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Published April 24 2011

Nelson: Spinning lies with nuances

So this is what a proper understanding of the Constitution boils down to, according to Dr. Grael Gannon (column, April 10): It’s not a charter meant to be taken strictly. It’s more of an elastic guideline that can be twisted or ignored according to the perceived needs of the moment. Gannon’s view essentially guts the document as any kind of restraint upon the federal government.

The whole point of a republican constitution is to delineate, enumerate and even sometimes grant specific powers. If it doesn’t do those things, then the government is one of whimsical tyranny limited only by whatever the people’s opinion is that day. But, Gannon argues, we need to allow our presidents to make “subtle, nuanced responses.” Subtleties such as lying us into wars every few years with or without even a nod from Congress? Nuances such as at least 120,000 dead Iraqis, millions of refugees, and a $2 trillion bill at the end of it all? Let’s not bring up Vietnam, or World War I for that matter.

At least he gives some recognition to John Randolph of Roanoke but fails to understand his own argument’s implication. If Randolph was an anarchist, but his constitutionally based argument against aiding Greece against Turkey won the day, then a majority of Congress was evidently anarchist, too. Really? And how would hewing to the Constitution cause “chaos”? You might think that the rule of law, not the whims of the president, would create greater stability and predictability, not less.

Gannon somehow misread my statement about North Korea, which was that it is the only country more militarily obsessed than we are. Nothing about disregard for human life here. But maybe he’s onto something: America is responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi civilians in the 1990s, while North Korea has killed a couple of dozen South Korean soldiers. A tough call, I know.

Gannon’s errors multiply beyond the scope of this column, but a word or two on Thomas Jefferson are in order. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was constitutionally dubious, even though the Supreme Court later upheld it. But at least he felt some misgivings about his decision, unlike later presidents run amok. He also detested John Marshall’s “Marbury” decision, which allegedly birthed judicial review, and had some solid arguments against it.

Let’s not also forget Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 78 pointing out the courts as “bulwarks” against “legislative encroachments.”

I’ve read liberal, conservative and libertarian criticisms of the Constitution. I don’t think I see it as some infallible “sacred scripture.” Nonetheless, strict adherence even to this flawed document would spare us our endless wars, smothering nannyism and a government borrowing one- and-a-half trillion dollars annually. And as I learned in my grad school days, beware the Big Think of the academics.

Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.