Monday, January 29, 2007

Commander in Thief

Several blogs pointed me toward this op-ed piece in the Times by Garry Wills, who argues that the prattle about Bush being the "commander in chief" is essentially nonsense. Pernicious nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless:

The president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: "The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States." When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, "commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States."
We used to take pride in civilian leadership of the military under the Constitution, a principle that George Washington embraced when he avoided military symbols at Mount Vernon. We are not led — or were not in the past — by caudillos.
And who can resist piling on the good old dead Gipper, he of the stalwart dodging of meaningful service during World War II? Not me!
The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements. We are reminded, for instance, of the expanded commander in chief status every time a modern president gets off the White House helicopter and returns the salute of marines.

That is an innovation that was begun by Ronald Reagan. Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of order.