It was an unexpected token of student gratitude.
William & Mary President Taylor Reveley – speaking as the first Fellow of the College’s International Relations Club – turned beet red when presented with a colorful bouquet of flowers on Oct. 13 after he presented a special lecture on a topic close to his heart.
“Good heavens, no one’s ever given me flowers before,” he exclaimed to an audience of about 400 inside the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. “This is a first!”
The same audience accorded the president a warm ovation as he eschewed the steps and bound onto the stage to begin speaking on “War Powers of the President and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
Reveley is uniquely qualified to address the topic. He began studying it while in law school at Virginia. He wrote one of the first major law review articles on it in modern times when he was first out of law school.
He is the author of one of the leading books on the subject: “War Powers of the President and Congress – Who Holds the Arrows and Olive Branch?”
In 2008, he served as co-director of the National War Powers Commission, a bipartisan group headed by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher. It was convened by the Miller Center at UVA to try and find a practical way of getting the president and congressional leaders to consult meaningfully about war and peace decisions as they are being made, and to encourage Congress to make its views known more effectively.
After 13 months of work, the commission drafted a War Powers Consultation Act, which remains a work in progress when it comes to getting implementing legislation.
“Hope remains,” said Reveley.
But the evening was about much more than who should or shouldn’t be able to take America into foreign conflicts. In his typically droll, self-deprecating manner, Reveley offered his audience a biographical roadmap of his life.
He explained that he became “hooked” on international relations watching the events of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union, citizens facing off against Russian tanks with little more than their bare fists.
“I decided when I grew up that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in international relations, become part of the foreign service, and if all went well, in due course become an ambassador to one nifty country or another,” he admitted.
Then John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1962, an event Reveley said had a profound effect on him, leaving him to decide he wanted to go into politics.
“And if all went well, to seize ultimate power in due course,” he joked, drawing applause. “If you’re going to go into politics, you might as well want to be president.”
Entering politics meant attending law school, he was told. Reluctant at first, it grew on him. After a clerkship with Justice Brennan at the U.S. Supreme Court, he almost went into law school teaching.
“But I decided if I was going to teach law, I ought to find out what lawyers actually do,” he said. “So I went to a big law firm and 28 years later, I was still there, totally comfortable and prepared to stay there until I shuffled off my mortal coil.”
Then William & Mary called, first as dean of the Law School then as interim president, now no longer interim.
On topic, Reveley said that the debate over war powers inspires disagreement among legal scholars “often of theological intensity, of a passion that leads one to believe that were we living in a different era, people either of the Presidential or Congressional school would burn those who disagreed with them at the stake in order to save their eternal souls.”
Scholars have resolved almost nothing. Neither have federal courts. The Supreme Court prefers “to stay out of the way as the two political branches bump and grind against each other.”
Any conflict – and America has used armed force abroad more than 200 times since 1789 -- can be broken into three phases: Initiation. Conduct. Termination. All can lead to confrontation between the White House and Congress over who’s in charge; that is, when Congress is of a mind to scrap. As often as not, Reveley said, they prefer to let the president act on his own initiative and then assail him if the conflict lasts too long, goes badly or proves to be too costly.
In modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought an undeclared secret naval war against Germany in the North Atlantic before the U.S. entered World War II. Harry Truman fought the Korean War with no specific Congressional authorization. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution long after presidents, Lyndon Johnson in particular, had involved Americans in Vietnam. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all used force abroad in relatively small ways without prior Congressional approval.
But Congress demanded that both presidents Bush get prior approval before the two Iraq Wars and that Bush II get prior approval of the struggle in Afghanistan. Both did, though they argued that they didn’t need it.
Reveley said one thing is clear: unless Congress keeps appropriating funds for any American use of force abroad and the President wants to keep fighting, the effort can not be sustained.
On that note, it became time to break out the flowers.