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Reducing a Mountain to a Molehill: The Media, Executive Power and Denali

Let the historians charting the growth of executive power take note of August 30, 2015, which is the day America became a nation in which Presidents could rename mountains and nobody asked how.

No opinion is ventured here on whether Denali is a better moniker for Mt. McKinley.  Your correspondent confesses a general bias against the lionizing of executives, even ones who fell in the line of duty.  And there is a certain poetic symmetry, one supposes, in a President unilaterally stripping McKinley of the honor, since it was McKinley’s assassination that thrust the modern muscular executive, and the Progressive movement, into the White House in the person of Theodore Roosevelt.

The more striking issue surrounding this event is the national news media’s utter incapacity to distinguish between executive power and executive authority.  Coverage of the event focused almost entirely on the fact of the renaming and not on exactly who or what authorized the Executive Branch to do it.

One can search the national newspapers high, low, sideways and diagonal without finding so much as a hint of where exactly the Executive Branch found this authority.  Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, calling the issue a “molehill”—get it?  get it? it’s about a mountain, see, and they’re making one out of, you know, a molehill—simply asserted that Obama was “perfectly within his authority to make the change.”  Maybe.  Could someone help a brother out and say how?

Enter, thankfully, the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which explains that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell used a 1947 law dealing with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names—there is such a thing—whose job appears to be to make sure entities of the federal government call geographic places by the same designations.  If the Board fails to act on a measure in a timely manner, the law says, the Interior Secretary can.  So she did.  This would seem a stretch in the face of an obvious intent of Congress to the contrary, paired with a live debate between dueling bills that would rename the mountain Denali and keep the moniker of McKinley.

Still, the point is less whether the President did have the authority than that so few covering the event for the national media seemed to care, or at least care enough to provide readers or viewers with enough information to judge for themselves. Barring finding the Ohio news story, one would be hard pressed to find any coverage of the question of authority.

Consider the New York Times, which did helpfully indicate that it was the President’s appointee, Sally Jewell, who actually signed the paperwork.  But The Times also reports—surprise, surprise, surprise—that legislation to achieve the same end, renaming the mountain, was bottled up in Congress.  So the President up and unbottled it, sans the annoyance of legislation.  The first Times story did not bother to mention that Mt. McKinley was initially named by an act of Congress, so the President not only facilitated the equivalent of passing a law Congress was ignoring, he actually de facto overturned one.

By day two, in fairness, The Times reported that complaint.  The paper called concerns about executive power “well-worn.” Of course, this came with the obligatory Eastern condescension toward the complaining Ohioans.  That business about separation of powers is just as folksy and precious as the yokels in Canton.

Of course, the problem is that renaming mountains is not, in the scheme of things, that big a deal.  (Get it? Get it?)  But precedents are.  So are lessons.  One is this: All a Republican Interior Secretary needs to reverse this decision is to be literate enough to sign his or her name.  That is the staying power executive actions have.  Legislation can last, as the renaming of Denali for McKinley did, nearly a century.

Legislation also has deliberation behind it, and the balancing of interests.  That balance may well favor the views of Native American populations in Alaska over distant civic relatives of McKinley in Ohio.  But such deliberation would ensure the calculation was based on the public good rather than the political interests of a single actor.

With all this, one suspects McKinley’s successor TR would be pleased.  Certainly the man who signed the legislation anointing Mt. McKinley would.  Woodrow Wilson wrote that the President was “at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.”  Presidents have sought to be ever since, apparently to the point of renaming mountains. Can they move them too?

Reader Discussion

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on September 04, 2015 at 09:37:20 am

The naming of places has been an executive function for at least half a millenium. European monarchs commissioned maps, which facilitated the expansion of colonial empires and contributed significant economic benefits to the nations they headed. Governments have been creating maps for literally hundreds of years. Systematizing that effort, including systematization of place names, is a legitimate government activity.

No one who looks into the matter can doubt the economic benefits that have accrued to the US because of the maintenance and publication of cartagrophic surveys of the US by the United States Geologic Survey. The USGS provides an important public good that is vital both to our economy but also to our country's security. Part of that effort is to establish consistent place names.

It is entirely and completely appropriate to condemn the growth in power and reach of executive authority. The constitutional dangers strike me as obvious to anyone paying attention, and in general I much agree with Greg Wiener's ongoing effort to criticize it.

That said, it strikes me as imprudent to condemn all exercise of executive authority. There are places where we want our government to be able legitimy to act. We want to trim leviathan back to constitutional bounds, not extinguish it entirely.

The USGS and related institutions within the Department of the Interior have responsibility for creating consistent place names, for appropriate government purposes. There are all sorts of good reasons for this, economic; national security; facilitation of public services like, within national parks and forests, search and rescue, or wild fire management. People's lives can be at stake.

So there are legitimate reasons for the government exerting authority to name places, including mountains. Just on its face, there is nothing the slightest bit unusual or inappropriate about the US government naming a place. That includes mountains.

We need to distinguish between legitimate exercise of authority and the appropriation of government powers for symbolic purposes. It seems clear that our President approved of this particular action (which almost assuredly did not originate in the Office of the President) for symbolic reasons. But the criticism here is of the broader exercise of the power to name, which is, as soon as you examine it, a traditional executive power of many centuries' duration, and for which there are real public benefits.

Moreover, the broader symbolic message--that native peoples are Americans too, and one of the groups that by any reckoning have suffered genuine oppression from both US citizens acting privately and from US, State, and local governments--strikes me as unobjectionable. At any rate, Greg offers here no sustained criticism of Obama's gesture as an act of symbolism.

Finally, it is worth noting that the renaming of the mountain, technically, is solely for government purposes. Private map-makers, and citizens more broadly, are free to call the place whatever they wish. As a general rule, people will find it useful to use the government designation. But anyone who has ever spent much time in rural America knows full well that just because the government designates a particular name for a place does not mean that the people who live there will not use designations of their own choosing. Local place names are not entirely consistent with the place names that show up on government maps.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 04, 2015 at 11:32:13 am

[…] However, there’s more to this issue than just a name, as Greg Weiner points out at the libertylawsite blog: […]

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What’s in a Name? | The Locker Room
on September 04, 2015 at 11:37:50 am

From the comments of Kevin Hardwick:

"The naming of places has been an executive function for at least half a millennium."

"It is entirely and completely appropriate to condemn the growth in power and reach of executive authority."

"That said, it strikes me as imprudent to condemn all exercise of executive authority."

Whence cometh "authority?"

In that earlier "millennial" period authority derived from Power, which unchallenged became Sovereignty, in the name of which much was done (including "names").

But, challenges to Sovereignty of a magistrate or executive came, and their vestiges (of challenges) remain with us, though possibly diminishing.

But, what of "our" executive authority.

In Constitutional form it comes from consent.
In the Administrative State it comes from consent OR passive compliance (and from blendings of both). Each involves reduction of the challenges to Sovereignty.

One might take from Professor Weiner that we are observing passive compliance, there is no challenge raised as to the grounding for the authority exercised (or not).

As each failure of challenge ("whence cometh authority") occurs, degrees of Sovereignty rise. The rise of degrees of Sovereignty engender Power. Power begets further Sovereignty.

Sovereignty in a magistrate, executive or legislature impinges on individual liberty.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 04, 2015 at 14:21:59 pm

"We need to distinguish between legitimate exercise of authority and the appropriation of government powers for symbolic purposes"

VS

"Moreover, the broader symbolic message–that native peoples are Americans too, and one of the groups that by any reckoning have suffered genuine oppression from both US citizens acting privately and from US, State, and local governments–strikes me as unobjectionable."

Which shall it be?
Does the nature of the "beneficiary" group (Native Americans, in this case) change the fundamental, underlying nature of the act, is it still not an an act or symbolic gesture that stems from the belief / practice of a rekindled prerogative of the Crown?

And if this "symbolism" is acceptable, why not rename the state of Washington, or New York, etc.etc.?
I suspect that before my days on earth are ended, we shall witness such a proposal. Are there not now folks suggesting that Jefferson be "un-remembered" - when will Jefferson county disappear?

BTW: It seems as if there already was a *standard name* for the mountain - it was Mt. McKinley. Seems the predicate (name stability) of the *symbolic* executive act was already being met. So why the action?

Then again when one has a *molehill* of a President who views himself as a majestic mountain, one can expect such symbolism.

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gabe
on September 04, 2015 at 17:03:56 pm

Gabe--

I am not sure I follow you here.

In the OP, Greg suggests that for the President to claim authority to name a feature of a landscape is over reach, and I wrote back to suggest that a.) it is a pretty traditional executive power, and has been ever since governments started to employ map-makers, and b.) that it is a desirable power for the executive to possess, because there are various economic, military, and public safety goods that derive from it. The government tries to standardize names on the various multiplicity of maps it produces, I am suggesting, for good reason.

So the power itself is desirable, and the government can and should exercise it from time to time. Even if that means renaming mountains.

(Of course, you can argue here that in this particular instance, no public economic, military, or public safety good derived from the action taken. That strikes me as a viable argument, but to make it properly we would have to know a lot more about the process by which the Department of the Interior arrived at the decision. I am sure there are plenty of smart people out there who can make that argument, but I am not sufficiently well informed to do so off the top of my head.)

I then followed that up with a tangential remark, suggesting that what was really noteworthy here was not so much a general executive power claimed illegitimately by an imperial president, but rather the President's appropriation of that power for symbolic purposes. That of course is a different conversation than the one Greg initiated--so I included is as something of an aside.

It is of course entirely appropriate to criticize symbolic speech. But in this instance, I think we have to balance the harm caused by reinforcing pernicious identity politics with the good that comes from acknowledging past injustice. Since the injustice against native Americans, historically speaking, is monumental, I am not sure that the symbolism in this particular instance is all that objectionable. To my eye, national healing starts with acknowledging and taking responsibility for past injustice. There is value in truth and reconciliation, it seems to me.

In general, when we are talking about grotesque injustice of the sort that has been perpetrated against native Americans across most of American history, I think we should err on the side of generosity. There is, perhaps, some good that may come from the gesture. And it is hard to see how removing McKinley's name creates much harm. Its not like this is Mount Washington, or Mount Lincoln, or Mount Reagan, that we are talking about here.

In general, I think all of should strive to nurture what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." How does cultivating that here, in this instance, do greater harm than good?

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 04, 2015 at 17:06:03 pm

Richard--

You write: "Sovereignty in a magistrate, executive or legislature impinges on individual liberty."

I am with Hobbes on this one. Ordered liberty is desirable. There is no liberty at all in anarchy.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 04, 2015 at 17:41:03 pm

Kevin:

All of what you say has merit, including the notions of cultivating "the better angels of our nature" and taking responsibility for past injustice(s).

I suppose that my objection is aimed less at your comments than at the entirely *symbolic* agenda of the current (and past) Democrat Administrations. surely, there are some more substantive policies and actions that the regime can do for Native Americans that may do less in the area of reinforcing racial / ethnic classifications. After all, those tribes so recognized by the US government are in fact sovereign nations. Perhaps, we could start by treating them as such rather than as dependent wards of the Great White Father who, recognizing the immense value of "self-esteem," has deemed fit to rename a mountain in the wilds of Alaska. Surely, this will improve the living conditions of Native Americans.

so no, I see it as what it is: Symbolism, "making a statement" (that oft used phrase redolent of 1960's activist dialect) that in the end signifies nothing. Then again, it is consistent with other current "symbology" of the Big O's Administration - right up there with the symbolic Iran Nuclear Agreement. all that is required is for John Kerry to mouth the words of Neville Chamberlain, "peace in our time" to truly cement the *symbolic* legacy of Peacemaker for the Big O. all part and parcel of the continuing apology tour!!!!!!

Apologies for using your apt comments as a foil for my own dissatisfaction with the state of the American regime.

take care as always
gabe

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gabe
on September 04, 2015 at 18:01:18 pm

Gabe--

No apologies necessary. We are, as is so often the case, in substantive agreement.

If it is not too much of a bother, can you drop me a line at my university email? I have a favor to request, if you are willing . . .

Well wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 04, 2015 at 19:32:16 pm

Kevin-

Perhaps we have different understandings of the term "Sovereignty."

There can be social order where Individual liberty where its members can exist without Sovereignty.

"Ultimate authority" may be a sufficient condition, but it is not a necessary condition for an ordered society.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 04, 2015 at 19:37:51 pm

"social order **with** individual liberty . . ."

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 04, 2015 at 23:01:56 pm

We may well be talking past each other. Do you take goverment to be possible without soverignty? I am not sure I know what that would look like . . .

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2015 at 10:32:24 am

And just for the fun of it - follow link for an image showing respect for ancient names.

http://i1.wp.com/www.powerlineblog.com/ed-assets/2015/09/Renaming-copy.jpg

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gabe
on September 05, 2015 at 10:49:19 am

No, I don't think we are talking "past" one another.

I think it is possible we have different understandings of "Sovereignty."

Sovereignty has no limitations on its authority; the Queen in Parliament, e.g..

Governments (of various structures) are usually considered as States (embodiments of authority). They are subject to principles of limitation. Where they are not so subject, they are Sovereign. The same is true of any coalitions (oligarchies, e.g.) in social orders, and the conditions for tyranny.

If I have understood correctly, we HAD a Constitution that established limiting principles on the authority to be exercised by or through a federal government. While it replaced a form of Sovereignty, it was not to be Sovereign.

In the (implied?) consent to or passive acceptance of embodying authority of a Federal Administrative State, we find ourselves in search of limiting principles for the authority of that State and of its functionaires.

There is a concept to the effect that the limiting principles for individual conduct in human interactions are to be derived (evolved) from those interactions and not by the assignment or acceptance of authority, particularly Sovereignty, over them. There are countervailing concepts that the acceptance of authority, even unto Sovereignty, is necessary to provide limiting principles.

What is the choice?

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 05, 2015 at 11:05:45 am

[…] Reducing a Mountain to a Molehill: The Media, Executive Power and Denali […]

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Appointing An Originalist Supreme Court Justice - Freedom's Floodgates
on September 05, 2015 at 12:28:18 pm

Kevin:

Sent e-mail w/ contact info to your JMU address: Look forward to hearing from you.

BTW: Here is a link to an interesting piece by Bruce Frohnen at Nomocracy in Politics. If i recall correctly, Bruce's position would be consistent with yours re: the "conservatism" of the American Revolution and it's deep roots in English tradition.

Oh, and check the link I provided below on *renaming* - I could not resist.

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gabe
on September 05, 2015 at 14:20:06 pm

So, does Israel exist, or not? (On some maps it is lacking.)

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Rich D.
on September 06, 2015 at 11:02:17 am

Now that is a good illustration of renaming (apologizing) something into oblivion - then again, that may be what our leftist friends are after anyway!

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gabe
on September 07, 2015 at 11:45:29 am

The lengthy and literate discussion in the comments above misdirects my objection to Obama's Denali. "Can he do it" isn't my concern; "should he do it" is the heart of the issue.

He had the right to bathe the White House in LGBT colors after the Supreme Court verdict, but such blatant disrespect to those Americans who disagreed with the decision is the modus operandi of this administration. He can't win without performing an end-zone Happy Dance. Few were lying awake nights fretting about this mountain's nomenclature, yet once again Obama went out of his way to stick it to the white folk by subjugating Ohioans and American tradition (not to mention thousands of maps) to the Amerinds..

The guy keeps finding solutions to things that were never problems, in his monomaniacal focus to fundamentally transform America.

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karmakelli
on September 07, 2015 at 18:05:08 pm

'@ K

There was a song popular in my childhood (1920s);

"Painting The Clouds With Sunshine."

Smearing the nation with fecal dogma is not transformative and that is how all this will shortly be seen.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 07, 2015 at 20:14:58 pm

Richard:

Absotively luvv'd it!!!!!!

I am not quite as senior as you but i do recall the song as it was something my mother used to sing.

I doubt seriously whether she would hum it with the "new" lyrics you have aptly added.

Off the net for a while, seeya
and
take care
gabe

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gabe
on September 08, 2015 at 02:00:18 am

From the beginning of his term, uh wait a second even in his inaugural campaign, this CEO has been nothing but symbolic… On it’s face, the pacification of latent fence sitters was his initial motive for perma-bonding an issue. The president never attempted to wrangle the right. No there was a clear majority in Washington and his plan was stampede… [Mountains and molehills], maybe not so much, but definitely a modus that the electorate has grown weary of.

As to the rancorous partisan evolution of executive power in today’s politic, I can’t remember such acceleration in divisive politics, as I’ve seen in these past eight years. I remember well in 2000 one campaign was referred to as a “uniter.” For unforeseen reasons his national agenda landed in purgatory and has been there ever since.

Mr. Schweitzer may be correct; there is no place on earth for this President’s mean-street transformative prowess.

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BAC
on September 12, 2015 at 08:44:54 am

A critical fact thatr has been overlooked in this parsing, irrelevant discussion is that the Indonesian citizen Barry Sotero is a fraud,not even a U.S. citizen, sitting in the office of the President of the United States. Every Executive Action,he has taken, law he has signed, change he has made in the function of our government (e.g., Tszars) is illegal, should be reviewed on its own merits fror contunuation after Sotero leaves or (preferably)forceably removed from his rent-free housing on Pennsylvania Avenue, that he has illegally appropriated to house his make-believe extended family. Sotero is not your President. Plainly and simply, he is a criminal guilty of felony fraud, conspiracy, and high crimes worthy of a sentence of life imprisonmemnt.. Let him name his cell 'Denali' while we workt o reverse and un-name his other damages to the nation.

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Leslie Horn

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