Former U.S. Attorney General William Pelham Barr came to Thomas Aquinas College, California, last week to give the 2024 Presidents’ Day lecture.

“I am delighted to be here, because this institution, to me, is on the front line of what we have to do to restore the foundation upon which our system rests, both in the City of God and in the City of Man.”

In his hourlong address, “Today’s Challenges to Our Constitution,” Mr. Barr spoke to some 500 students, faculty, staff, and members of the Board of Governors about “the steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority” in the post-Watergate era, a result of “the encroachments of the other branches.” These incursions, he lamented, have occurred under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, undermining the founders’ vision of a robust presidency to unite and lead the republic.

“The framers felt that they needed a strong executive that was able to act with energy, consistency, decisiveness, and they came to feel that had to be provided by an individual, in solitary hands, who was free and separate from the divided counsels of the legislative branch,” said Mr. Barr. “So, they vested all executive power in one official: the President of the United States.”

Upon arriving on campus, Mr. Barr visited with students and members of the Board of Governors, then toured Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel and St. Bernardine of Siena Library before attending a formal All-College Dinner, held in his honor, in St. Joseph Commons. At his ensuing lecture in St. Cecilia Hall’s Fritz B. Burns Auditorium, he discussed the differing conceptions of executive authority, dating back to 17th century England, that shaped the American founders’ conception of the separation of powers. Deviating from this conception, he argued, reflects a political ruthlessness that prioritizes expedience over the country’s constitutional order.

“What accounts for the anything-goes, no-holds-barred mentality which you’re seeing in our politics?” Mr. Barr asked. “Up until, I think, about 30 years ago or so, both political parties were concerned about preserving the overall integrity and function of our political system. … They were hesitant to take action without asking the key question, which is, ‘What happens when the shoe is on the other foot? If the other side were to do this, what would happen to the system? And how will this affect it over the long run?’ We’re seeing less and less of this kind of prudence; it’s all about immediate political usefulness. We’ll do anything to prevail today regardless of the cost tomorrow.”

From Thomas Aquinas College