The Power of “Yes”

Any time we grumble at gridlock, I can imagine the surprise of the Founding Fathers.

“A government that does nothing at all? Sounds like heaven, sir!”

OK, that might be a bit too strongly worded. After all, the Constitution was created because the old Articles of Confederation had proved impotent. Several founders (though by no means all) had realized the federal government needed more authority to act if the system was going to function at all.

Still, they were suspicious of a government that did too much. They could remember Townshend Acts, Tea Acts, and all the rest. So the Constitution was drawn with a bias toward inaction. A Congress that wanted to do something could be checked by the President and the courts. A Congress that wanted to do nothing… couldn’t really be forced to do otherwise.

Given that, I wonder what they would have made of the popularity of executive orders.

First, a little mythbusting. There’s nothing new or unconstitutional about executive orders themselves. The practice goes back to George Washington and began accelerating after the Civil War, reaching its peak in the first half of the 20th century. FDR was the most ardent practitioner (of course), but presidents Hoover, Taft, Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt were hardly shy of independent presidential action themselves. If anything, modern presidents are more restrained about using that power than those from Roosevelt to Roosevelt.

But it’s still an uncomfortable power to me.

In a government designed to default to “no,” this is the power of “yes.” In itself, that might not sound like a bad thing. We all know the image – and the reality – of a Congress locked in inertia, seemingly unable to agree on the time of day, much less anything of substance. So when a major debate goes nowhere, such as the debate on national gun control, it can be dangerously appealing to do an end run around the whole logjam.

The trouble is, the use of executive power rarely stops with the things you love.

Many people know that I’m a Tolkien fan. (I promise, this is relevant.) Between the novels and the recent immensely popular films, there are few people who aren’t familiar with the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” and its quest to destroy a magic ring to save the world.

What’s less familiar to the casual fan, though, is the nature of the Ring. It did more than just cause a wielder to turn invisible. In the hands of someone with enough power, it would grant a power of command – the ability to reorder the world exactly the way you wanted it, overriding the wills of others to do so.

That was the power that made the Ring so tempting, even to the righteous. Heroes fell, desiring it, even those wise enough to know better. The wisest – Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel – simply shunned it.

“With that power, I should have power too great and terrible,” the wizard Gandalf says. “And over me, the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. … Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

It’s true that executive orders can and have done good in the past. But they are not guaranteed to do good. What they are guaranteed is to do.

Independent executive action did indeed issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But it also issued the order creating internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Granting freedom, seizing freedom.

The strength and weakness of an executive order is that what one president can do, another can undo. But is that enough of a check? How much can be done in the meantime? How long might something sit before it is undone, by another president, or a dilatory Congress, or the courts?

Democratic friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Donald Trump?

Republican friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Hillary Clinton?

All friends: Is this a power you want in the hands of absolutely anybody at absolutely any time? Because right now, that’s how it’s potentially entrusted.

I’m not sure how we wind back the clock. I am sure we need to. However desirable the ends may be – and I’ve liked some of the ends a great deal – the means are far too dangerous. The boundaries are too fuzzy, the power too easy.

With this Ring, what have we wed ourselves to?

Famous First Words


Our nearly two-year-old niece pointed a stubby finger at the nearby finch, then trotted over to the next bird cage. A fresh smile grew on her face as she again pointed excitedly, this time at a pair of parakeets.


Yes, Riley has discovered words. Sporadically, anyway. During her weekly visits to our house, it’s not uncommon anymore to see her pursuing the dog with an outstretched arm and calling “Oggie!”At red lights, she’ll sometimes tell her dad “Go, go, go!” She’s even learned a sort of chorus to “Old McDonald,” chiming in at the right moments with “Ya, ya-yo!”

Clearest of all is the cry of achievement. We heard this one when she saw a cartoon boy working in his garden – something Riley had just helped her mom with the other day.

“I did it!” she declared, pointing ahead.

You sure did, hon.

It’s especially fun for me because I’ve lived with and worked with words for so long. I love their sound, their texture, their taste. Heather and I used to spend many date nights comparing words with cool sounds – yes, we’re geeks – or bemoaning the fact that the best words always seemed to belong to horrible medical situations. (Heather’s own condition of ankylosing spondylitis has a certain musical ring to it.)

Now, with two nieces and a nephew in the toddler stage, I get to watch someone new dip their toe in the pool. It’s like being an artist seeing someone discover finger paints, or a musician hearing the first strikes on a toy piano.

Or maybe a marksman carefully watching the first lesson on a firing range.

Because words have power. Oh, so much power.

We start out claiming otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words …” Well, you know the rest. And before we get out of elementary school, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that words can hurt. A lot.




And yeah, worse ones that I’m not going to print here.

By the time we’re grown, we’ve had an opportunity to see the best and the worst that language can do. And it doesn’t have to be a Shakespearean sonnet or a stream-of-consciousness flood of profanity to get a reaction.

In many ways, the most potent ones are the reverse of my old date-night exercise: ordinary words freighted with extraordinary meaning.

“Are you OK?”

“Never mind.” (Sigh) “It’s not important.”

“What were you thinking?”

“Hey. It’s all right. Come here.”

None of those require a college degree. All of them can leave fingerprints on the soul.

A word well-wielded can be an awesome thing. Or a terrible one.

And someday, Riley will learn that power.

Learn to speak well, little one. Learn when not to speak. And especially learn how to listen, not just to the words of others, but to your own, so that you may always realize what you’re saying and how.

May your words always be a joy and your joy be beyond words.

Now, let’s go check out those erdees.