March 29, 2004

Laney talks of power's many facets

By Eric Rangus

While it wasn't the most prominent term in the title of President Emeritus James Laney's March 23 lecture, "Freedom, Power and Democracy," at Miller-Ward Alumni House, the term he most fully discussed was the middle one: power.

The occasion of Laney's address was the Emeritus College's first Sheth Distinguished Lecture, made possible by a $50,000 donation to the college by Jagdish Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing in the Goizueta Business School, and his wife, Madhu.

The soon-to-be-annual event was a success, drawing some 120 emeritus faculty and their guests and filling Governor's Hall. Laney, who served as Emory president from 1977 until 1994 when he stepped down to become U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, gave a 45-minute history lesson on how power is intertwined with freedom and democracy, how it has been wielded--or, more significantly, not wielded--by American leaders, and how that historical restraint may be going away.

"Our republic was born out of fear of the abuse of power, constraints on government to protect liberty, and vesting the sovereign power in the people themselves, who would elect those they would authorize to serve in their name," Laney said. He added that by resigning his commission after the Revolutionary War and voluntarily leaving office after two terms as president, George Washington was visionary in his walking away from power.

Throughout his talk, Laney gave examples of how American leaders were restrained in their use of power, such as Abraham Lincoln's wanting peace without retribution after the Civil War. And Laney mixed in mention of America's use of moral authority along with its power, such as the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II.

Recent years, Laney said, have seen a shift toward greater presidential power, Laney said, and a more aggressive executive branch. "Freedom has become the ultimate American value we talk about, eclipsing equality and the common good," Laney said.

"By defining the war against terror as one on behalf of freedom, we can assume American innocence and rightness," he continued. "At least that deftly sidesteps the issue of America's role in the world and its impact, especially its presence in the Middle East. By defining wars in this way, it could be seen as removing constraints related to the use of force--no longer must we be hobbled by self-imposed shackles."

Laney acknowledged that this policy has great appeal to some, but nevertheless it represents a sea change in American history. "I'm concerned about easy acquiescence by the public to the militarization of policy. It doesn't seem to require much more of us than patriotism. But to militarize policy, to have a war footing all the time, means that debate is stultified.

"Our founders wanted a citizenry that was independent, self-reliant and unintimidated. That is the basis of the power of our democracy. That is a cherished heritage that need nourishing," he said.