Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant President

By Robert C. Byrd. Norton. 269 pp. $23.95 According to recently released transcripts of Henry Kissinger's telephone conversations, President Richard Nixon asked his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, in March 1974 to fetch the "football," the black bag that contained the codes to launch nuclear weapons. This ominous presidential request did not signal a heightening of tensions with the Soviet Union. Rather, it marked the climax of Nixon's desperate struggle with Congress during the Watergate scandal. "He is going to drop [a bomb] on the Hill," Haig informed Kissinger, but then he hastened to reassure the alarmed secretary of state, "[The President] is just unwinding. Don't take him too seriously."

Watergate, which ended with Nixon's forced resignation, was no joking matter. That episode is widely considered the height of presidential imperialism and the nadir of Congressional-White House relations in 20th-century American politics. But Losing America, Sen. Robert C. Byrd's diatribe against President George W. Bush and his administration, suggests that contemporary America faces a more dangerous constitutional crisis than the American people confronted three decades ago. Sept. 11, he warns, transformed "a lackluster, inarticulate, visionless president into a national and international leader, nearly unquestioned by the media or by members of either party." "That September day," Byrd suggests, endangered "cherished, constitutionally enshrined freedoms as had almost no other event in the life of our nation."

Amid the revelations of the Bush White House's miscalculations and blunders in taking the nation to war, the fierce and fractious resistance to America's presence in Iraq, and the shame over the Coalition of the Willing's treatment of Iraqi prisoners, Byrd's story is not especially fresh. But with the possible exception of Howard Dean, he has been telling it longer than anyone else. And unlike Dean's primal scream, Byrd's assault on the Bush White House challenges the administration on constitutional grounds, specifically that document's designation of Congress "as "the people's branch, the sacred temple of free and open debate." Also unlike Dean, Byrd, who has represented West Virginia in Congress since 1952, when he was elected to the House (he was elected to the Senate in 1958), cannot be accused of belonging to what has been called the "Democratic wing" of the Democratic Party. As a young man, he briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan; as a senator, he filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights bill. Byrd eventually regretted his opposition to civil rights and became sufficiently centered in the national party to be elected Senate majority leader in 1976.

Byrd's mastery of Senate procedures and West Virginia politics has given him the freedom to serve up grand rhetoric, laced with classical references, in defense of republican government. Losing America, which is delivered like one of Byrd's exalted and wayward speeches (for good measure, the book includes eight of his recent speeches from the floor of the Senate), is likely to be read respectfully and fitfully -- by Democrats and Republicans alike. Although highly critical of the Bush White House for its hubris and callowness (one wonders how the president could be equally imposing and immature), the book, by contemporary standards, is not militantly partisan. Byrd is at least as scornful of his Democratic colleagues as he is of the Bush administration. It was bad enough, he laments, that congressional Democrats were complicit in the hasty enactment of what he calls the "Unpatriotic Act," which put civil liberties at risk; more alarming was their indifference to oversight of the Justice Department's enforcement of the legislation. Congress "took a pass on the issue of enemy combatants and did not want to soil its skirts with the nasty little issue of detainees at Guantanamo Bay," he charges. "Rather than deliberate, discuss, debate, and test the limits of appropriate presidential power in the war on terror, Congress has decided it would rather just salute the emperor and then stand down."

Not surprisingly, he reserves his harshest jeremiad for the Bush administration's rush to war with Iraq. His contempt for the Bush doctrines of "preemption" and "regime change" is joined to a scathing indictment of Congress's swift enactment of the Iraqi Resolution, which delegated to the president the sole decision to go to war and determine its scope and duration. When Congress took up the question of Iraq in the fall of 2002, Democrats were divided over whether the country should go to war. But the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and most of their colleagues, facing a popular president and November elections, were anxious to get the war behind them and change the subject to the flagging economy. Byrd carried out a lonely but vigorous protest against this strategy. Calling for "more time" and "more evidence," he urged his colleagues to slow down and consider the hard lessons of history.

As one of the few remaining senators who were in office during the Vietnam era, when he was a staunch supporter of Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's war policies, Byrd reminded his colleagues of the ignominy that followed from the expeditious, near-unanimous enactment of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. (The resolution, which authorized the president to take "all necessary measures" to prevent aggression against the United States, passed unanimously in the House; only two senators opposed it.) Nevertheless, the Iraqi Resolution passed by overwhelming margins, 296-133 in the House, 77-23 in the Senate. Even Byrd's amendment to "sunset" the resolution -- to limit the duration of its authority to one year -- received only 31 votes. To Byrd, the unwillingness of Congress to impose any time limit on such a breathtaking grant of power was the most "inexplicable vote of any that were cast in the whole sorry episode." After the vote, the self-anointed defender of legislative prerogative was left alone, to lament, like an Old Testament prophet, "How are the mighty fallen!"

Byrd is no longer so lonely -- his prophesies about the Iraqi War have hit home not only for most Democrats but also for a growing number of discontented Republicans. But the senator's voice is still one of the few that defends the right of Congress (as expressed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution) to play a vital role in foreign policy. One of his favorite classical referents is Helvidius Priscus, a Roman senator who became a victim of the tyrant Vespasian for daring to speak his mind. Byrd invoked Helvidius repeatedly in excoriating his colleagues for "playing it safe" and handing Bush "carte blanche by passing the Iraq war resolution." Lest his fellow senators and the readers of Losing America dismiss Byrd's Roman example as histrionic, it must be noted that the sober James Madison chose Helvidius as his pen name in attacking Alexander Hamilton's sweeping defense of foreign policy during the Washington administration. Hamilton argued that, in foreign affairs, the explicit constitutional restrictions on presidential power extended no further than the right of the Senate to ratify treaties and of Congress to declare war. These rights of the legislature should be interpreted strictly, Hamilton believed, so that they did not hinder the executive in other matters of foreign policy -- such as keeping the peace -- that "naturally were the domain of the president."

In taking the name of Helvidius, who wanted the Roman Senate to regain a measure of autonomy in an autocratic age, Madison meant to urge Americans to disavow a runaway executive, which would render the carefully calibrated system of checks and balances meaningless. More important, he meant to point out that representative government required public debate about foreign policy questions -- about war and peace -- which were among the "highest acts of sovereignty." To suggest, as Hamilton did, that foreign policy was within the proper definition of presidential authority was to imply that the executive branch had a legislative power. Such an argument was "in theory an absurdity -- in practice a tyranny."

The debate between Hamilton and Madison was not only the first but also the best of many such struggles about the proper boundaries of executive power and Congress's responsibility to restrain the president in the most likely sphere of executive aggrandizement -- foreign policy. In its best light, Losing America urges us to continue this debate -- in a dangerous world that tempts the American people and their representatives to place so much faith in the president.

Cast against the history of the past five decades, the Bush administration's executive aggrandizement is not as radical as Byrd claims. Indeed, Harry Truman, who fought an extensive war in Korea without any congressional authorization, argued that the Cold War against communism and the president's new responsibilities as the leader of the free world greatly diminished Congress's role in foreign policy. Like the Cold War, the war against terrorism is fought not against a sovereign nation but against an idea championed by an elusive and intractable enemy. Also like the Cold War, the war against terrorism seems to require a drastic modification in the Constitutional system of checks and balances. Although the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic party, Sen. John Kerry, raised substantive arguments against going to war with Iraq, he voted for the Iraqi Resolution because he accepted presidential superiority over Congress in foreign affairs. "We are affirming a president's right and responsibility to keep the American people safe," he said, "and the president must take that grant of responsibility seriously." That such a sentiment has become so commonplace in contemporary American politics explains why Byrd's objections seem to belong in our past. In truth, his sermon should be taken seriously by anyone who believes that republican government ultimately rests on public debate and resolution regarding the highest acts of sovereignty. *

Sidney M. Milkis is the James Hart Professor of Politics and co-director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs' American Political Development Program at the University of Virginia.

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.