LOPEZ: Why does it matter what Hamilton would say about all this?
KNOTT: I think it matters if you take the Founding, and the Constitution, seriously, as all thoughtful Americans should. The Founders had their differences, but one area where there was a remarkable consensus concerned the propriety of giving the executive the tools he needed — the discretionary authority required to deal with threats to the nation. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was violently opposed to many of Hamilton’s initiatives, shared the idea that an energetic executive was essential to the security of the nation. Jefferson wouldn’t have put it that way, but he acted that way, and wrote about it that way in private. In my view, the founding generation was our “greatest generation,” and their thoughts about politics, and their understanding of statesmanship, were light years ahead of what we hear from political figures today.
LOPEZ: Why do you insist on holding historians to a higher standard? They’re just pundits these days, aren’t they?
KNOTT: Unfortunately, many historians have become pundits. That’s not what they are supposed to be, if the label “historian” means anything. Presidential historians are supposed to toil in the archives, gather the facts, conduct oral-history interviews, interview foreign leaders, comb through diaries, and allow the partisan passions of the day to cool, and then perhaps pronounce judgment on a presidency. In the case of George W. Bush, prominent historians such as Sean Wilentz were proclaiming the Bush presidency a failure before President Bush left office (in Wilentz’s case, in 2006). One historian whom I admire, Larry DeWitt (who himself is no admirer of George W. Bush), put it quite well, noting that any presidency deserves, at the very least, a “decent interval” before judgment is pronounced; but Bush’s presidency was condemned almost from the start. There is a reason, DeWitt observed, that “we do not award the Bancroft Prize to Keith Olbermann. The ‘informed opinion’ of the community of historians, in advance of actual historical research, is just a report on the political views of this community, not the findings of history.”
LOPEZ: What is the state of presidential power today?
KNOTT: Considering that President Obama seems determined to guard presidential prerogatives in the national-security arena as vigorously as President Bush did, I would say things are where they were when Bush left office. Arguably, presidential power has expanded since the Bush years, in that President Obama’s actions in Libya in 2011 give even a proponent of robust executive power like me some pause.
LOPEZ: “The harsh rhetoric directed at George W. Bush gave new meaning to the term ‘incivility,’ and in many cases it came from those who claimed to aspire for peace.” Has it only gotten worse since?
KNOTT: I’m not sure it has gotten worse, at least amongst academics, the Hollywood crowd, and the media, because of their sympathies for President Obama. However, the obsession with Obama’s birth certificate struck me as the equivalent of the 9/11 truthers who believed that Bush and Cheney concocted the events of that day so as to have an excuse to invade Iraq. But it’s one thing to find this kind of tinfoil-hat stuff on the Internet, it’s another thing to see the kind of hysterical reaction to signing statements or three cases of waterboarding as the end of constitutional government in the United States. And unfortunately, far too much of that anti-intellectual rhetoric came from supposed intellectuals.
LOPEZ: Why is Anwar al-Awlaki important to understanding the Bush administration?
KNOTT: Well for one thing, if Bush had approved the killing of an American citizen, the clamor for reining in the “imperial presidency” would have been deafening. You can make the case that Bush was more circumspect in his use of drones, although some of that may have been based on the technical limitations of drones at the time. But this is one area that might be worthy of further exploration — did Bush have greater moral qualms about the use of drones than his successor? I’m not sure.
LOPEZ: Why is “war by lawyer” dangerous?
KNOTT: It runs counter to Hamilton’s and most of the Founders’ understanding that fighting a war by committee is a prescription for defeat. Hamilton argued for “unity” in the executive branch so as to ensure an “energetic” presidency — a presidency marked by “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” A review board composed of lawyers runs counter to this vision of executive power. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” were most likely to characterize the actions of one individual as opposed to a committee. The Constitution gives the war power to Congress, and the commander-in-chief power to the president. These two branches sometimes contest each other for control over the war power, but there was never a role intended for the unelected judiciary over these matters. To make matters worse, there’s a growing sense in the law-school community that international law should trump American law in matters of national security. In my view, this may be great for law professors and their progeny, but it is just another step in the creation of an imperial judiciary, a trend that’s been underway for some time. There’s a reason why we celebrate Abraham Lincoln and not Roger Taney, and it’s due in part to the fact that Lincoln “stayed within his lane” while Taney, and later John Paul Stevens, did not. I’m beginning to think that we may be approaching the day when we’ll have to sandblast Mount Rushmore and replace Lincoln and Washington with John Paul Stevens and his law clerks.
LOPEZ: How has there been “a quiet revolution in the way the citizenry thinks about the Constitution”?
KNOTT: In that the citizenry seems to accept the idea that the courts should have the “final say” on almost every matter, including matters of war and peace. Bush is really the first president who in times of war was told by the courts, in no uncertain terms, how he must deal with captured enemy combatants. Second, and equally important, is that the congressional-oversight regime that was created in the mid-1970s contributed to the creation of a risk-averse, bureaucratically sclerotic intelligence community that was unable to do the kinds of things that are necessary to penetrate groups such as al-Qaeda. Those “things” tend not to be actions that sit well with congressional overseers or with the media.