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Office of the President

“The Founders’ Great Mistake” (January/February Atlantic) was, according to Garrett Epps, the design of the office of the president. In particular, Epps cites the inconvenience of the long lag between Election Day and Inauguration Day and, even more important, the difficulties in ending the tenure of a president who has lost the confidence of the voters. He notes that parliamentary systems do not suffer the long interregnum, but he does not mention that parliamentary systems can end the tenure of a renegade prime minister quite quickly through a vote of no confidence. Nor does he mention that parliamentary systems have a distinct advantage in keeping the functions of the head of state and the head of government separate. Combining both functions in a single person, as in the U.S., is another oft-cited dubious feature of the office of the president.

Isn’t it worth discussing the option of adopting a parliamentary system for the U.S.?

Robert W. Raynsford, Ph.D.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (ret.)
Washington, D.C.

Readers responding to Garrett Epps’s January/February article on amending the presidency proposed a number of additional ways to check presidential power:

• Hold a Constitutional Convention open to the public.

• Grant a presidential line-item veto.

• Require the president to defend his policies in open public debate.

• Elect Cabinet members.

• Allow for a vote of no confidence.

• Amend the American people.

Garrett Epps makes important and interesting points about the inadequacies of the Constitution’s setup of the presidency, and persuasively argues that reform is necessary. On the issue of President Bush, however, it seems to me Epps gives Congress too light a treatment. Certainly by 2006, it was clear that we had what he calls a “runaway president,” and that Congress was specifically elected to rein him in. It failed to do so on issue after issue, despite its appropriations power. In this case, the Constitution provided more than enough ammunition for Congress to step in, but the legislature repeatedly backed down from the president’s games of chicken.

The specter of President Clinton’s victory over a truculent Congress in the mid-’90s may have scared legislators, except this time most of the country was hoping that Congress would, indeed, stop a man run wild. The failure to do so was theirs, not the Constitution’s or the Founding Fathers’.

Gidon Rothstein
Bronx, N.Y.

Garrett Epps offers a provocative argument. Still, while it is probably true that the executive branch received relatively little attention at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the potentially monarchical character of the presidency got a great deal of attention and criticism in the wider public debate on the Constitution, notably in the writings of those known as the Anti-Federalists. Further, Epps overemphasizes the role of Alexander Hamilton in establishing an authoritative executive. Hamilton did make a forceful and influential case for implied powers, but in application the concept of implied powers did more to strengthen Congress relative to the states than to strengthen the president relative to Congress. Finally, the emergence of what Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency” was less a matter of constitutional design than of historical pressure. Specifically, two world wars and a Cold War and the development of the United States as an activist state at home and a global empire abroad pushed power toward a single decisive center.

That so many Americans now look to Barack Obama, not Congress, to save us from the consequences of George Bush’s bad decisions suggests that the imperial presidency may be here to stay.

Professor Carl L. Bankston III
Tulane University
New Orleans, La.

Identity Crisis

Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” (January/February Atlantic) is an entertaining essay on an important topic but gets the fundamental story upside down in claiming that “the culture is being remade in the image of white America’s multiethnic, multicolored heirs.” Hsu gets it wrong by focusing on cultural froth, like music, food, and clothes. The real story, at the deeper level, is how much and how quickly the children of immigrants from many continents come to adopt WASP culture—the Indian American who marries out of love, the Asian American who shucks modesty in pursuit of personal success, the Mexican American who finds Protestantism’s path more fulfilling than her mother’s village Catholicism, and so on—like the Irish, Italians, and Jews before them. (African American descendants of slaves have been deeply American for generations.) The WASP culture that matters is not the culture of golf shoes and Lawrence Welk; it’s the culture of personal expression and personal salvation, material achievement, voluntarism in social matters, and egalitarianism. It’s roughly what Tocqueville described in 1836. And it doesn’t matter whether this deeper culture is expressed in first-generation Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” or a hip-hopper’s rap version of the same message.

Claude S. Fischer
Berkeley, Calif.

Hua Hsu hits on a number of important issues, but I believe that he overstates the plight of white America.

While sociologists like Matt Wray bemoan the lack of “white culture,” I look at white America and see only further strength. Minority groups have to look inward to find their “culture” because they need to define themselves in some way. White Americans have a much easier time. The white American narrative is interwoven with the American narrative as a whole. White culture is America.

As an Indian American who attended an effete private boarding school, I have learned that to achieve a level of cultural assimilation that enables a minority to move up the ladders in society, one has to embrace the “Stuff White People Like.” The peacoats, polos, Frisbee sports, and Arrested Development DVDs might seem like trivial favorites of the white elite, but they represent certain gateways that minorities have to navigate. My friends joke that I’m as white as they are, because I’ve essentially sold out to adhere to their cultural norms. But what choice does a student like myself have under these circumstances? There may be no “white culture,” but white people still dictate our societal norms. To become a cultural elite in America, one has to whiten him- or herself.

Ryan Karerat
Clinton, N.Y.

Hua Hsu replies:

I agree with Claude Fischer’s most basic assumption that there are deeper narratives and value systems, often unnoticed, that determine our entry into and relationship with American culture. And I agree that even the most progressive expressions of American identity still invoke the logic of assimilation (though I find Fischer’s classification of group characteristics rather rigid—perhaps this makes me an “immodest” Asian American).

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