The Oval Fortress
AMERICA HAS A BAD ACHE in its body politic. Nobody is sure whether the cause will fade away, linger on for three years, be drastically removed by a blunt legal instrument called impeachment, or yield to the less painful therapy of resignation. In the midst of such uncertainties, a measure of literary relief and historical perspective may be taken from the latest presidency book, this one by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
The author, it should be admitted, has been a movie reviewer for Vogue, served as a knight in Jack Kennedy's Camelot and is now a proud member of the Nixon White House's hate list. He once wrote an article explaining how George McGovern would win the 1972 election. But he is also a distinguished Harvard historian who has won two Pulitzer prizes for books on the presidency (The Age of Jackson , 1946; John F. Kennedy, A Thousand Days , 1966).
Schlesinger does not take Richard Nixon's usurpations of congressional power lightly. His account of how the Nixon White House systematically used intimidation, impoundment of funds, secrecy and thin, though sinister invocations of "national security" and presidential prerogative to change the balance of constitutional power in the U.S. is the most deadly and lucid yet seen in print. At the end of the book Schlesinger urges impeachment.
But Schlesinger has an Olympian gift for writing about the present as if it were history. Impeachment or not, he seems to take for granted that Richard Nixon's threat to the presidency is at an end. It is this possibly premature sense of post-Nixonian perspective that allows him to look back on the Viet Nam War as a blessing in disguise. Americans have long wondered whether the democratic consultations and the separation of powers required by the Constitution were compatible with modern world power. Since World War II, most of us (including Schlesinger, as he admits) concluded that only the Chief Executive, armed with superior expertise, and an enormous capability of free and swift decision, could deal with international crises. All that, Schlesinger writes, "went down in flames in Viet Nam." We are now free to try again the old sloppy democratic way of common sense and congressional consultation.
It may be so. The author, at any rate, reaches this vantage point only after a brilliant forced march through history. The legal powers of the President he sees as being continually modified by a conception of John Locke—never made explicit by the Constitution, but very much in the minds of the founding fathers —that a democratic leader in a genuine emergency has the prerogative to act according to his discretion for the public good, provided he checks it out with the people and the legislature afterward. Through a succession of skirmishes and undeclared wars, and various employments of Executive agreements (which tended to trim congressional treaty-making powers), Schlesinger feels that the interplay between President and Congress remained fairly reasonable for more than 150 years.
Schlesinger naturally notes the rise of the New Deal, as well as the finaglings of Franklin Roosevelt before World War II. Unlike some historians, he feels, however, that F.D.R., while extending his power dramatically to meet a genuine threat, maintained a satisfactory consultation with Congress. It is the cold war, rather, that Schlesinger clearly regards as the breeding ground of what he calls the Imperial Presidency: that is, an Executive power that fed upon international commitments and a continuous real or imagined danger from sinuous enemies, who could be combatted only by the President with a vast military budget and a network of spies. Taking a hint from Senator Vandenberg of Michigan, Harry Truman, one of Schlesinger's villains, "scared hell out of the American people." Like the Presidents who followed him, he freely distorted U.S. history to prove he had an inherent, unchallengeable constitutional power to act at home and abroad, in the interest of national security. As the cold war continued Presidents cried wolf more and more. There came a time when President Nixon could speak of the publishing of the Pentagon papers as an all but mortal threat to the Republic.
Schlesinger depicts Richard Nixon's presidency as both a natural culmination of the Imperial Presidency, and an unfortunate historic coincidence. He calls it the Revolutionary Presidency and describes it as an attempt to build up the President's power to act unchallenged abroad, and transfer this power to domestic affairs. Its aim, Schlesinger asserts, was nothing less than the creation in the U.S. of a plebiscitary democracy (like that of De Gaulle in France) with the Congress a rubber stamp, and the people ratifying the President's wishes every four years.
Congress had been lazy, acquiescent, timid and parochial for years. Nixon regarded himself as the tribune of the Silent Majority. More than that, he had a natural dislike of the give-and-take of press conferences and consultations with Congress or committees, and he tried to shape the presidency to his own needs. Watergate, Schlesinger says, was merely the result of an extraordinary accretion of power and secrecy that was bound to explode somewhere.
It is possible to argue the point. (Did Nixon, after all, have a plan, or was he simply doing what came naturally?) Much of the material, moreover as Schlesinger notes, is at least a thrice-told tale. (It is hard these days to say anything entirely new about the presidency.) But no one has followed the development of presidential power, from Truman till the present, in such authoritative detail.
When he turns to post-Watergate Government, Schlesinger reasserts the great need for a return to a congressional comity with the presidency—rather than any sweeping constitutional change. This is a handsome view for Schlesinger to take. He was for years what he calls a "high-flying presidential man," (and one might say justly) regarding the Congress as an assemblage of stumbling blocks to social progress, and cheering any presidential short cut to enlightened policy. He is all the more convincing when he asserts that we must now care far more about the institutions that protect democracy than about getting things done. One wonders if he is right in predicting a fruitful period of congressional power.
To ensure a dialogue between Congress and the White House, Schlesinger discusses (without endorsing) Cabinet members' being made part of, or being drawn from the House of Representatives—a plan adapted from the House of Commons. He urges a congressional restraint of the President's war-making capacity which, unlike the War Powers Bill just passed over the President's veto, grants no new short-term powers. Instead it would require the President to report to Congress immediately with full information and justification when he sends forces into combat. Anytime thereafter a congressional resolution could stop the fighting.
Official Secrecy. Schlesinger's most important recommendation comes in a chapter called "The Security System." It is a heartfelt plea to end the policy of official secrecy and to establish priorities for declassifying the mountains of unjustifiably "secret" material now sitting in Washington.
The classification system grew out of World War II and the cold war fear of espionage. The incredible expansion of information protected by "Executive privilege" grew out of Truman's and Eisenhower's then much admired refusal to yield selected personnel files of Government employees to Senator Joe McCarthy. In just 20 years that modest Executive denial of information has been escalated by Richard Nixon to include all the deliberations and documents and conversations of 2.5 million Government employees. Such Executive control of information, Schlesinger makes clear, not only blocks judicial inquiry but leads to the debilitating alibi "Only the President knows, so only he can decide what to do." It grants the President the power to lie, to cover up the truth and ultimately the power to destroy the public's belief in anything that is said by the Government. The book's recapitulation of Richard Nixon's pursuit of secrecy, his repeated invocations of danger to the national security, and attempts to make it an automatic crime to publish "secret" material in the U.S. —whatever the material happens to be —is chilling indeed. Anyone who reads it is likely to agree with an archetypal democratic prescription, offered by Woodrow Wilson in 1884: "Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere . . . Light that will open to view the innermost chambers of Government."