Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bag O' Books: "Bomb Power"

It is difficult not to stand in awe -- and a little envy -- of Garry Wills. His casual brilliance has made him one of the more prolific writers and thinkers of the age, and his thinking has been supple enough to carry him from an early alliance with William F. Buckley to an esoteric ideology that still seems to call itself "conservatism" while finding itself most comfortable on the pages of the lefty New York Review of Books. He's the kind of guy who appears capable of tossing off a 250-page book between lunch and dinner, while the rest of us are struggling to compose coherent blog posts in a comparable amount of time.

His new book, Bomb Power, reads a little bit like that -- a 250-page blog post. Wills makes the case that the advent of the Atomic Age also ushered in an era of presidential overreach: that Harry Truman used the prerogatives of the bomb to assert unconstitutional powers (in warmaking, foreign policy and even domestic policy) and to shield his efforts from congressional and judicial oversight; that every president since then (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter) has tried to expand on that unconstitutional foundation.

At its best, Bomb Power serves as an overview of 65 years of expanding presidential power. But Wills doesn't really pursue his own thesis with much zeal: we see the advent of the bomb at the beginning of the book, and the rise of some institutions to govern its production and use. Wills, though, doesn't do much to make the connection to the overreach he describes thereafter: Korea, the Bay of Pigs and the Gulf of Tonkin all the way up to Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

And his argument is made more difficult by a lack of context. Except for some brief references to Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln, we're not given much of a lesson in how executive power was wielded prior to World War II -- only told that the legislative branch was given more primacy than it currently exercises.. And in critiquing the unconstitutional nature of the postwar rise of the Cold War national security state, Wills doesn't bother to discuss whether the measures taken in the name of anti-Soviet national security might've been, you know, useful. This book, in other words, is written for people who already agree with Wills' point-of-view on such matters.

Wills finally peters out with a single paragraph looking to the future. "Some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution," he writes. "It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made."

As it happens, I'm pretty sympathetic to Wills' perspective. This book, however, felt like an appetizer for some other, longer and better-argued work of history.

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