Sisyphus in Washington
Time, September 3, 1973

see also


THE LIVING PRESIDENCY by Emmet John Hughes 377 pp.; Coward, McCann & Geoghegan; $10.50.

LONG BEFORE THE REVISIONIST historians appeared, way back during the cold war, when the U.S. still believed that freedom to spend and freedom to vote were signs of an inviolable national excellence, Emmet John Hughes wrote a book called America the Vincible. A former journalist, Hughes had served as an adviser to President Eisenhower. Self-righteousness, self-delusion, lack of humor and inflexibility, he felt, were dividing the world and leading U.S. policy to disaster.

In the ensuing ten years or so, many of his predictions proved painfully accurate. Now, with remarkable timing, he offers a historic analysis of the peculiarly American institution that is being blamed for most of what has gone wrong. In rage and despair over Viet Nam and Watergate, Americans have been urging reform of the presidential power, including everything from a longer term of office to abolition of the Chief Executive in favor of a six-man directorate.

Hughes himself does get round to suggesting some modest reforms. Among them: restoring the State Department's declining power to shape foreign policy, and ensuring that men drafted under Selective Service be used only with the express approval of Congress. His real concern, however, is how men and moments in history have shaped presidential power. The book is not intended to replace classic studies like Clinton Rossiter's The American Presidency (1960) or match George Reedy's scary vision of Lyndon Johnson as a latter-day George III, The Twilight of the Presidency (1970). Instead, briefly, gracefully, shrewdly, with anecdote and flashes of insight, Hughes invites humane and practical reflection upon the most mysterious and important public office in the world. When the reader is through, he not only knows a good deal about the powers and restraints of the presidency and the peculiar blend of qualities necessary for leadership, he thinks of all U.S. Presidents as contemporaries.

Hughes now teaches political science at Rutgers, and the early sections of The Living Presidency read like notes for a course on the Constitution. There are the 55 delegates sweating away in Philadelphia in 1787, torn between fear of tyranny and the need for strong leadership. They hated the memory of monarchy and feared Executive power, but were encouraged by the person and probity of George Washington. They urged that the President be appointed by Congress. But there was also talk of calling the President "His Highness." Finally, institutionalizing indecision, the tired delegates left the presidential powers largely unspecified. The Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of Government, as Hughes puts it, were given a mandate to "fight fairly, openly—and forever."

So they did, as everyone knows. But the Supreme Court more and more rarely invoked the Constitution to restrain the President. Congress held the purse strings, but, especially in times of war and crisis, it was slow to deny a strong President his way, and was often ineffective even when it tried. In 1907, for instance, the Senate informed Teddy Roosevelt that he would get no cash to send the Great White Fleet round the world. Teddy said he would send it off anyway, gleefully remarking that he already had enough money to get the squadron as far as the Pacific. If the Senators wanted to be blamed for keeping 16 U.S. battleships out there forever, that was their lookout.

Despite this growth of presidential power, Hughes' book resounds to a chorus of presidential groans and whines. To a man, the Presidents feel frustrated by Congress (even Washington, who once went to the Senate to lobby for a treaty, and left saying "He'd be damned if he ever went there again"). They also feel bedeviled by Chief Justices—beginning with what Thomas Jefferson called the "twistifications" of John Marshall. Unappreciated by the people. Lonely. Unable to trust anybody. James Polk, a modest man who is regarded as a great President (he reduced the tariff and handled the annexation of California in 1848), spoke for all Presidents, and the source of Polk's pique was simple. "I am," he wrote in his diaries, "the hardest-working man in the country."

Considering the presidential prerogatives and perquisites, a reader is likely to find himself saying "Me-thinks the President doth protest too much." But by inference, Hughes' book makes one thing perfectly clear: No man should be elected to the office who comes to it in advance, as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did, with a built-in case of mild paranoia or a galloping Sisyphus complex.

Hughes does not mention Watergate. Late in his book, with great precision and restraint, he analyzes the follies of Nixon and Johnson over Viet Nam. Among them: misinterpretation of history, extravagance of purpose, blindness to cost, arrogance, deceit, disdain for Congress and the twisting of patriotism — this last, Richard Nixon's appalling variation on the McCarthy era's theme that any disagreement with U.S. policy amounts to some kind of treason. Hughes points out, though, that the presidential methods employed to get embroiled in the war were almost exactly like the methods used by earlier Presidents — among them Lincoln, F.D.R. and Harry Truman — to lead the country into what later seemed to be heroic and perhaps necessary confrontations.

Despite such dangers — especially in the area of foreign policy — Hughes reassuringly ends by arguing that the presidency, as Montesquieu felt governments should be, has been slowly tailored by a succession of men to suit the people, the country and the times. Any new, radical limitation of presidential power would weaken the country —and likely prove ineffective. There is probably in the long run no better, safe way than we now have to protect ourselves from totally misguided or unscrupulous Chief Executives.

Except not electing them in the first place. The book includes appendices by twelve ex-presidential advisers. They and Hughes devote some thought to the qualities—most of them predictable—necessary for presidential success. The probity of a Washington. A sense of history and of humor. A sense of timing and drama. The patience of a Lincoln waiting and waiting to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The ability to admit mistakes.

At the heart of the matter, and what concerns Hughes most, is the shifting, mysterious relationship between the President and the people—as he sees it, an almost mystical marriage that requires reconciliation again and again, from both sides. Presidential popularity is only part of it, and that, like much else concerning the presidency, seems equivocal, ambiguous, changeable. Two of the worst Presidents, Harding and Grant, were enveloped in popular respect and affection. Presidents should avoid being identified—as Wilson was about the League of Nations—with long, unyielding policy struggles. Noting that John F. Kennedy's popularity jumped 10% after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Hughes remarks with a flash of irony that Presidents "should make major mistakes only with dazzling speed."

"Bully Pulpit." When aides told Teddy Roosevelt to worry more about his popularity, he snorted: "I am not a college freshman." But he looked upon the presidency as a "bully pulpit" from which to stir people up and provide moral leadership. With the coming of television, T.R.'s bully pulpit has been magnified a million times over. Still, Hughes points out, of the two Presidents who have had this great tool for focusing great issues and meeting constituents, one retired from office on a wave of massive public distrust. The other may do so too. "The loss of the people's trust," Hughes concludes, "is the one mortal disaster from which there can be no real recovery."

That is surely the truth. Hughes is right, if obvious, in reminding us again that "the most important ingredient" of any presidency is "the moral and intellectual baggage that each new President" brings to the office. But it is not overwhelmingly helpful to say so without at least reflecting on whether or not men of quality will go on being elected. Hughes suggests that presidential fortunes run in historical cycles, and we may now be due for some latter-day Polks and Roosevelts, or even Lincolns. But a President, besides shaping his country, is also a reflection of it. Just possibly, in the age of TV and consumerism, it was no coincidence that the U.S. has lately elected two Presidents who clearly believed that it does not matter what you say so long as the sell seems to work.

If that is a gloomy thought, it is nothing like as depressing as the pre-Watergate notion put forward in the appendix by J.F.K.'s aide and speech writer Ted Sorensen. The best training ground for future Presidents, Sorensen suggests, would be work on the White House staff. Provided, he adds, "it produced a cross between a Kissinger and an Ehrlichman."