This book, by journalist Charlie Savage was published six years ago, but I just finished it. It’s a well-written, well-researched critique of the George W. Bush’s Administration’s abuse of executive power based on often extremely dubious constitutional theories. If you’re interested in the subject matter, it’s well worth reading, despite its age. Of particular interest to many VC readers is that he traces the intellectual origins of the Bush Administration’s broad assertions of executive power back to (mostly) young conservative lawyers who worked in the Reagan Administration.
I have a few qualms about the book. Most important, for a book that’s all about executive power, you’d hope the author would master what the theory of the unitary executive means, and wouldn’t, as so many Bush Administration critics did, confuse that theory with other issues. Savage, unfortunately, fails that test repeatedly.
Savage also sometimes overstates his case, especially later in the book. For example, Savage notes that Bush issued signing statements indicating that the Administration would decline, for constitutional reasons, to enforce affirmative action preferences in government employment dictated by statute. Savage claims that Bush did so despite the Supreme Court’s holding in Grutter that affirmative actions preferences are constitutionally permissible. Savage indicts the administration for ignoring Grutter in favor of its own interpretation of the Constitution. In fact, Grutter only held that preferences in higher education are permissible. While some scholars think that Grutter’s logic can be applied to employment (I’m not one of them), Grutter didn’t purport to overrule cases unfavorable to preferences, in particular the Adarand case, banning preferences in government contracting. In this instance, I think Bush had the better of the constitutional argument based on Supreme Court precedent, but at the very least Savage significantly overstated the case that Bush was acting lawlessly.
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