is not this program or that policy, but something deeper; something that, if we could grasp it, would point with compass like simplicity toward the pole star of our national soul. In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, because if we do not tell them what matters, they will not know.
This, then, is the speech I want to hear next January, in the words of a new president, in the language of that occasion. It is my attempt to say what lies at the heart of this nation, behind parties and platforms and programs and policies. They are my hopes, and perhaps also yours.
“Every four years the American people exert their national power, and give to one person the impossible task of guiding their nation through the future’s uncharted seas. I say ‘impossible’ because no nation can be led by one person. And truthfully, it is not. A president presides and does not rule. Congress, whose very name means deliberation, is likewise selected by the people, and shares with the executive in the task of leadership. The Supreme Court, reminds us that elected power is momentary and that we who enjoy it will be judged not just be those who elected us but by history and posterity. The president, therefore, is not alone in duty or in power or in wisdom. And it would be greatest folly to preside by diminishing the blessings of these estates; as so doing would weaken both president and nation.
“Thus the first and foremost measure of a president should be the strengthening of every gift our constitution supplies. This, more than any platform, is what it means to be president. Should an incumbent accomplish everything promised in seeking election and subvert the Constitution, that president has failed.
“But the converse it not true. Merely to preserve, protect, and defend will not do. Our Constitution has grown and changed with time. Slavery, too long countenanced, was ended. Women, long denied full citizenship, were enfranchised. As time revealed new wisdom about the exercise of freedom, we changed our Constitution, and will again. The president must preserve not just the letter but the spirit that gives it life, protect not only the law but the people it serves, defend not only the institutions of government but their purpose.
“These things do not reside in the effective clauses but in that part of our Constitution which in majestic simplicity says why we exist – the Preamble. This, which is nothing less than our national purpose, is what is entrusted to the president, to remind the nation of itself, for leadership is invoking what the greatest occupant of this office called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Let me now recall those angels, those guardians of the national soul:
“We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution.’
“A president’s first duty is to the people, all of them; not only to their personal well being regardless of party or power or any accident of birth; but to their sovereignty as the grantors of national power itself. The president does this by ensuring the comprehensive pursuit of those other phrases, but it is essential to note that it is for the benefit of the people that these are done, not for the benefit of the states, the congress, the courts, or the many interests who crowd the corridors of power.
“When this nation was born, the union meant the several states. Today, those states are less sovereign than before, and wisely so. A ‘more perfect union’ has come to mean that no citizen should suffer loss of freedom or dignity by crossing a state line. The president is today obliged to preserve, protect, and defend the citizens as moral equals to the powers and principalities that daily would reduce them to the servitudes of a new century. Neither government nor business, neither citizen nor criminal, can claim exception in this regard.
“Today, the private sector says it should be free of undue regulation that stifles innovation and enterprise, else it will die. And so it should, but not if that liberty threatens the life and liberty of citizens whom it employs, to whom it sells and in the midst of whom it lives. Likewise, government itself cannot justify denying the people their liberties in the name of protecting the same.
“That is why the next phrase is “establish justice,” for what is justice if not the sure and equal application of the law, equally, to all under its judgment. None shall be advantaged and none disadvantaged under the eye or watch of the president. If corporations are persons in the legal sense, they stand but equal to, not taller than, their fellow citizens. Though the realities of politics make temptation very real, the president cannot serve the people and the moneyed interests any more than the fabled man can serve two masters, God and Mammon. The central test of this or any presidency will be that it is the paragon of this principle and may not enforce upon others what it will not obey itself. The presidency is not for sale, either for a price or a partisan principle, even the appearance of such mocks and perverts justice.
“Without doubt there will be times when the laws themselves are contrary to the spirit they represent. Great Americans have given of their lives, sometimes their whole lives, to destroy laws made in defiance of the great commission of the preamble. The president will from time to time have to protest such laws as they will arise again. But as the custodian of the great commission, the president must live up to its charge while exercising it, for violating it is rank betrayal.
“In the exercise of justice we have the basis for “domestic tranquility.” But the fullness of tranquility is peace between people and communities. While the law may and must address struggles, it must not itself become a struggle. That great jurist, Louis Brandeis, observed that among the liberties acknowledged by the Constitution is the right to be let alone. Does not the ancient prophet hold out hope that each should “dwell beneath a vine and fig tree and live and peace be unafraid?” This is domestic tranquility, and the president should guard against the encroachments of law and the state as vigorously as provide for their exercise. To the president goes the authority to say ‘veto,’ I forbid, which is literally true in the case of federal law, but in principle as well. The nation expects the president to oppose laws that diminish, disenfranchise, and disadvantage any citizen or groups of citizens for the advantage or the convenience of others.
“Today, for example, we have fervent citizens who believe the Constitution to favor a particular religion, though there is no doubt that such favor was never intended. Some would enact laws or amendments that define families by favoring some and punishing others. These modern miscegenation laws have no place in our constitution and no president can support them without betraying the oath. It is clear that the right to be let alone serves to prevent the state from intruding on the most important liberties, namely what we shall believe and how we shall live by those beliefs. Only when such beliefs and actions threaten the essential liberty of others should the law enter in. The president, beholden to no faction, alone can stand against them.
“To ‘provide for the common defense’ is the gravest of duties for it entails the use of force and is given primarily to the president. But the causes for which we must regrettably suffer wars are not for the president to decide, but for Congress, as the greatest assent is required to undertake the most terrible of enterprises. Thus no president should, without the gravest penalty, enter into wars without the people’s consent through Congress, and the cause for that war must be that which the Congress decides, and which it alone can determine is met or not.
“Today, we have heard it said that the world is too fast and complex to wait for Congress. Presidents must act, and swiftly. In defending against invasion and to repel attack, this is true, but only to that end and not beyond. War is always entangling, never sure, and even the best executive may step unwisely in haste or passion. The president may lay the case before Congress and the nation, but the people themselves must bear its costs and thus should determine whether to begin and when to end. A wise president will not ask for wars that cannot be defined, defended, or completed.
“Thankfully, this grim command is not the last of the angels that guard our nation. The last two are those which ring of hope. To ‘promote the general welfare’ is a mandate to do good for those we serve. If insuring domestic tranquility is found chiefly by restraining government from intrusion, to promote the general welfare commands action that perfects the union of citizens.
“Today the vast difference between wealth and poverty strains the union of the people. A democracy, which insists that every citizen is an equal stakeholder in the nation, is at risk when millions of citizens have so little that they must choose between food and home, while at the same time a very few citizens are so prosperous that their own private means could supply all that they lack. A nation struggles for common cause when its owners are unable to secure reliable health care without becoming poor. The country cannot be united when its children are fed knowledge so unequally that millions are starving while some are fat with privilege. Howbeit elected by those with power and wealth, the president is obliged to advocate for the poor and powerless for their well being is the test of our general welfare.
“Finally, and most happily, the Preamble says we exist to ‘secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.’ Not only liberty, but the blessings thereof. Not just for we who are here now but for those who shall follow. The Constitution does not provide clear guidance about what this means, but surely it demands that whatever we do here takes due measure of the gifts we have received from our ancestors and the legacy we will bestow on our descendants.
“Today, we face the daunting challenge of preserving our blessings without eroding those in the future. Diminishing energy supplies, climate change, the global economy, and more forces are pressing down upon us. Can we preserve our land, literally and figuratively in response? Certainly, we must. As all parents wish their children to exceed them,
wishes its future to be better than its past. But what is it we wish them to have? Power? Prestige? Might? America
and its blessings, are not measured in dollars or acres or quantities of goods. Of course we want our descendants to prosper materially, but this is not our purpose as a nation. Liberty and justice for all is our cause, and the ultimate measure of our government. Like the impossible task of the presidency, this is our national task. However many strides we have taken nigh onto two hundred and fifty years, twice as many lie ahead. Ours is not to complete the task of Liberty , even as it was not ours to begin. But if we can advance a few steps toward that hope we shall have done our duty. America
“Fellow Citizens of a nation conceived in liberty and equality, tested and tried by struggles and wars, liberty and justice for all is what
is about. Presidents come and go. Leaders rise and fall. Parties battle, politicians wrangle, privilege and power persist, but none of them can obliterate the hope of liberty and justice for all if the people believe in it. America
“Therefore, I ask you to take this same oath today, to solemnly swear that you too will faithfully execute the office of citizen and will to the best of your abilities preserve, protect and defend the Constitution; that you will help to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity; that you will join in the impossible task of America, which is liberty and justice for all.
“If you will not, I cannot succeed. If you will, I cannot fail.”
This is the speech I am waiting for. You will have to wait for more posts as well, since I am on the move for the next three weeks. Try to bear up...