Imperial? No, Presidential. - Bush is no "Caesar." (WSJ-WALL STREET JOURNAL)BY SAM TANENHAUS 12/27/02 12:01 a.m. EST)
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The political performance of George W. Bush since Sept. 11, 2001,
capped last week by the White House´s role in dethroning Trent Lott
and replacing him with Bill Frist, has left many marveling at the
discipline and efficiency of the president and his advisers. Together
they "have made the White House a power center in ways that I haven´t
seen in a long, long time--all the way back to Lyndon Johnson," said
Robert S. Strauss, the former Democratic Party chairman and perennial
adviser to presidents.
Others are less impressed than alarmed by what they see as Mr. Bush´s
flexing of executive muscle, overpowering the legislative and
judicial branches. The new Department of Homeland Security, war
preparations in Iraq, even stumping for GOP legislators last November-
-each implies overweening ambition. "The Bushies want to bring back
the imperial, imperious presidency," Maureen Dowd warned in her New
York Times column this past autumn, citing White House overreach that
included "Karl Rove´s gunning for the Democrats" in the midterm
Distrust of the "imperial presidency" is a venerable tradition that
dates back to our nation´s beginnings. The founders, keeping the
example of George III firmly in mind, took every precaution to ensure
that the new republic would breed no homegrown tyrants. They
envisioned a head of state who would "preside" rather than rule,
functioning obediently within the system of "checks and balances"
they had so carefully devised. At the first signs of executive
strength, our early presidents, from John Adams on, were labeled
despots-in-training, and the accusation continued long
afterward. "Sic semper tyrannis" was John Wilkes Booth´s cry before
he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
But the current notion of the "imperial presidency" is rooted not in
the traditional fear of incipient monarchism but in its opposite, an
almost cult-like fascination with executive power. Arthur Schlesinger
Jr., whose book "The Imperial Presidency" (published in 1973)
popularized the term, first made his reputation as a chronicler of
two powerful presidents, Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He
went on to serve in the administration of John F. Kennedy, whom he
counseled to govern in the Roosevelt style.
Another Kennedy adviser, the historian Richard Neustadt, wrote memos
to JFK drawn from his book "Presidential Power," which championed
Roosevelt´s ad hoc, risk-taking style and denigrated the plodding,
cautious approach of Kennedy´s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, a
general who preferred to govern through established channels rather
than simply imposing his will. A third Rooseveltian turned Kennedy
adviser, James McGregor Burns, contended that a powerful White House
was the keystone to democratic health. The presidency "has attracted
neither power-mad politicians nor bland incompetents but the ablest
political leaders in the land," Mr. Burns wrote in his
book "Presidential Government." "As a general principle, the stronger
we make the President, the more we strengthen democratic procedures
and can hope to realize modern liberal democratic goals."
Throughout this period of high-flying presidential power, skeptical
voices could be heard. Critics of the New Deal like Herbert Hoover
feared that the federal bureaucracy was growing too big under FDR and
might result in a war-based economy not easily dismantled in
peacetime. Sen. Robert Taft, who led the Republican opposition in the
1940s and early ´50s, consistently tried to limit the growth of the
presidency. His Ohio colleague Sen. John Bricker, presaging the
anxieties of those who today oppose Mr. Bush´s "unilateralism,"
proposed a constitutional amendment that would have required
congressional approval of any and all agreements with foreign
nations. In 1959 the conservative theorist James Burnham argued that
a centralized, "Caesarist" democracy had emerged in which Congress´s
rightful role had been usurped by the presidency.
Not many took these dissenters seriously. They came, after all, from
the losers´ camp. As long as presidents pursued those "modern
liberal" goals, who could object? Only with the advent of leaders
uncongenial to liberal commentators did the frightening image of
the "imperial president" take hold. First there was Lyndon Johnson,
who vowed to carry out the Kennedy agenda and did so effectively but
unaesthetically. Gone was the attractive "vigor" and "vitality." In
its place were LBJ´s "boundless power appetite and ruthless
historical ambition," in the words of Theodore H. White.
More disturbing still was Richard Nixon, the principal villain in Mr.
Schlesinger´s study of presidential overstretch. Observing Nixon´s
presidency, patterned in so many respects on JFK´s, Mr. Schlesinger
began to reconsider his hero´s conduct and concluded that JFK´s
actions during the Cuban missile crisis--particularly his decision to
inform rather than consult Congress--had set a bad precedent. "What
should have been celebrated as an exception," wrote Mr.
Schlesinger, "was instead enshrined as a rule."
Even so, Kennedy´s decisive lone-wolfing "beautifully fulfilled both
the romantic ideal of the strong President and the prophecy of split-
second presidential decision in the nuclear age." Alas, poor Nixon.
He followed Kennedy´s script but added no romantic flourishes.
His "imperial presidency" smacked of dictatorship; "the all-purpose
invocation of ´national security,´ the insistence on executive
secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the attempted
intimidation of the press."
It is not surprising that historians should play favorites. What´s
puzzling is that they have perpetuated the myth of the imperial
presidency when it is so plainly at odds with the historical record.
The truth is that every modern president has found power to be
elusive, slippery and at times treacherous. FDR, fresh off his
landslide re-election in 1936, tried to "pack" the Supreme Court,
only to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of Congress. Four
years later, he was elected to an unprecedented third term, yet he
struggled uphill to persuade Congress and the people to intervene in
World War II.
And consider the fates of Johnson and Nixon. A strong challenge from
Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary reduced the
demiurge to a lame duck who could not lead his own party, let alone
the nation. Nixon fared even worse. One year after the publication of
Mr. Schlesinger´s book, the "imperial president" resigned, unable to
govern amid the controversies of Watergate. In both cases a gifted
leader riding the crest of a massive electoral endorsement was
brought down by the same political process he was said to have
overpowered. Yet the idea of the "imperial president" remains with
us, trotted out whenever the man in the White House signs a fast-
track trade agreement, affixes his name to a treaty, or signs an
Now it is Mr. Bush´s turn. He is accused of cynically invoking
national security, of relying too heavily on a few trusted advisers,
of defying world opinion even as he runs roughshod over Congress, the
courts and the press. Never mind that he has repeatedly taken his
case to the people, to legislators, to the U.N. Never mind that a
shift of several thousand votes in key states last November would
have prompted the pundits to dissect Mr. Bush´s weakness and revive
the question of his "legitimacy." Never mind that had Trent Lott
carried on his fight for another week we would now be reading
detailed analyses of Mr. Bush´s hubris and of Karl Rove´s fatal
The "imperial presidency" is not a useful idea. It is an epithet,
dredged up whenever a president combines strength with imagination.
But even the strongest presidents have known, or learned soon, that
they occupy an office fraught with risk and are never more vulnerable
than when their power seems greatest. They are, in sum, leaders, not
rulers--which means, of course, that they are not imperial at all.
Mr. Tanenhaus, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a
biography of William F. Buckley Jr.
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