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Richard Nixon and the Imperial Presidency
Russell D. Renka
Southeast Missouri State University
for UI320--The Modern Presidency
March 26, 2010
° Introduction: A Disturbed Man
° Changed Ground Rules
° Nixon the Moderate
° The Imperial Presidency Thesis
° Presidential War Powers
° The Rhetoric of War
° The Domestic Side of Imperialism
° Governing Alone: The Administrative Presidency
I. Introduction: A Disturbed Man Top; Next Down
Of all modern men and women in American politics, Richard Nixon remains the most difficult to properly judge. He alone was forced to resign office for sake of avoiding certain Senate conviction on several impeachable offenses. On one hand he demonstrated political mastery in several venues, including statecraft among the great powers. On the other, he failed to honor and respect the constitutional limitations inherent even on wartime presidents in the American system. He rose from obscurity to election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946, the Senate in 1950, inauguration as Vice-President having just turned age 40 in January 1953, to a near-miss of the presidency in 1960, to narrow victory and redemption in 1968 and a record landslide reelection in 1972--and on to Watergate and resignation on 9 August 1974. He then rebounded from deep depression and ill health to write nine books, become again recognized as a world authority on foreign affairs, and serve as informal counsel on Russia to Bill Clinton in 1993 before his death at age 81 in 1994. The 1996 Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole publicly paid homage at Nixon’s Yorba Linda gravesite on the eve of the California primary, acknowledging Nixon’s influence as a mentor and model of someone who rose from obscure beginnings through hard work and drive to reach the top. Yet a November 1993 Gallup Poll retrospective public opinion survey on seven former presidents (Kennedy through Bush) whose average approval rating was 51 percent, had Richard Nixon at the bottom with 35 percent approval (Newport 1993, 2).
Ambivalence about Nixon is reflected in a 1999 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership among 58 historians (American Presidents Life Portraits - Historian Survey Results). All 42 presidents were rated on 10 categories. Nixon's scores ranged from 75.9 and rank-ordering of 8th on international relations, down to 24.8 and 40th for moral authority. Some who recall Watergate doubtless note that 40th and wonder that two could rank lower than Nixon. Nixon himself spent his twenty years of life out of office campaigning for full historical restoration, and he was confident that it would succeed by year 2000 (Small 1999, xiii). He fell short, because alongside the many paeans to Nixon's capable foreign policy are the constant reminders that Watergate was a special event, not like the offenses of any other modern American president. If anyone doubts that, do a year 2010 Google Images search with "richard nixon cartoons - Google Search" and examine the entire first ten panels (Results 0 to 200), or randomly peruse the host of 148,000 such images. They are replete with memorably harsh images of Nixon's criminal involvement with Watergate and with excesses in use of presidential power. There is no escaping it.
This same man also opened the door to China and reduced the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. He brought large-scale American military involvement in Vietnam to an eventual end. He largely accommodated the drastic social changes in American society of the early 1970s.
As for the office he held, Richard Nixon define numerous elements of the modern presidency for good or ill. Always he did so with a peculiar mix of contradictory elements. He is famous for his televised failure to prepare for the visual effect of his first 1960 campaign debate with Kennedy, yet he repeatedly and sometimes brilliantly used television to define himself and his convictions to the American people. He was not a manager, yet his administration set the standard for a tightly run White House with an overbearing Chief of Staff. His ‘southern strategy’ of appeal to white adversaries of Johnson's civil rights policy began the white South’s move to its now-habitual alignment with Republican chief executives, yet he undertook so much administrative promotion of school desegregation that Nixon presidential author Joan Hoff says this domestic achievement exceeds the better-recognized foreign portfolio in long term impact (Hoff 1994, 77-114). He preached a war-healing "bring us together" 1968 campaign theme and defused antiwar demonstrations by terminating the military draft in 1969, yet in May 1970 he personally touched off outrage with a rambling statement calling student antiwar demonstrators "those bums" on the immediate eve of National Guard shooting of four student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio (Payne 1997, May 4 Archive - The Era). He rhetorically attacked antipoverty and school bussing policy inherited from the Johnson Administration yet readily accommodated a liberal-dominated congressional harvest including creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, extension of the Voting Rights Act, consumer legislation, and congressional passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. All of these became later targets of the emergent conservatives who backed Ronald Reagan’s presidential election in 1980 and the GOP congressional majority in 1994. Nixon was in practice a moderate centrist policymaker, but he pioneered a sharply combative rhetoric of populist-sounding, anti-elite and anti-media conservatism which survived the man and flourishes today. He was personally cynical and largely non-ideological, yet he sharpened the ideological division of Americans on cultural issues so deftly that Patrick Buchanan could work happily as a Nixon speech writer.
This is not an easy figure to fathom. Richard Nixon personally raised the subject of psychohistory into prominence among presidential students and readership. James David Barber published his first edition of The Presidential Character in the fortuitous year of 1972, forecasting that Richard Nixon was a self-destructive man, like Johnson before him, and that he would confront his inevitable next crisis with a rigid and paranoid stance. In fact, Nixon had already done that by June of 1972, as the nation was to learn in 1974 on the Nixon tape transcripts (Kutler 1992; Kutler 1996; Small 1999, ch. 10). The disturbing sight of Richard Nixon's obsessions with White House leaks, with his enemies list, with getting his foes back, with the Kennedys, with writing his own history emphasizing foreign statecraft and entirely dismissing Watergate--we had seen glimpses of this in Johnson, and now got a redoubled dose with the Nixon who revealed a disturbed state of mind during Watergate. Who other than Nixon would have an Enemies List? Little wonder that biographical works on Nixon feature a harrowed face of this man (Kutler 1996; Volkan et al. 1997; Small 1999).
Most disturbing of all Nixon facets is the sheer astuteness of the man in assessing those around him. Like Johnson, an almost equally cynical and suspicious man, Nixon had an exceptional capacity for weighing others to find their real motives, weak points, and evasions. The presidency is pre-eminently a post for those who understand power and its uses. Men like Johnson and Nixon, who spend their adult lives in singular pursuit of power, have a great advantage both in seeking and in using this office. After passing by the many specious "lessons of Watergate"--that the system of checks and balances supposedly works well, for example, even as it took sixteen months from Watergate revelations for the nation to change its chief executive--there remains the kernel problem of a brilliant, power-hungry politician with presidential levers in hand during a time of failing foreign policy and domestic disturbance. Both men had obsessions with secrecy and with keeping inside information for their own strategically advantageous uses. There is little reason to doubt that this kind of problem will recur with the American presidency sometime in the future.
Richard Nixon was indeed a disturbed human being with unusual and highly distinctive troubles. First I show that the ground rules for conducting the presidency underwent important changes in Nixon's 1968 and its aftermath. These have had important consequences for the Nixon Administration and every presidential administration since. Then I look at the reputation Nixon has acquired as a moderate rather than conservative on national policy. Next comes Schlesinger’s (1974) ‘imperial presidency’ thesis to show that its central component was the wartime presidency, but that it also had an important domestic policy component in the Nixon era. It also had a rhetorical side in Richard Nixon’s capable hands, one coincident with a centralization of administrative powers in the White House proper. I attend here largely to Nixon’s first and only full term of 1969-1972, reserving for later the issue of Watergate and termination of the second Nixon term.
II. Changed Ground Rules Top
Richard Nixon basically selected his own successor. Presidents now routinely name their own running mates, taking this power away from the national nominating convention of their respective parties. In addition, vice-presidents have assumed elevated status as likely successors to their patrons. This was new to the modern presidency. Election year 1968 was the beginning point for this.
Everything political was changing at the time Richard Nixon campaigned for and won the presidency in 1968. The most fundamental of these came in the other party. The war-divided Democrats nominated Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, during the hot summer in Chicago with Mayor Richard Daley’s police guarding the doors to the convention hall (Simon, The Election of 1968; 1968 Democratic National Convention - Wikipedia; Blobaum 2000, Chicago '68: An Introduction). Humphrey won none of the 15 Democratic state party primaries held that year, ceding nearly all those to Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy. Nonetheless he was nominated on the strength of President Johnson’s endorsement and the traditional un-pledged delegations from states ruled by caucus politics. The antagonism and uproar during the 1968 Convention in Chicago was based on this. It virtually destroyed the legitimacy of the old way of picking presidential nominees.
Humphrey is the last major-party candidate to win without primaries. The Democrats’ severe loss of legitimacy produced a surge of reformist work on the way the parties select their candidates. The McGovern-Fraser Commission of 1970 changed the system from 1972 onward, first by encouraging the proliferation of direct presidential primaries, and second by promoting the change from traditional un-pledged delegates (who came to the convention without formal prior commitment to one candidate) to candidate-pledged ones. States adopted these provisions and applied them to both parties. Presidential primaries flourished as states competed to get into the presidential selection market. Media and candidate attention concentrated on the earliest states. A pre-New Hampshire ‘invisible primary’ of candidate wooing of consultants and money-lenders took hold. Party leaders of the type who vetted Harry Truman for Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 were diminished. Candidate-centered politics by 1972 rapidly replaced party-centered selection of party nominees (American Presidency Project - Percent of Convention Delegates Selected through Primary Elections - Democratic | Republican). Every major party presidential nominee since 1968 has been known long before the midsummer convention.
The Republicans followed the Democrats in moving to reliance on primaries. Richard Nixon won the 1968 Republican nomination the old-fashioned way, with 250,000 miles travel per year in 1964 and 1966 on behalf of hundreds of Republican candidates. He entered enough 1968 presidential primaries to prove to the Convention that he could outpoll rivals Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. He went to his Convention already assured of nomination. Fewer than 30 percent of Republican delegates were chosen this way, but Nixon had the great majority from the 16 states and D.C. that conducted primaries (Presidential Elections Since 1789, pp. 42-45; American Presidency Project Inaugurals Chart - Percent of Convention Delegates Selected through Primary Elections - Republican).
Nixon at the Convention made a show of consulting party principals on the vice-presidential running mate, but in the end personally decided upon the obscure Governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, to the great surprise of most delegates and observers. "Spiro who?" became the watchword for this, but Nixon’s choice it clearly was, and the Convention accordingly ratified it. Agnew was to prove a disastrous choice for Vice President. But how will a nominating convention defy the presidential nominee’s own choice for running mate when the conventioneers already knew their nominee before arriving at the hall? They knew little about Nixon's choice save that he did the choosing. They could not revolt in public and contravene that.
Nominee Richard Nixon helped set the enduring precedent that the presidential nominee name the running mate. Takeover by primaries completed it. Nixon did so twice, naming Agnew in 1968 and retaining him over many misgivings in 1972. The Convention went along both times (The Political Graveyard 1968 Republican National Convention & 1972 Republican National Convention; Wikipedia - 1968 Republican National Convention & 1972 Republican National Convention; Harper's Magazine - Republican National Convention (1968 Miami Beach, Fla.)).
After Agnew’s 10 October 1973 resignation, Richard Nixon used the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to nominate former House Minority Leader Gerald Ford for confirmation by simple majority vote by the House and Senate (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library - Vice President; ). The choice was a strategically wise one for a president who from October 1973 could anticipate facing impeachment proceedings, yet he still faced extensive House and Senate hearings amidst Watergate charges against Nixon (A Rush to Judgment on Gerald Ford - TIME). Such charges are brought in the House of Representatives, and the respected Ford proved an effective and vocal defender of the President during his brief Vice-Presidency. But once Ford became President, he issued a pardon of former President Nixon on 8 September 1974. The outcry from the public and political elite was considerable. Some of the dissents centered on Ford's dependence upon Nixon for acquiring his office. That had become an obvious problem associated with a new system for producing a presidential ticket.
The traditional separation and independence of president from vice-president had disappeared. Since 1972 Vice-Presidents have become serious fulltime partners with Presidents in running the executive branch. There are considerable benefits to this, considering the ill preparation Harry S. Truman had for assuming the presidency upon the death of Roosevelt on 12 April 1945. Vice-Presidents are no longer shunted off to attend funerals or cut ribbons the President chooses to avoid, and instead are included in the top counsels for setting daily and long-term Administration policy. This is true even though Nixon quickly discovered that Agnew was largely a liability from a policymaking standpoint, and his influence with White House counsels became largely superfluous except for his reading of law and order sentiments together with helping shift emphasis away from federal imposition of domestic policy toward a Republican emphasis upon state autonomy.
III. Nixon the Moderate Top
Richard Nixon always called himself a conservative, and he often attributed his legendary poor relations with the national media to antagonism between their liberalism and his rightward convictions. That rhetorical claim--like some many others from Nixon--is exaggerated. He was a Republican, but no consistent ideological conservative. Ronald Reagan was a conservative. Barry Goldwater was a conservative. Richard Nixon was a pragmatist. He affiliation is closer by far to Eisenhower than to Reagan or Goldwater.
He was also a confrontationist and risk-taker whose political history was closely identified with the virulent anti-communism of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He won his way onto the Eisenhower ticket in 1952 largely through his successful personal enterprise at establishing a criminal conviction of accused communist Alger Hiss, once a highly ranked State Department official and a symbol of New Deal politics. He survived accusations of personal profiteering during the 1952 presidential campaign by defending himself on television in the celebrated (and reviled) Checkers Speech. He spent his adult political life after 1948 insisting that he was a special target of the national media and left-wing Democrats for having taken down Hiss.
Nixon critics are often surprised at the widespread professional judgments labeling Nixon a domestic policy moderate, which he was. What's more, his record was also largely moderate on foreign policy. There is a large distinction between Nixonian rhetoric, including its surrogate hard-line side issued by Vice-President Spiro Agnew, and his practical and non-ideological policy side.
Nixon was unquestionably a Cold Warrior. That included its homeward aspect of internal security against communism. He came of political age in early Cold War years after taking office in 1947. An internationalist from the start, Nixon also believed that conduct of foreign policy was necessarily presidential. That was consistent with other postwar new office holders returned from the war--in both parties. Nixon was not impressed with congressional Republican isolationists. And like Eisenhower and Kennedy, Nixon saw presidential history being made in the foreign realm. Nixon’s whole adult postwar experience was grounded in Cold War politics. He actively defended the Truman Doctrine to his California district in 1947 and 1948. He respected the creation of European defenses against the Soviets, and wanted NATO to retain a strong nuclear deterrent against Soviet adventurism.
On domestic policy, Nixon was an eastern Republican. On New Deal and Great Society domestic policy, he excoriated it for excessive bureaucracy and cost, but did not oppose it across the board Goldwater-style out of ideological principle. But he campaigned intensively from 1965 onward that Johnson’s emergent Great Society cost too much, regulated too extensively, promised more than it could ever deliver, benefited the poor at expense of the working middle class, and produced racial tensions that could not be easily resolved.
Nixon as president inherited ascendant liberalism with northern Democrats emerging as the dominant faction in House and Senate. The 1965-to-1978 period was a major liberal activist era in Congress (Davidson 1996, 31-33). The Democratic-led Congresses of Nixon’s presidential period did not stop producing liberal domestic policy when Lyndon Johnson departed in January 1969. They instead organized themselves internally to round up votes, track legislation, mobilize interests, and produce bills without direct White House assistance. Their list of important measures is lengthy, including civil rights (extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1970), aid to education (including Title IX in 1972), environmentalism (National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, Clean Air Act of 1970), consumerism, urban aid (addition of mass transit subsidies to highway construction enactments), workplace rules (Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970), public welfare (expansion of food stamps, unemployment compensation, supplemental security income additions to social security), Social Security (a 20 percent benefit hike plus linkage to automatic cost-of-living increases, in 1972), and presidential powers to intervene in economic management (wage and price control authority). Congressional scholar David Mayhew contends that party division of president and Congress had no depressing effect at all on the output of major domestic policy, and this Nixon period is at the core of his claim (Mayhew 1991). Mixed in with this were conservative-inspired law and order policies and some stirrings of remittance of federal power back to states. These last were actively supported by the Nixon Administration. Nixon also used some of the powers Congress conferred upon him, most notoriously the ill-fated effort in 1971 to impose wage and price controls to curb currency inflation. But for the greatest part, the Nixon White House was more observer than driving force behind domestic policy creation in this liberal era.
Nixon's domestic policy position-taking in State of the Union speeches shows his overall stances to be quite non-ideological. He made frequent policy position reversals, signifying Nixon's lack of authentic conviction and ideological assurance of the direction the nation should take (Cohen 1997, 112-114, 131). Nixon’s overall policy positioning was moderate, closer to Jimmy Carter than to his successor Gerald Ford (Shull 1983, 46-51). I agree with Cohen that at the core Nixon was basically conservative rather than liberal, but Nixon was hardly a precursor to Ronald Reagan in this respect.
The dominant feature of Nixon’s domestic policy stance with Congress is neither liberalism nor conservatism. It is inactivity and indifference. Nixon cared little about most domestic policy. In 1967 he said "I've always thought this country could run itself domestically without a President." (Small 1999, 59) He meant that almost literally.
Presidential activism in Congress is measured with frequency of positions taken by the President on floor roll calls in the House of Representatives (but only through 1970, since after that the congressional rules for recorded voting make a valid measure across this period impermissible). The vast majority of these are domestic policy questions. In his first Congress in 1969 and 1970 Nixon took positions on only 25.4 percent of floor votes, whereas his three predecessors took positions on more than 50 percent each (Ragsdale 1996, T. 8-5, p. 378). Granted that some domestic policy initiatives met a cold shoulder from the congressional Democratic leadership, Nixon simply did not push hard for their consideration. Nor did he defend vigorously against that leadership. Nixon also had ample opportunity to engage congressional domestic policy liberalism with a volley of presidential vetoes. But he issued just 43 vetoes in almost six years, whereas his successor Gerald Ford fired off 66 in just two years and five months (Ragsdale 1996, T. 8-13, p. 396). Especially at first Nixon was not overtly hostile to Congress. He issued no vetoes at all in 1969 and only 9 in 1970 (Ragsdale 1996, T. 8-15, p. 401). The Nixon White House floor vote positions on domestic legislation were usually conservative stances aligned with the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But most often there was no stance at all.
Nixon was notoriously short of ideological anchoring on national macroeconomic policy. This realm addresses budgets, taxation, and the balance between them; also the willingness to use government to soften the effects of the business cycle, and presidential intervention to maintain peace between business and labor. Nixon wanted as little to do with this as possible. It was not for lack of trouble; Nixon encountered serious problems as a legacy of Johnson's attempt to produce both guns and butter without a tax increase. He faced rises in both inflation and unemployment. A conventional Republican, he preferred to reduce inflation first, but his policy was inconsistent enough that in 1970 he wanted to address rising unemployment even if inflation rose (Small 1999, 206). His advisors vied powerfully with each other over whether to emphasis fiscal policy or monetary policy, but Nixon showed little interest in either. He cared even less for international economic questions than domestic ones, since the latter at least had important election implications that Nixon acutely cared about.
Nixon basically cared deeply about domestic politics but very little for economics. Genovese (1990) demonstrates that Nixon lacked firm ideological convictions on that topic, sometimes calling himself a critic of Roosevelt’s Keynesian policy, at other times embracing Keynesian interventionist tactics. Tufte affirms that Nixon lacked a guiding principle other than to actively use economic stimulus in 1972 to promote his own reelection (Tufte 1978, 29-36). Hibbs confirms that Nixon at first followed orthodox Republican emphasis on curbing inflation at expense of unemployment and favoring budgetary constraint over strong economic stimulus, but as 1972 approached with Nixon’s approval ratings in mediocre position, Nixon switched in August 1971 to the “New Economic Policy (of) fiscal stimulation, monetary expansion, a wage-price freeze, and a devaluation of the dollar” (Hibbs 1987, 271). It is difficult to imagine any later Republican president resorting to a centrally mandated wage-price freeze. Nixon wanted it from his political anxiety over election year 1972. When the freeze ended with indifferent results in November 1971, Nixon pursued (and got) generous monetary policy from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns. That helped lead to "a mini-boom in the run-up to the 1972 election" (Small 1999, 211).
By contrast Nixon did have strongly held and consistent views on foreign affairs. A self-labeled conservative, he is judged by many others a moderate on international policy (Cohen 1997, 112-114). This is surprising, considering Nixon’s public stance as a leading Cold Warrior. But his international policy positions were far from straight-away hard liners within the political context of his own times. He did not advocate a win-the-Cold-War perspective such as Barry Goldwater voiced in 1964. He defended the Eisenhower Administration’s record of cautious maintenance of containment policy as the best that could be had. He saw the Soviet Union and China as emergent normal nation-states, with interests but not with world-shaking ideological ambitions. His initiative to open the door to China was intended primarily for the long-term strategic purposes of giving the U.S. a counterbalancing potential alliance to curb Soviet aspirations, but the very act of forging these ties violated the firm right-wing prohibition on doing business with Red China. Nixon’s pursuit of the SALT treaty with the Soviets in 1972 was a de facto concession that both nuclear adversaries had a kind of parity where each side knew it could deliver a lethal blow even if struck first by its adversary. That violated the insistence upon absolute nuclear superiority to which Goldwater had given voice in 1964. Nixon knew very well that American nuclear superiority had been replaced by essential nuclear parity with the Soviets by 1969.
Even on Vietnam, Nixon’s Vietnamization policy was designed to eventually cede the conflict to its principals within that divided nation (Kimball 1998; American RadioWorks - The President Calling - Bombing for Peace). Much as critics from left and right hated it, the policy recognized that the U.S. lacked the will to engage a larger war against North Vietnam but also feared the effects of a precipitous withdrawal. What is strange is that Nixon carried on the war so long and wound it down so slowly for one who realistically understood that it could not be won outright by means of conventional weapons use. He personally insisted that this was necessary to maintain credibility of the nation for sake of the Great Game: working one major communist power, the Soviet Union, against the other, the People's Republic of China. Some scholars doubt the necessity of this, but Nixon's own conviction on this score was authentic (Small 1999, 95).
This is among the most ideologically flexible and unpredictable policy records of any modern president. Moderates lack the reputation for getting into serious trouble leading to impeachment or resignation from office. Yet Nixon stands out for a record of personal character deficiency, compulsive anger, and determination to expand his office at the expense of political enemies wherever they lurked. Nixon alone was forced to forfeit his office after willfully instigating the internal security apparatus which gave the nation its acquaintance with the term ‘Watergate’.
IV. The Imperial Presidency Thesis Top
Nixon believed that the president's power during wartime was practically unlimited. That's the primary source for a term from the the 1973 publication of The Imperial Presidency by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. His "imperial presidency" signified a president acting beyond constitutional bounds. Schlesinger coined this term amidst the Watergate scandal revelations to denote a constitutional state of imbalance (Schlesinger 1973). Schooled in fine points of constitutional law which once dominated study of the presidency, Schlesinger keenly recognized that the Johnson and Nixon era was a tilt of power toward far greater presidential prerogative. Prerogative refers to presidential power to act unilaterally, without the prior or concurrent assent of another institution or political actor (Definition of prerogative - WordReference.com Dictionary). A president committing the nation irrevocably to war solely on his own word and without assent of either courts or Congress, exemplifies such arrogation of power. To Schlesinger this obviously contravened the spirit of the founding, in which even Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 70 affirmed that a president could act with energy and dispatch, but not beyond the limiting power of Congress. So Schlesinger, who worked for and worshiped Kennedy before encountering the tenure of a chief executive he fiercely disliked, sounded the alarm in traditional constitutional terms.
Some measure of prerogative is present in any modern executive office, including prime ministers in parliamentary context, and governors or mayors in the American system of electing an executive separately from the legislature with which the executive must share power. This dates back at least to John Locke's 17th century Second Treatise (see Scigliano 1989, 236-246 per Corwin 1948) and was well understood by the American Founders. The natural executive advantage of "energy and dispatch" produced a prerogative power which became most evident in emergencies such as the first months of the second Roosevelt, when banks were closing and the American economy itself seemed near collapse. On such occasions legislative and judicial leaders readily deferred to a chief executive. But like crisis itself, such power was temporary.
In the postwar American context, Schlesinger observed that this deference to the executive occurs predominantly in foreign affairs. Even on Great society domestic policy, congressional assent and power sharing was always the order on the rapid enactments of 1965 and 1966. Congress has never been a domestic rubber stamp. But foreign policy in the peculiar semi-crisis of the Cold War was different. Unlike the 1933 bank failures, the Cold War was an indefinitely long state of confrontation with another military superpower beginning with Truman in 1947 and extending an entire generation to the 1980s. It is not exactly true that "politics stops at the water's edge," yet bipartisan support existed after 1947 to let presidents act widely to ensure American security against the Soviets. Part of this arrangement was a broad set of understandings where Congress and the courts alike left foreign policy to the President. The Joseph McCarthy period contributed greatly to this trend, since congressional involvement in that vein looked all the world like incompetence and abuse from pernicious amateur policymakers seeking to score political points at expense of serious people.
The Constitution itself is little help in sorting out how to divide foreign policy powers between president and legislature. Edwin Corwin (1948) memorably said "(T)he Constitution ... is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy." The Johnson and Nixon period produced the peak of presidential prerogative, but it would not go unchallenged.
The war’s conduct took place with a combination of reduced American exposure to casualties and increased American bombing pressure on North Vietnam. Table 1 shows figures for Nixon-era costs, troop commitments, and casualties in Vietnam, together with his annual approval ratings and effect of the war upon inflation to afford easier comparison to the Johnson period (p. 68). It bears repeating that all aspects of conduct in Nixon’s first term were deeply influenced by the inherited war, which he made his own and on which he placed his stamp.
President Nixon wanted time, to end the war gradually by forcing North Vietnam to the bargaining table, as he and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger pursued their grander plans for a balance-of-power arrangement with the Soviet Union and China. The many antiwar critics of Nixon’s slow winding down of the war took him to task for violating the traditional shared executive-legislative mandate to run foreign policy, proclaiming that the President had arrogated to himself all the essential authority to run the war on his own. How far can a modern president go in making war and peace decisions? We consider this next in more detail.
Table 1. Nixon Inherits Lyndon Johnson’s War, 1968 through 1972
|Year (president)||Average Yearly Presidential Approval Rating||Presidential Approval at start and end of year||Vietnam: number of U.S. troops||Vietnam: annual battle deaths||Vietnam: cost of war (in billions)||Inflation Rate (CPI)|
|1969 (Nixon)||61%||59%, 59%||475,200||9,426||5.4%|
|1970 (Nixon)||57%||61%, 52%||234,600||4,230||5.9%|
|1971 (Nixon)||50%||57%, 50%||156,800||1,376||4.3%|
|1972 (Nixon)||56%||50%, 59%||24,200||361||3.3%|
Note: Approval rating is averaged per year from all Gallup Polls recorded in Ragsdale (1996), Ch. 5; question is “Do you approve or disapprove of the way __________ is handling his job as president?” Approval at start and end of year is at Roper Center's Presidential Job Performance - Nixon. Inflation rate is measured by the pre-1990s Consumer Price Index, also determined on a yearly average basis. War cost is determined per federal fiscal year, which at the time began one half year before the calendar year (so FY69 began on 7/1/68 and ended 6/30/69). Vietnam troop counts and battle deaths are tallied to represent the year-end cumulative figure, and do not include "non-hostile deaths" such as succumbing to disease or accidents during service time in Vietnam.
Ragsdale 1996, Table 5-3, pp. 197-199 on approval ratings; The Roper Center,
Presidential Job Performance - Nixon
Presidential Job Performance - Johnson on approval; Statistical Abstract of the
United States: 1993, Table 563 on number of troops and combat deaths; also
Research - Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War and
Research - U.S. Military Casualties, Missing in Action, and POWs from the Era of
the Vietnam Conflict on combat deaths and other casualty information;
Summary of Vietnam
Casualty Statistics on deaths and other casualty figures;
Vietnam War Allied Troop Levels 1960-73 on number of troops; Bernstein 1996, 369 on Vietnam costs; Statistical
Abstract of the United States: 1970, Table 527 on CPI. For other
Vietnam War data and evidence, see Richard Jensen's
Vietnam War Bibliography.
Cartoonist Herb Block, a longtime Washington Post fixture
and dedicated political opponent of Nixon since 1950 or earlier, put the fifth
column in simpler (and less accurate) but more devastating terms:
Source: About Herblock (Herblock's History Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium, Library of Congress Exhibition)
The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review (power to determine the meaning of the Constitution when it is disputed) presumably can define how far presidential foreign policy prerogative would reach, and curb whatever goes too far. But that depends on willingness to do the curbing, which the Court rarely has exercised. Before and during Vietnam a determined and forceful president could reach quite far indeed.
The Founders placed primary power with Congress, leaving the executive quite ill-defined on the premise that occupants would define and expand the office out of the usual political driving force of personal and ideological ambition. Scigliano thus argues that ambitious and protective presidents forged a de facto alliance with the Supreme Court against the overweening power of the Congress, and in particular, its popularly elected House of Representatives (Scigliano 1990). He concludes that "presidents have had reason to be satisfied with the judicial support they have received against Congress (Scigliano 1990, 481)" because "it has been unusual for the Court to strike at actions of the president (1990, 489)." In the latter instance, from 1789 to 1975 there were apparently only 22 presidential orders which were specifically voided by the Court (1990, 489). Thus when the executive enters the Court asking that it rule favorably, "the Court usually does." (Scigliano 1990, 478).
In the modern presidential era the Court has gone to lengths to define a special presidential prerogative in foreign affairs. In the oft-cited and criticized 1936 case of United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936), Chief Justice Sutherland said "the President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and the Congress itself is powerless to invade it." Curtiss-Wright was not universally accepted by any standard, but it is a precedent to the Court's refusal after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to find that Vietnam was an unconstitutional war action by the President. That Resolution contained ill-defined language authorizing the President to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and ... to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member of protocol states of the Southeast Asian Collective Defense Treaty" (Berman 1987, 73; Resolution)." On this ground the Department of State after the major Vietnam troop commitment said in 1966: "It may be suggested that a declaration of war is the only available Constitutional process by which Congressional support can be made effective for the use of United States armed forces in combat abroad. But the Constitution does not insist on any rigid formalism. It gives Congress a choice of ways in which to exercise its powers. In the case of South Vietnam, the Congress has supported the determination of the President by the Senate's approval of the SEATO Treaty, the adoption of the Joint Resolution [Gulf of Tonkin] of August 10, 1964, and the enactment of the necessary authorization and appropriations (Berman 1987, 92-93)." Despite this specious dismissal of express war declaration, litigants seeking to avoid the draft could not persuade the Court to review lower court rulings on legality of the war under the Court's usual "rule of four" provision requiring that at least four Justices must concur that a significant constitutional question exists. The draft remained, and America’s part in the War gradually wound down to a negotiated end in the Paris Accords of 1973, eight years after its large-scale onset.
So an expansive interpretation of presidential war-making power existed before Nixon; but once in office he expanded it further yet. Nixon prepped his Cambodia incursion (another term for invasion, except signifying the intent to exit quickly) by watching the movie ‘Patton’, then launched the action to national surprise in April 1970. Perhaps it should not have been, since in fact both the Vietnamese and Americans had fought in both neighboring Laos and Cambodia for more than a year. But this was a secret extension of the Vietnam theater of which the public and most in Congress were unaware at the time; Air Force records of bombing missions recorded them in South Vietnamese rather than the officially neutral Cambodia’s airspace (Operation Menu). The President could certainly have explained to the public early in 1969 that North Vietnam was routinely using its neighbor’s territory with impunity for staging, and that like Eisenhower in 1953, he intended to put an end to that. This he did not do, for it was certain to arouse liberal Democratic war opponents in Congress and the press. To Nixon that was inviting his sworn enemies to attack him, so Nixon’s penchant for secrecy and surprise prevailed. These actions came out in 1973 after the Watergate scandal had blown open (More Revelations on Bombing - TIME, 8/20/1973)
After his presidency Nixon offered a stunning justification for his war actions. Nixon declared a broad "inherent power" of the President to act where necessary to preserve the nation's security. In a renowned 1977 interview with David Frost, the former President was asked if this justified doing something illegal. "Well," came the reply, "when a President does it, that means that it is not illegal." Frost: "Is there anything in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that suggests the President is that far of a sovereign, that far above the law?" Nixon: "No, there isn't. There's nothing specific that the Constitution contemplates in that respect [but] ... In war time, a President does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution (Berman 1987, 57)." As for Lincoln in 1861 facing war and insurrection, so also Richard Nixon in 1969 and 1970? That is hyperbole, Nixon style.
VI. The Rhetoric of War Top
The constitutional side of the imperial presidency was matched by a psychological and rhetorical dimension. With Nixon there was always a psychological side to warfare in which he considered himself a master practitioner--and sometimes he was, at least where dealings with the leaderships of Moscow and Beijing were concerned. Nixon’s public rhetoric consistently reveals a world view shaped around war, crisis, and foreign and domestic enemies who must be pre-empted.
A consequent central Nixon rhetorical trait was regular use of hyperbole. His famous Silent Majority speech of 3 November 1969 said that only internal American dissent could enable North Vietnam to defeat American arms in South Vietnam. Furthermore as to the protestors on the war: "If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society." (Nixon's 'Silent Majority' Speech [November 3, 1969]). This strikes us normally as a gross exaggeration, but to Nixon himself that may not have been hyperbolic. He saw the political world this way, one crisis succeeding another, through his whole adult life. Thus his early-career autobiography is entitled Six Crises (1962). In the post-presidential 1977 David Frost interview, Nixon equated Abraham Lincoln's suppression of a Maryland revolt with Nixon’s own handling of domestic antiwar dissenters via the Huston Plan:
NIXON: Lincoln said, and I think I can remember the quote almost exactly, he said, "Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation." Now that's the kind of action I'm referring to. Of course in Lincoln's case it was the survival of the Union in wartime, it's the defense of the nation and, who knows, perhaps the survival of the nation.
FROST: But there was no comparison, was there, between the situation you faced and the situation Lincoln faced, for instance?
NIXON: This nation was torn apart in an ideological way by the war in Vietnam, as much as the Civil War tore apart the nation when Lincoln was president. (excerpt from Nixon’s Views on Presidential Power, United States v. Nixon (1974), Landmark Supreme Court Cases)
War does grant special dispensations to presidents in language and practice alike. Nixon's was a wartime presidency, although containment policy contemplates only limited war as acceptable. Was Nixon correct in seeing the nation truly at war in Lincolnesque terms? Not by World War II standards. Vietnam was fought through class division, with largely affluent baby boomers going to university as working class and poor were drafted into service. So a certain illusion of peace existed for the nation, since during Vietnam most normal peacetime activities continued with barely a hitch. College enrollment swelled by the year as unprecedented numbers of baby boomers reached maturity. No expansion of the draft curtailed this when Nixon inherited the war in 1969; to the contrary, Nixon's Vietnamization program gradually reduced American manpower from the 565,000 peak of early 1969. Only minimal reserve call-up took place, ensuring that college graduates who entered the National Guard had a place of refuge. The economy never went on wartime footing, although currency inflation had begun in 1966 and continue unabated right through the Nixon presidency, this largely a result of trying to fight an expensive war while undertaking the all time greatest expansion of domestic governmental activity.
But for all this, Nixon himself felt and acted like a wartime executive under extreme duress from opposition in his own country. Dissent against Vietnam was widespread and fierce, and was accompanied away from campuses with uprisings of the black urban poor in Watts, Harlem, and myriad other black inner city locales. But Nixon himself elevated its station, linking himself to Abraham Lincoln as if students camped out at the Washington Monument for the war moratorium demonstration were somehow akin to Maryland's confederate plotters who obliged Lincoln in 1861 to slip through Baltimore by train in the quiet hours before dawn. Nixon saw enemies everywhere he looked, in the career bureaucracy staffed largely by Democrats, in the Congress run by a Democratic leadership, in the national media led by the Washington Post and New York Times, in Hollywood among celebrities who financed Democrats and sometimes spoke against the war, on campuses among students for whom Vietnam was long since a lost cause but still a live threat with the draft in place. One has only to spend time with the extensive Nixon tapes to hear it (NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Complete Conversations Chronological Releases) or peruse his extensive Enemies List to witness it.
Nixon's personal character demons compelled him to employ warlike rhetoric during what he saw as a wartime presidency. Yet Nixon was always a political strategist, one who shrewdly employed harsh rhetoric in service to a political cause which Eisenhower had largely failed to bring about. That cause was the creation of a new majority political coalition shaped around the Republican Party. It would be on a different ideological dimension than the economic concerns which dominated the fading New Deal era. This was Nixon’s Silent Majority of un-young, un-black and un-poor citizens. Nixon meant to shape the cultural and values division of 1968 into a new un-silent majority. He gave direct voice to this within a year of his election via the November 3, 1969 "Silent Majority" speech (also Nixon's "Silent Majority" Speech).
Nixon and Johnson were not alike. One radical difference between the overbearing Johnson and personally reserved Nixon was in public rhetoric. Johnson constantly railed in private about war opponents, calling them a colorful variety of names such as revising Senator Fulbright to "Halfbright" and suggesting war opponents were backed by communist enemy elements. But he never indulged this kind of rhetoric in public. As a President seeking to prosecute both a war in Asia and one on poverty at home, he desperately needed all the voting support he could get from mainstream liberals in the ranks of the Democrats. The presidential library files of Johnson Congressional Relations officers are crammed with indicators that the President got and read congressional testaments of authentic home-based antiwar sentiment (Renka 1979). Those same liberals were the core of vocal public opposition, but it would not do to divide the party even further than its existing north-south chasm had done. That would guarantee domestic policy control for the conservative coalition and reverse the 1965-66 Great Society initiatives.
Nixon had every political incentive to do what Johnson shunned. His problem was not to break down the New Deal coalition. That had been accomplished by the events of the decade, specifically those of 1965-68 surrounding racial uprisings and loss of public confidence in the nation's institutions. Nixon's problem was to find grounds for shaping a new majority coalition out of this wreckage. It could not be done with the traditional economic dividing line, although by the 1960s a long era of prosperity had lifted millions of labor union members into the middle class in both income level and basic outlook. But it could be done by invoking the language of cultural warfare.
This is what Nixon's use of terms like "Silent Majority" means. Nixon concluded with good reason that American cultural critics could be combined with war critics to become a scapegoat for disturbed TV viewing Americans wondering why society appeared on the verge of anarchy.
An ideal example of both Nixon's hyperbole and his deliberate confrontational rhetoric came in his 30 April 1970 Cambodia speech. In a calculated presentation of a false dilemma, he intoned "(I)f, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world." (Richard M. Nixon - Address on the Situation in Southeast Asia, April 30, 1970; Ambrose 1989, 345) And further: "(I) would rather be a one-term president and do what I believe is right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this Nation accept the first defeat of its proud 190-year history." (April 30, 1970; Ambrose 1989, 346) There stood Nixon, alone, against those who would bring down America.
Nixon wasn't finished with Cambodia and protesters. That speech and the Cambodian invasion ignited a national wave of campus protests. Nixon responded with a famous reference to antiwar protestors as “those bums ... blowing up the campus,” and made a point of congratulating New York City construction hardhats who attacked demonstrators there (Nixon Library's April 30, 1970; Kent State; Small 1989, 201). Of course this directly contradicted the 1968 campaign promise to bring Americans together (History Channel - Speeches - Richard M. Nixon, Republican nominee for president Campaigns for presidency). But the reality of political coalition-making is that important divisions divided Americans deeply in 1968 and would keep doing so. The job of a creative political rhetorician is to find the thematic notes that signal a cultural divide in which Nixon gets the larger half. Those perplexed by Patrick Buchanan’s worshipful service to a relatively non-ideological master like Richard Nixon are advised to study Nixon’s strategic use of rhetoric as a calculated political device for forging a majority around a cultural conflict.
Did Nixon’s character alone produce the harsh domestic rhetoric against war dissenters and cultural critics? I doubt that, for Nixon always harnessed his dark impulses toward carefully designed political goals. He possessed a full capacity for tactical flexibility and was not a man burdened with a rigid ideological framework. Although he genuinely believed in containment, his careful study of foreign policy led to flexible altering of the U.S. relationships with the Soviet Union and China. Such a flexible politician surely knew that he was drastically overstating the importance of a minor military move into Cambodia in April 1970 (Berman . Driven by compulsion or not, it served a pre-planned political purpose. Likewise on the domestic side, Tom Wicker’s One of Us (1991) documents that Nixon’s warlike rhetoric may have stemmed from his lifelong burning resentment of those born to privilege and high station. He certainly held the student protestors in contempt, but he harnessed this anger effectively in the November 1969 silent majority speech to call for a new majority opposed to the campus-based cultural liberalization which broke out so widely in the second half of the 1960s. Nixon was driven by demons, but he harnessed personal compulsion to political strategy.
Nixon did not change his dark side after leaving office. His list of enemies never was changed in his post-presidential life. The aged Nixon became mentor from 1992 until his death in 1994 to research assistant Monica Crowley, whose sympathetic Nixon Off the Record (1996) demonstrates that Nixon’s core view of the base motives of others were used to justify or excuse away his own excesses. Thus, “and then Hiss came along, of course, which gave rise to my critics and drove them crazy because I hit at the heart of the establishment. They never forgave me. ... in 1950, I beat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was closely associated with the Communist front organization (Crowley 1996, 147).” Nixon smears Douglas and claims he's victim of a smear 40 years later by the liberal elite. Yet this same man at the same time made successful 1993 overtures to President Bill Clinton, a man from exactly the class whom Nixon saw as eternal foes, and engaged him at length and in detail on behalf of American support for the emergent non-communist forces in Russia. So he rationalized that contradiction by labeling Hillary Clinton as a demon-like representative of that class while excusing her husband (Crowley 1996).
Readers may note that Nixon's confrontational rhetoric does not exactly fit with the imperial presidency, since that entails presidential taking of unilateral prerogative in violation of the spirit of separation of powers, and presidential rhetoric of that sort falls outside constitutional purview. But I hold that an intimate linkage nonetheless exists between presidential rhetoric and actions in general, and those of Nixon most particularly. Nixon's war-styled hatreds and hostility toward real or perceived enemies carried, quite simply, into practically everything he did as President. That includes domestic policy, and it covers Watergate itself.
This is much the lesser known side of the imperial presidency. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, Nixon attempted to govern without Congress. Whereas Johnson displayed an imperious way of gaining mastery of Congressmen and Senators, Nixon in being unable to do that instead ignored and flouted the constitutional authority of the national legislature. Hamby (1992) has not a single word about this, yet it is a fundamental part of conducting an imperial presidency. It too has a certain political logic, for 1968 has proven a turning point to a new condition of American politics. That condition is divided government, with long periods of divided party control of the president and Congress.
As always with Nixon, there was a combination of belated learning plus a certain tactical political logic underlying his efforts to govern the nation with minimal reliance on Congress. First, the 1968 election was historically narrow, giving Nixon only 43.4% of national popular votes against Hubert Humphrey’s 42.7% and George Wallace’s largely southern 13.5%. Second, the 91st Congress elected with him was controlled by Democrats in both houses. Third and more importantly yet, there was underway a major internal congressional power shift among Democrats away from largely conservative Southern Democratic chairmen and toward Northern Democratic liberals and reformers. They saw Nixon as the old attack specialist and cold warrior of the 1950s, not the ‘new Nixon’ of 1968 campaign moderation. Accordingly, the innovative Nixon domestic plans for congressional action in 1969, including a major welfare overhaul called the Family Assistance Plan under tutelage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, received a cold shoulder from Congress. Finally, there was the famous Nixon ‘southern strategy’ of appealing to the white border state and southern vote. Casting his lot there meant affiliation with the congressional conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans. That coalition was in an especially vigorous state in 1969-72 since the GOP was beginning to lose its moderate pre-1964 wing (Carmines and Stimson 1989) while Southern Democrats were still extremely upset over the Great Society liberal programs of the Johnson period. Nixon’s alignment there protected his foreign policy from effective congressional counterattack, but prevented his accommodation with Northern Democrats or Democratic congressional leaderships on their specialties.
The result is that after 1969, President Nixon largely gave up working with Congress on domestic initiatives. His most important initiative, the Family Assistance Plan, sought welfare reform via a negative income tax for low-income households (Hoff 1994, 115-137). It did not work, partly because Nixon failed to institute an effective White House lobbying organization along the Kennedy/Johnson lines to intensely lobby for major White House programs, and even more because the majority Democrats both north and south had established stake holdings with welfare client interests such as the nursing home industry by 1970. Another program, general revenue sharing, was designed to transfer federal surplus monies to states without the extensive federal restrictions inherent in Johnson-era categorical grant programs. Congress accepted that, but as a supplement rather than substitute for existing grants (for which congressional credit-taking is easily achieved). So by mid-1970 Nixon had practically abandoned conciliation with Congress, and he embarked on plans to find and reverse congressionally mandated policies. He avoided open attack on well-grounded and popular programs such as school desegregation and environmentalist initiatives. Instead he adopted what Richard Nathan calls the ‘administrative presidency’ approach of running the country largely without the assent of Congress (Nathan 1975). Naturally that meant conflict would occur somewhere, but conflict was a personal Nixon specialty. Never one to back from a fight, Nixon was rhetorically and administratively prepared for an institutionally based slugfest with the congress.
One aspect of Nixon’s confrontational posture was a practice known as "programmatic budgetary impoundment." Impoundment was and is the long-standing executive practice of not expending funds beyond the level necessary to achieve a specific purpose; for instance, during wartime Abraham Lincoln managed purchase of army mules with a congressional appropriations of funds named for that end, had extra money left, and remitted the surplus to the treasury. Practically every president since Washington had done likewise. But Nixon went another step. He carefully chose a few appropriations which represented traditional pork-barrel distribution of funds, one being pollution control monies designated for local sewer improvement projects. In effect, Nixon named 22 specific projects as illegitimate wasting of taxpayer dollars and simply refused to expend the monies for the purpose stipulated in the congressional appropriations measure (Fisher 1975, ch. 8; CRS-LII Annotated Constitution - Impoundment of Appropriated Funds; impoundment - West's Encyclopedia of American Law).
This was an ingenious use of old doctrine (impoundment) for new purpose (refusal to honor congressional decisions). Pork barrel is very difficult to veto successfully since Congress spreads out projects to nearly everyone's district or state. Since a veto could be overturned by two-thirds vote of each house, Nixon would likely lose by taking this constitutional avenue. Instead he issued de facto 'secondary vetoes' not subject to override, and he employed these tactics into campaign rhetoric as proof of wasteful spending by Democrats.
This tactic was, of course, patently unconstitutional, and the courts eventually said so on 21 of the 22 projects (Fisher 1975, 189-192; Impoundment Powers – Encyclopedia.com). The real question is whether this political strategy would have worked to heighten presidential authority against Congress. This we never discovered, first because Watergate in 1973 short-circuited the Nixon experiment in power expansion, and second because Congress reacted violently against this action with legislated retribution which was visited upon Nixon's successors. Had Nixon's strategy been allowed to work through 1976, I think current presidents would have much broader power to alter congressional priorities, and there may have been no Reagan-era call to amend the U.S. Constitution to permit a presidential item veto.
Richard Nixon also deeply distrusted the career executive bureaucracy. He was convinced they were Democrats and partisans out to undercut him at every opportunity. Accordingly he sought to bypass regular Cabinet-based departmental channels for accomplishing the policymaking and policy implementation work of the executive branch, by moving those powers within the White House itself and beyond the reach of congressional overseers.
Nixon did not revolutionize the modern presidency’s steadily expanding administrative powers. Rather he borrowed existing trends dating from the administrative presidency’s origin in 1938-39, and took them to levels of centralized White House authority exceeding any predecessor. Although not imperial or extra-constitutional behavior in itself, these trends underlined the general tendency toward arrogating power to oneself that existed so abundantly elsewhere in the Nixon presidency. Despite the strong post-Nixon reaction against the excesses of the office, many of these Nixon-initiated administrative changes have endured.
For one, Nixon began the trend to a permanent White House Chief of Staff. Nixon’s personal working style and recognition of his own distaste for administration led him to confer unprecedented gate-keeping and managerial authority upon H.R. (Bob) Haldeman. This formidable manager and Nixon loyalist was often caricatured before and during Watergate as a Rasputin-like figure who isolated the President from his well-meaning friends. But Haldeman was also an assiduous keeper of a diary while Chief of Staff until his Watergate-linked firing in April 1973. This illuminating document shows that Haldeman was strictly a loyalist who did the President’s own bidding, and that included keeping a gate so strict that even Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods found herself prohibited from walking directly into the Oval Office (Haldeman 1994). Other presidents have not had someone so formidable as Nixon’s Chief of Staff because their personal inclinations were less private, less desirous of lengthy times alone. But every one of them has either kept a manager in that post from the outset, or resorted to it after early experiments at more open access. These figures deflect heat and anger from the Chief Executive himself.
Nixon also initiated a full scale White House public communications strategy which went far beyond previous presidents. The White House Office of Communications became a full scale program to determine each day’s national news on the presidency from the White House itself instead of the newspapers and national television networks (Maltese 1992). The core of the strategy was deceptively simple: have the entire administration (Cabinet included) say just one thing per news day, and determine in advance exactly what that line would be. That deprived the press of material from which to choose undesirable slants or headlines. The Reagan Administration in 1981 would adopt a similar strategy, so this is one Nixon precedent that did endure.
Nixon’s authenticated suspicion and distrust of the press impelled him to find an institutional avenue for control, and this Office became his vehicle for launching a systematic effort to define ‘spin’ or interpretation and meaning of public policy within the presidential orbit of influence. It did not always work nearly so well as Nixon’s opponents allege, but still became the precedent for the successful news management strategy of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Nixon complemented news management with systematic in-house discovery of public opinion and extensive speech writing. Begun by Kennedy in the 1960 campaign and expanded by Johnson, the Nixon White House ran national polls which were singly sponsored so that “the White House gained far greater control over a survey’s content” (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995, 173) including its political uses such as circulation to favorable sources (1995, 188). Speech writing became a formalized, separate operation with a host of fulltime staff even though Nixon prided himself on ability to write his own text.
The Johnson White House had gone quite far in demonstrating distrust of the Cabinet by conferring domestic policy development with White House-run special task forces. Nixon went further than that. He began the term confessing the customary fealty to Cabinet government and probably did believe in that, since he had no interests in or illusions of personal ability to control the making of domestic policy in Johnson’s fashion (Weko 1995, 109). But he also began with the conviction that the career bureaucracy in most agencies was dead-set against conservative Republicans in general and him in particular. His largely futile efforts at domestic policy initiation in 1969 with Congress reinforced his partisanship. He also blamed the Cabinet for the 1969 failures, which were carefully recorded by borrowing Congressional Quarterly’s monitoring of percentage of initiatives which Congress enacted into law (Warshaw 1996, 54).
The Nixon remedy was administrative government to accomplish domestic objectives through direct White House imperative rather than leaving administration to a Cabinet laden with hostile Democratic bureaucrats and close linkages to chairmen on Capitol Hill and interest group clienteles who were accustomed to the previous eight years of Democratic executive rule. Nathan shows that by 1972 Nixon planned to confer sweeping powers over domestic policy operations to John Ehrlichman, on the premise that “operations is policy” (Nathan 1975, 62). And so was personnel, which came under unprecedented central control (Weko 1995, 109-121). These were in many respects correct assumptions for an Administration which could not follow the Johnson strategy of getting Congress to do its bidding. After reelection Nixon commenced plans for a much more sweeping assumption of centralized White House power, beginning with the astonishing post-election pronouncement from Bob Haldeman that everyone was to submit an undated statement of resignation--from which the President could accept whichever ones he chose to turn loose. This effort in pushing toward a strictly administrative path to policymaking was a brief one, for by April 1973--only three months into the second Nixon Administration--Watergate had taken over, and the experiment hit a permanent short circuit. But it provided a precedent for the future, if only because divided government with congressional control in one party and presidency in the other, is now the norm.
"Without Watergate" is the Republican equivalent of Democrats' lamentation that Johnson's tenure might have been superb if not for Vietnam. Nixon's presidency was indeed accomplished in several respects. His balance of power plans for China to offset Soviet expansionism worked reasonably well, although they did not prevent the latter's disastrous foray into Afghanistan in 1979. His Middle East shuttle diplomacy set down preconditions for Carter's brokerage in the reconciliation of Egypt and Israel at Camp David. His domestic plans for welfare reform look in hindsight like prescient recognition of how intractable the problem of poverty would prove to be. His pragmatic acceptance of civil rights and environmental policy gave enough bipartisan cover to bring those policies into the 1990s before conservatives mounted a fierce enough counterattack to dismantle many of them. In policy results, this was not a failed administration. Too, Richard Nixon ranks as one of the most intelligent, hard working and politically talented of American presidents.
But in the real world, Vietnam and Watergate remain in place. Small (1999, 310) sees Watergate as "emblematic of Nixon's behavior throughout his career." This is fitting, for Nixon's presidency was rife with attempts to expand the president's power against enemy-run institutions. He held a world view in which confrontation with implacable enemies was both necessary and proper. He lacked serious respect for procedural democracy in the sense of permitting opposition to exist as a legitimate alternative to his own exercise of power. As a result Nixon himself and the presidency came to grief. Watergate brought Nixon to a crashing halt, and in the process so weakened the presidential office that Congress was free to take serious limiting moves against future presidential abuses. Most of these eventually proved failures (War Powers Resolution, for example), but some did reduce presidential power (disallowal of impoundments, reduction of emergency spending authority). The presidential office itself was seriously reduced in power until 1981; Nixon's immediate successors Ford and Carter paid a constitutional price for the imperial presidency. And beyond that, the legacy of Watergate remains to be played out.
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was also an expanded Enemies List with between 400 and 600 names on it, per
Facts on File: List of White House 'Enemies' and Memo Submitted by John Dean
to the Ervin Committee. In 1971 President Nixon sought to have List
members audited by the Internal Revenue Service, but the job was not done due to
quiet disobedience by aide Johnnie Walters (Nixon's
Basement Tapes - Wanted: "A ruthless son-of-a-bitch" at IRS).
The List was later forwarded to the investigatory Ervin Committee by Walters.
Nixon's successor Gerald Ford noted simply that someone with an enemies list had too many enemies. (add source)
 An example of Nixon's penchant for capturing inside information is shown on the Miller Center's WhiteHouseTapes.org Transcript + Audio Clip - Nixon, Lady Bird, and LBJ, September 17, 1971 where Nixon receives a detailed report on what Lyndon Johnson thought of his successor via a happenstance airplane trip conversation between John Scali of ABC News and Lady Bird Johnson. URL: tapes.millercenter.virginia.edu/clips/1971_0917_nixon_lbj/. Small examples like this illustrate a larger practice.
 Vice-President Agnew's career is briefly outlined in Spiro Agnew - Wikipedia, and the U.S. Senate's spiro_agnew. Agnew resigned his office on 10 October 1973 amidst Watergate in response to non-Watergate criminal charges, to which the Veep pleaded no contest in exchange for resignation. See the obituaries Online NewsHour Remembering Spiro Agnew -- September 18, 1996; and Spiro T. Agnew, Point Man for Nixon Who Resigned Vice Presidency, Dies at 77 - New York Times.
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March 26, 2010 09:40 AM