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Ciboski: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely


It is important to reflect on the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Also important is the 19th-century Senator Daniel Webster’s warning that the contest for all ages has been to make sure that liberty is not the province of executive power. One concern is that newly elected presidents usually work to extend the reach of the office.

Candidates for the presidency usually attack the incumbent president as an abuser of power, including as commander-in-chief, and vow that if elected they will curtail such abuse as executive orders, which have the force of law and are seen as usurping the powers of Congress.

Promises are not always kept. A glaring example was a promise by Lyndon Johnson before his election in 1964 when he contrasted himself with his opponent, Barry Goldwater, and said, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves and “get tied down in a land war in Asia.” After Johnson became president, he sent more than 500,000 Americans to fight in Vietnam.

President Trump criticized President Obama, saying the country was not based on executive orders. In his first 100 days in office, Trump signed more executive orders than any of his postwar predecessors.

Joe Califano, who served in high positions in the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations, has an excellent observation that can explain presidents deviating from their stated positions. In his book, “Our Damaged Democracy,” he says: “A defining principle of political power that I learned serving in Robert McNamara’s Pentagon, LBJ’s White House, and Jimmy Carter’s cabinet was this: where one sits determines where one stands. No political disciples observe that bureaucratic axiom more faithfully than incumbent presidents.”

Dr. Ken Ciboski is an associate professor emeritus of political science at Wichita State University.