Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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****Losing America

Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency

by Senator Robert C. Byrd

Reviewed October 1, 2004.
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004.  269 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #4, Current Issues

This isn’t a book written by some crazy extremist radical journalist.  This book is written by a man who has been a U. S. Senator for forty-five years, and has served under eleven presidents.  I have been trying to avoid reviewing political books that come down firmly on one side or another, but I’m afraid this one seemed important enough to recommend.

If you honestly feel that Senator Byrd has gone too far in calling our current president “reckless and arrogant,” then you need to read this book full of the reasons for his assessment.  If, as me, you already suspected that those words applied, you will be appalled by the confirmation that he gives.

To my family and friends who honestly believe that George W. Bush is a great president, or that any Republican president is better than the alternative, please forgive me.  I thought this book presented many reasons we should be concerned about his actions in office.  (I promise I will try to stay away from any more political books at least until November.  They make me too angry, anyway!)

Senator Byrd, besides his long experience in the Senate, is a historian and a student of the Constitution.  He has studied our Founding Fathers and their concerns as they set up our system of checks and balances.  He thinks that the founders would be appalled with the way things have been going, and he is able to bring up quotations to support his contentions.

Two main areas where Byrd feels that Bush has tried to subvert the intentions of the founders are with the power of the purse and the power to declare war.

He says, “Little by little, inch by inch, this administration bores into the walls built by the framers, walls with foundations going back to antiquity.  Do our people realize the importance of having the purse strings held tightly in the hands of Congress?  Cicero’s astute observation is timeless:  ‘There is no fortress so strong that money cannot take it.’  If there is no check on presidential use of funds, then we have, in effect, a monarchy by another name.  What force will temper the executive’s power if he also controls the purse strings?  Since 1959, the year I began service on the Senate committee charged with appropriating money, I have come to appreciate the lengths to which some presidents will go to usurp it.”

As only one of many examples, did you know that funds for ongoing operations in Iraq are not included in the 2005 budget?  “The administration waits until funds for the troops are almost exhausted before requesting additional funds through a supplemental appropriations bill.”  It so happens that debate is limited for supplemental appropriations bills.

“The Bush administration’s purpose is clear—to limit debate, to limit discussion, to limit having to explain to the American people how much this war will cost and how many lives will be lost before it is over.

“This year, however, the political posturing has gotten worse.  Not only did the president not include any funds in its budget for the ongoing operations in Iraq, the administration has announced that no supplemental will be sent to the Congress until after—after—the November elections, depriving the American voters of any opportunity to judge the president based on his promises about the costs of a war in Iraq.”

Senator Byrd was also bitterly opposed to the way the Senate was rushed into giving the president the power to use force in Iraq, and for its not limiting that power.  That decision was based on evidence that now appears faulty.

Here’s an interesting quotation from Abraham Lincoln, written when he was still a Representative.  “In a letter written to William H. Herndon, his friend and partner in their Illinois law firm, Lincoln refuted Herndon’s view that President James K. Polk’s aggressive protection of the newly annexed territory of Texas, resulting in a war with Mexico, was necessary.  Lincoln disputed whether Polk had acted to repel invasion:

“‘Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure.  Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose.  If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him?  You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you, “Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

“‘The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons.  Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object.  This, our Constitution understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.  But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.’”

This is only the beginning of Senator Byrd’s arguments, brought with many specific details and a rich historical background.  On another topic, he brings evidence that our country is less secure because of Bush’s decisions.  Please don’t rely on my summary to tell you what this book says—I can’t do his arguments justice, and this book is well worth reading in its entirety.

Toward the end of the book, he gives a chilling quotation from Nuremberg Diary, written by G. M. Gilbert, in which the author interviews Hermann Goering. 

“We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

“‘. . . But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.’

“‘There is one difference,’ I pointed out.  ‘In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.’

“‘Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  That is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same way in any country.’”

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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