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Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians Hardcover – July 5, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1107016606 ISBN-10: 1107016606 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 570 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1107016606
  • ISBN-13: 978-1107016606
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,893,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Sam Walker, one of the nation's most important historians of civil liberties, offers a magisterial and nuanced overview of the troubled relationships between Presidents and civil liberties from Wilson to Obama. This invaluable guide makes clear that no matter what party holds executive office, civil libertarians must look beyond the President for protection of, much less progress on, civil liberties."
--David Cole, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

"Please publish this exciting, important book as soon as possible! It is an engaging, fascinating, eye-opening, impressively researched and thoughtful discussion of such a vital topic. To the credit of the author, the book is scrupulously fair and non-partisan, taking special pains to dispel stereotypes, shibboleths and oversimplifications about particular Presidents and political parties. The initial exploration of the Obama Administration's record, putting it into the overall historical context, is very important -- critical but fair."
--Nadine Strossen, Former President, American Civil Liberties Union (1991-2008), Professor of Law, New York Law School

"Samuel Walker's book is enlightening in its particulars, but its overall theme is both unsurprising and disheartening. Civil liberties have never been politically popular. Most often, because these matters are often political 'wedge' issues, support for them brings political condemnation. Neither is it surprising that both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of ignoring our founding charter, but on occasion, have exhibited abundant courage in insisting on complying with, and even promoting, its provisions. Especially as we approach the 2012 election, Walker deserves great credit not only for exploring this vital issue, but for putting his own political beliefs aside to provide an impartial and important discourse on the importance (or lack thereof) of civil liberties in our political system throughout our country's history."
--Virginia Sloan, President, The Constitution Project

"Besides being well-researched, written, and documented, this book is a great read. It disabuses the reader of the commonly-held notion that some U.S. presidents were beyond reproach. Indeed, all of the presidents included here were a mass of contradictions. Whether under the guise of safeguarding national security, or protecting the country against communism or terrorism, all presidents have ordered or enabled serious violations of civil liberties. Using colorful anecdotes, Professor Walker has avoided writing a dry historical read, instead providing a solid and fascinating history."
--Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law and author of "Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law"

"Presidents and Civil Liberties is thoroughly informed, psychologically astute, and sensitive to American values, ideal and real. Avoiding the custom of selective and often politically-inspired citations to isolated incidents, Walker is pitilessly even-handed and nonpartisan in his evaluation of our most recent 17 presidents. This book is destined to be a classic in the fields of history, political science and civil liberties."
--Norman Dorsen, Stokes Professor of Law and Counselor to the President, New York University, Former President of the ACLU (1976-1991)

"This is a thoughtful indictment of 20th century US presidents as custodians of citizen civil liberties. Walker provides a highly detailed account of how presidents have either cut corners or outright savaged citizen civil liberties. The thoroughness of his effort here makes this a noteworthy addition to the political and legal history literature."
--R.E. Dewhirst, Northwest Missouri State University, reviewing for Choice Magazine

Book Description

This is the first book to examine the civil liberties records of American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. It examines the full range of civil liberties issues from First Amendment rights of freedom of speech to national security issues. The book argues that presidents have not protected or advanced civil liberties, and that several have perpetrated some of worst violations.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Michael R Sweney on May 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Liberals have their list of great presidents and conservatives, theirs, but no one on any position in the political spectrum could likwly anticipate some of the findings of this book. Certainly I didn't. Wilson, who I thought one of the great Democratic Party progressives, was in fact arguably more repressive than any Republican President and wanted only to "crush" those who disagreed with his leading America into WW I. We all know about Harding, or think we do, until we find that he was the first President and the last until Truman, to advocate for full political equality for African-Americans, going so far as to beard the lions of segregation in their own Birmingham Alabama den, with a civil rights speech that certainly ranks among the most courageous ever given by an American president. And on it goes, our heroes are found to have blemishes and our villains have unexpected laurels when it comes to civil rights and civil liberties. The generalization one can make is that when we elect a president, be our choice conservative or liberal, we won't know until later how they actually feel about our bill of rights protections...and this book shows that generally the record has not been good. Well-written, concise histories of each presidency starting with Wilson to the present are given and the 500+ pages of fine print, well annotated, is a joy to read either seriatum or simply dipping into various president's administrations. I would recommend, with this book, a companion piece of reading: Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to the Present, by Robert J Goldstein, a reworking and amended version of a doctoral dissertation. Goldstein's book further illuminates some of the incidents you will find interesting in Samuel Walker's excellent book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A comprehensive but readable history of how 20th century Presidents handled civil liberties. Both the good and negative aspects of the actions and attitudes of all Presidents are examined fairly. This is the only book that deals with the subject, and it does so excellently.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Glenn Corey on January 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover
In a book that evaluates the record of presidents on civil liberties over the past 100 years, one might expect that a self-described liberal democrat would be harsher on conservative republicans than on democrats. But that is not the case with this book. In the introduction, where the author acknowledges his political leanings as being those of a liberal democrat, he adds parenthetically "but mostly a disappointed one." He also claims that his personal political views do not prevent him from making an objective assessment of the presidents' civil liberties record, and he makes good on that claim. Over the course of 500+ pages, the author shows that neither party had a monopoly of violating civil liberties and neither could claim to have an overall stellar record. There were presidents who stand out on particular episodes, such as LBJ, but who trampled on civil liberties in other situations. All in all, it seems that liberal or Democrat presidents have a better overall record, though there were some egregious violators of civil liberties, ones that hardcore liberals won't want to believe (like FDR and Wilson).

All in all, the author's appraisal of the presidents covered was fair, though I was disappointed that he didn't consider certain economic policies in light of civil liberties. For example, minimum wage laws, from one vantage point, can be seen as a violation of the freedom of association. If I am willing to work for $5 an hour and I can find someone who is willing to pay me that amount, why should the government have the right to tell me I can't? Minimum wages essentially outlaw jobs below the minimum. Their connection to civil liberties is not explored at all in this book, though.

The book also could have used a good copy editor.
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More About the Author

Samuel Walker is Isaacson Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where he has taught for over 30 years. He is the author of 13 books on policing, criminal justice history and policy, and civil liberties. Current research involves police accountability, focusing primarily on citizen oversight of the police and police Early Warning (EW) systems. Professor Walker currently serves on the Panel on Policing of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians
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