A president's power is terrifying. Many people shivered when they heard of the unsuccessful effort to free American hostages in Iran. Congress hadn't been told about it. The Supreme Court obviously wasn't consulted. The legislature theoretically restrains the president by the War Powers Act, but realistically a president can precipitate actions that will take the United States into armed conflict if he wants to. His finger is on the trigger.
"The president of the United states is by far the most powerful formally instituted political officer on Earth and stands at the head of the largest industrialized country," says Ferdinand Lundberg in his provocative new book "Cracks in the Constitution."
I am not arguing that the Iran-hostage adventure was wrong; I am simply awed by the demonstration of presidential authority which, by custom, we allow our chief executive. Under the alternate British system the Prime Minister would have automatically consulted with members of his Cabinet, all picked from an elected assembly. Mr. Carter had consultations, too, presumably agonized, but they were largely with the military, or with presidential staff whom he had appointed.
Again, the prime minister would have known throughout that at some point when the adventure ended he would be held accountable in a formal confrontation in Parliament. Opposition leaders would ask questions of him and his Cabinet from across the central aisle, man to man. Here the post-adventure questioning was left to a press conference.
At this juncture in another field of democratic government, the nation is going through a presidential election. These are protracted affairs lasting all told a couple of years. There are 35 or more primaries and then the conventions. These ratify a choice between two candidates, neither of whom may be exactly what the voters hoped. At election there may be apathy: in 1976 only 54.4 percent of the voters voted.
Mr. Lundberg's book challenges the whole system. His style is absolutist and may offend some but it is crowded with historical details. Is it heretical to examine the Constitution? Jefferson did. He thought he saw a constitutional cult developing and deplored it: "And lastly," he wrote, "let us provide in our Constitution for its revision at stated intervals . . . It is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty year, should be provided by the Constitution."
If the Jefferson plan had been adopted there would have been nine revisions by now. What kind of government would we have? Mr. Lundberg recalls that the admired political scientist Herman Finer back in 1960 ("The Presidency: Crisis and Regeneration") proposed a "modernized" system. (Many others have done it.) Finer urged a modified parliamentary system: a president and elected 11-man cabinet all sitting in the House of Representatives. They could resign en masse and precipitate an election. The Senate would be stripped of special powers over treaties and appointments, and would be reduced in stature like the Canadian Senate and the British House of Lords. Finer wanted a "regularized collectivity" around the president.
"The cardinal fact that frightens me in the present situation," he wrote "is that allm responsibility falls on one man, who may be inept politically."
Mr. Lundberg adds ominously, "Not to have such a collectivity is to choose to continue with the gamble on a single person about whom, moreover, the nation may and probably will lack timely knowledge."