American Heresies and the Betrayal of the National Interest: A Conversation with Walter McDougall

tragedyWhat is American civil religion? And has it been distorted to the extent that it has undermined our nation's foreign policy? The eminent historian and scholar Walter McDougall, author of the new book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, joins this edition of Liberty Law Talk to discuss these questions.

Reducing a Mountain to a Molehill: The Media, Executive Power and Denali


Let the historians charting the growth of executive power take note of August 30, 2015, which is the day America became a nation in which Presidents could rename mountains and nobody asked how.

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The American: Not Ugly, Not Quiet


George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”

Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.

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Achieving America’s Peace: A Conversation with Angelo Codevilla


Angelo Codevilla comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his latest book To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations. Our conversation focuses on Codevilla’s main argument that American statesmen increasingly fail to understand the nature and purpose of statecraft: the achievement of peace. So what does it mean to achieve America’s peace? To do so, Codevilla insists, requires concrete evaluation of the means and ends necessary to protect American interests. This requires particular judgments about power, interests, and the practial reality we are confronted with. Our practice, for well nigh a century, has been to speak in…

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The Imperial Mount Rushmore

Though it’s been a few weeks since it appeared, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Knott’s excellent piece on whether Woodrow Wilson destroyed the office of the presidency. The clamor about the imperial presidency is on the rise with many commentators (such as George Will) and Knott’s article gives us a better understanding of its rise, as well as its implications. Knott describes the “expectations gap” that has arisen due to modern conceptions of the presidency, where we expect the president to heal the planet, rather than work to enact reforms within the institutions of constitutional government.

In response to Professor Knott I would only mention that I think Woodrow Wilson may not even deserve top billing in terms of producing the rise of presidential power.

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Friday Roundup, June 21st

Jean Yarbrough's Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition is the subject of the current Liberty Law Talk. This podcast considers Roosevelt as both student and statesman of American constitutionalism. What is Stalin's curse? Paul Hollander, the great historian of totalitarianism, reviews Robert Gellately's Stalin's Curse in our books section this week. The curse, it seems, is Stalin's personality and the poison of his ideological policies emanating across the twentieth century into our own time. Michael Greve's The Upside-Down Constitution is the subject of lengthy and highly-informed discussion at Balkinization this week, well worth your time. Here also is the podcast I…

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Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition

Roosevelt 2

Who could be more American than former president Theodore Roosevelt? You might be surprised if you listen to the next Liberty Law Talk with Jean Yarbrough on her newest book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. Winner of the American Political Science Association's Richard Neustadt Award, Yarbrough's book is an incredible study of Roosevelt as student at Columbia, as an accomplished historical writer, and as a statesman. We might conclude, Yarbrough observes, that it is Roosevelt's robust American nationalism, his vigorous spirit, and his environmentalism that produced our national parks which marks him as a prominent president. Indeed, his place…

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Is This Progress?

President Obama is a man of history—that is, he places himself quite deliberately in historical context. His much-derided self-comparisons with Abraham Lincoln come immediately to mind. But those are clearly superficial. More telling is his choice of Osawatomie, Kansas for a speech that drew comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech delivered there 101 years before.  Roosevelt called for a vast expansion of federal government responsibility—a Bureau of Corporations and legislation involving families. Obama claims the legacy of both the Great Emancipator and the Rough Rider to justify his own dramatically more radical schemes.

Obama struck again in his recent speech at Roanoke, Virginia, with a speech that begs comparison with Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” address from his triumphant 1912 presidential campaign.

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Calvin Coolidge: A President Born on the Fourth of July

Coming after the first progressive wave of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge’s White House tenure boldly challenged their expansive ideas about executive power specifically and federal power generally.  Coolidge’s presidency was marked by an understanding of the power and limits to the federal government in terms more congenial to those of the Framers. Instructive in this regard are Coolidge’s fiscal and agricultural policies, and his attempts at federal restraint in the face of regional flood disasters that were marked by repeated calls for bold government action.

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The Relentless Dilemmas of Progressivism

The 1912 election fundamentally transformed American politics.  This transformation and the events which led to it are the subject of Sidney Milkis’s excellent book.  Milkis’s book is both lively and profound, a joy and an education at the same time.  The key thread that runs throughout Milkis’s tapestry is the paradoxical result of Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy: the joining of mass democracy – replacing party politics with candidate-centered elections and a plebiscitary presidency – with a centralized administrative state where commissions make policy outside of the direct influence of public opinion.  The dilemmas with which Milkis grapples in the book are still the dilemmas confronting progressivism today, and Milkis’s hesitancy about the legacy of progressivism is highly informative for dealing with the contemporary problems we face in light of the progressive resurgence in 2008.

Milkis’s dramatic account of the 1912 election focuses on the central figure during the election: Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt’s democratic faith was the impetus for his departure from the Republican Party and leadership of the Progressive Party.  Yet it is unclear whether Milkis thinks Roosevelt was a true believer in the cause of democracy or whether Roosevelt used the theme of democracy to provide clear distinctions between he, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  Milkis notes that in speeches leading up to 2012, Roosevelt expressed “temperate support for direct democracy” rather than a full-fledged defense of reforms such as the initiative, referendum, recall, direct election of senators, and referenda on judicial decisions.  Responding to some progressives’ fears that he was not a faithful devotee of direct democracy, Roosevelt suggested that it was wrong “to speak of democracy…as if it were a goddess.”  In an important speech in Columbus in 1912, Roosevelt finally became a convert to the cause of direct democracy, only months after condemning the idea in the National Progressive Republican League platform.  Roosevelt’s actions provoke an important question, not fully resolved in the account: did Roosevelt adopt his faith in direct democracy out of sincere belief, or in order to become the leader of a new progressive party? 

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