When I was 7, I had a conversation with an adult about the responsibilities of the president. I had asked some question along the lines of “Why doesn’t the president just do what he wants?” Their answer was a good one: they said something about how the president is a public servant and actually has quite a few constraints.
Then, with all the precocious sincerity a 7-year-old can muster, I said, “Oh. So the president gives up some of his freedom so he can protect our freedom.” (I was a little patriot).
It’s a nice thought, certainly, but I bring it up because it makes me think about our current political landscape—and what actually constrains the so-called “most powerful man in the world.”
The Mutual Hatred of Titans
Robert Moses was one of the most powerful men in New York State in the 1920s and 30s, which made him one of the most powerful men in the country. In 1928, his title in the state was second only to the governor who hated him—Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt hated Moses because Moses and he were so alike: arrogant, Ivy League builders with dreams of enormous scale and the ambition to make them happen. Moses was also petty and vicious, denying Roosevelt a delegate who could attend meetings or do tasks in his stead when they worked on the Parks Commission together.
While Roosevelt struck back in small ways, but even as Governor, Roosevelt needed Moses—and he likely hated him for that too. Moses, in turn, hated Roosevelt. FDR had betrayed the only man to whom Moses expressed unfailing loyalty: the previous executive, Governor Al Smith. Moses also hated anyone who got in his way, and Roosevelt fit the description.
When he became President in 1932, FDR was finally free of Moses. But he still didn’t have the satisfaction of ruining him for all the slights and disrespect he’d endured for years. His opportunity would come in 1934, after Moses’ disastrous campaign for Governor of New York.
You have to understand that Moses’ power resided in his public popularity. To the people of the state, Moses was a selfless public servant who built parks—and who doesn’t love parks? When he lost his election (mostly because he revealed some of his true nature to the public), that protection evaporated. FDR immediately put pressure on Moses’ ‘boss’—NYC Mayor LaGuardia—to cut him loose.
The Mayor refused because he relied on Moses to build the city’s public projects—a key part of any official’s election strategy.
So, Roosevelt went a different route. He signed an executive order declaring that any city official who was also the head of a public authority or commission would not receive any funds. The order applied to two people: the Housing Authority head and Moses. It was a brazen attempt at stripping him of power.
The Most Deserving Man in the World
Roosevelt was universally criticized for the decision. It was clearly petty, vindictive, and even worse, utilized one of the Presidency’s most powerful executive privileges. Letters and op-eds accused the President of abusing his power to target a municipal servant—someone way below his weight class.
In a notable episode, the respected Constitutional lawyer William D. Guthrie decided to file a lawsuit against the President for the use of executive power. In a meeting, the President privately pleaded to Guthrie, “Isn’t the President of the United States entitled to one personal grudge?”
“No,” Guthrie allegedly replied.
I’ll be the first to admit that Moses was more deserving than anyone to be humbled—to be shackled in his dictatorial powers. FDR wasn’t thinking nobly, but his grudge was understandable. But for a President to use even a small portion of his power to exact political revenge was scandalous, illegal, and beneath the office. Guthrie knew that—even the President knew that.
Grudges are for regular people. The President’s power is too great to inflict on individual citizens. Singling out citizens for wrath wasn’t permissible, not ever.
Guthrie held his President to a higher standard. He did his duty.
It Takes Character to Elect Character
When our leaders stick it to people we hate, it’s easy to cheer. It’s easy to say that those people had it coming and that our representative “stood up” for something. We hate it when our leaders stay above the fray when we want them to strike down from heaven (or Washington).
It takes deep character to hold our leaders above the fray. To recognize that people in positions of power must use that power wisely, sparingly, and responsibly.
It takes character to recognize that power must, by necessity, be restrained. Even when restraint is not in our favor.
No one should get away with it. Not even FDR.