The Unmaking of the President

Benjamin Barber

  • The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power by Garry Wills
    Atlantic/Little, Brown, 310 pp, $14.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 316 94385 1

At the end of the last century, a Princeton historian with a taste for politics looked back over the thirty years which had elapsed since Lincoln’s death, surveyed the lacklustre Presidents who had come and gone and the tyrannical Congressional committee chairmen who seemed often to govern in the President’s stead, and issued a clarion call for a new politics of Presidential leadership. The book he wrote, Congressional Government, did not yield immediate results: the Madisonian constitutional system had, after all, been devised to protect the nation against a too powerful Presidency. Nevertheless, the next fifteen years witnessed the startlingly vigorous administration of Teddy Roosevelt, the beginning of a long process of whittling Congressional committees down to size, and an opportunity for the zealous historian – Woodrow Wilson – to put his theory into practice as the 28th President of the United States.

Wilson’s Presidency was compromised by a world at war and marred by the reach of his own urgent ambition. Still, Wilson set the tone for the new power-seeking, crisis-invoking Presidencies of the 20th century when, in his first inaugural address, he proclaimed:

This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men’s hearts wait upon us; men’s lives hang in the balance; men’s hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?

The new stewardship of daring was to become the hallmark of modern Presidential politics. The aim was to overcome the hobbling lethargy of a government too divided to govern in a new century in which permanent crisis seemed to render the safe, deliberate pace of the Madisonian formula obsolete. Yet daring or no, the great inertial system of the Constitution – of checks and balances, of party government and bureaucracy, of judicial obstructionism and Federal decentralisation – continued to impede the efforts of Wilson to make the world safe for democracy, and of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make economic and social justice a Presidential responsibility and a public trust. As recently as 1940, Harold Laski was still crying out for leadership, leadership, leadership, and insisting, against Madison’s caution, that ‘power is also opportunity, and to face danger with confidence is the price of its fulfilment.’ His polemical text, The American Presidency, concluded with a plea to give to the President ‘the power commensurate with the function he has to perform’. Only in this way could what he termed ‘the American adventure’ hope to continue.

When, twenty years later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first American President born in this century, stood and took the oath of office it seemed to many of his fellow countrymen that the stewardship of daring had finally found its vindicator. The great adventure was once again underway and this time the power would be found – through or in spite of crisis, within or against the system – to deliver the nation over to destiny: the Camelot for which its long history as a chosen land had been a preparation. This was a President, young, manly, determined and vigorous, who would work miracles. With the sons of Harvard and Yale at his feet, historians and intellectuals his companions and advisers, he would never negotiate out of fear, even at the risk of nuclear war, and never fear to negotiate, even at the risk of peace. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty were twin feats of a single charisma.

A thousand days later the President was dead in Dallas: the myth of Camelot had the martyrdom which would make it the American legend of our times. The atmosphere of legend is thick and heady: in the vapours it left behind, the stewardship of daring was transmuted into the politics of hubris. In place of Wilson’s impotent President arose the Imperial Presidency. Within ten years, the crisis of Presidential power had become a crisis of national spirit of which Vietnam, urban breakdown, political assassination, Federal wiretapping, campus chaos, a Presidential Enemies List and Watergate were only the most melodramatic indicators. So shaky had the Presidency become that neither of Kennedy’s immediate successors served what should have been their normal terms – Johnson repudiating a life of successful power-brokering and exiling himself to Texas to avoid what he was certain would be defeat in the race for a second term, and Nixon eluding impeachment by a hair. The two decent men who followed, Ford and Carter, seemed trapped in a torpor of virtue, trying hard to restore integrity to the Presidency by offering the nation homilies in place of the decisive policies it was demanding.

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