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?