Commentary Magazine

The Presidency & Professor Schlesinger

“This book,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. tells us in the single clear statement of his theme in The Imperial Presidency,1 “deals essentially with the shift in the constitutional balance—with, that is, the appropriation by the Presidency, and particularly by the contemporary Presidency, of powers reserved by the Constitution and by long historical practice to Congress.” Conservatives like James Burnham have long held that Congress is being overrun, outflanked, and overwhelmed by activist Presidents in the service of culturally imperialistic constituencies at home. Of this—the immense growth of the executive branch brought about since 1932 and especially since 1960 by the active intervention of Presidents in domestic affairs—Professor Schlesinger says very little. He focuses almost entirely on foreign affairs:

. . . the imperial Presidency received its decisive impetus, I believe, from foreign policy; above all, from the capture by the Presidency of the most vital of national decisions, the decision to go to war. . . . By the early 1970's the American President had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung of China) among the great powers of the world.

The Right worries about the Imperial President at home; the Left about the Imperial President abroad.

For the first twelve pages, Schlesinger tells us “what the Founding Fathers intended” in the Presidency, and in the next twenty-one pages, “where they disagreed.” This brief section valuably recreates the hesitance and uncertainties of practical men laboring to create a great new office more restrained than monarchy. But it is not until chapter 3, “The Rise of Presidential War,” that Schlesinger gets down to his true theme. Already in 1834, Justice Story was saying of President Jackson: “Though we live under the form of a republic we are in fact under the absolute rule of a single man.” Schlesinger is at his best, here and throughout his book, when he tries to describe the unwritten checks upon the Presidents and Congresses and Courts, those habits of conferring with one another, deferring in time of crisis to flexibility and unity, refusing to insist upon prerogatives so absolutely that rigidity sets in, respecting public opinion and precedent and traditional civilities. Harsh and mean conflicts there have been in American history; passions almost murderous and outbursts of fury and frustration. Schlesinger takes unusual care to point out those appeals, and large submissions, to public judgment that seem almost always to have mitigated our most grievous constitutional crises. From Washington to Jefferson to Jackson to Polk to Lincoln, Presidents sometimes seized powers that were either too trivial to be watched over by legislatures or too immediate, urgent, and serious to be submitted to congressional consent. Yet in every case, some counter-measure on the part of Congress was generated or some appeal beyond the sole judgment of the President was launched.

Schlesinger next describes the period of growing congressional control, from the time of Lincoln until World War II. The failure to impeach President Johnson in 1868 prevented the reduction of the Presidency to total subservience. But year by year, Congress got a tighter grip upon the nation. Bryce wrote in 1888 that impeachment is “the heaviest piece of artillery in the congressional arsenal, but because it is so heavy it is unfit for ordinary use. It is like a hundred-ton gun which needs complex machinery to set it into position, an enormous charge of power to fire it, and a large mark to aim at.” McKinley, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson demonstrated that strong Presidents could find ways to act in foreign affairs both through and around the Congress. But by 1937 Congressman Louis Ludlow of Indiana failed in the House by only 21 votes to write into law a “Peace Amendment” that would have required a national referendum before a declaration of war could take effect.

From 1919 until 1939 Congress used its control over foreign policy, neutrality policy in particular, to keep the United States ineffectual abroad. Under congressional management, Walter Lippmann judged, “the emasculation of American foreign policy reached its extreme limit—the limit of total absurdity and total bankruptcy.” The stage was set for the ascendant Presidents.

Beginning in 1942-45, Schlesinger records, Americans began to feel differently about their Presidents. Instantaneous nuclear warfare, international intrigue and espionage, global competition of virtually every sort, and the high ideology of “Cold War” led to speeches, articles, and editorials proclaiming: “More Presidential Power (Not Less).” In simpler days, some held, we could afford cumbersome democratic procedures; nowadays, we must strengthen the swiftness and efficiency of presidential control and learn to “trust” our Presidents.

The American Presidency came to perceive itself as the last, best hope of human progress and liberty. Crusade in Europe, Containment of Communism, Alliance for Progress, New Frontiers, Showdown in Cuba, the Lonely, Embattled “Only President You've Got”—such elements as these projected a new cosmic drama. One man “with his finger on the button of doom” came to occupy a symbolic role that kings, perhaps only gods, had once occupied. The “loneliness” of the office began to be extolled; the President's labors grew to mythological dimensions. The Congress shrank.

Schlesinger quotes Carl Vinson of Georgia, Member of Congress since 1914. The role of Congress had

come to be that of a sometimes querulous but essentially kindly uncle who complains while furiously puffing on his pipe but who finally, as everyone expects, gives in and hands over the allowance, grants the permission, or raises his hand in blessing, and then returns to his rocking chair for another year of somnolence broken only by an occasional anxious glance down the avenue and a muttered doubt as to whether he had done the right thing.

Truman, Johnson, and Nixon bear the brunt of Schlesinger's criticism. Eisenhower was a team man, passive even, seemingly nondirective. Kennedy escapes serious criticism. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis “beautifully fulfilled both the ideal of the strong President and the prophecy of split-second presidential judgment in a nuclear age.” Then, in a Nixonian tactic he uses frequently, Schlesinger feigns the acceptance of responsibility without really admitting fault:

The very brilliance of Kennedy's performance appeared to vindicate the idea that the President must take unto himself the final decisions of war and peace. The missile crisis, I believe, was superbly handled, and could not have been handled so well in any other way. But one of its legacies was the imperial conception of the Presidency that brought the republic so low in Vietnam.

The least satisfactory of Schlesinger's chapters ought to have been the best: “The Revolutionary President: Washington.” The book was rushed to publication; its motivating force should here be nakedly supplied. Schlesinger makes two chief accusations against Nixon: that Nixon was “revolutionary” in his conception of the Presidency, nearly bringing off a sort of coup d'état; and that Nixon tried to establish a “plebiscitary Presidency” modelled on Charles de Gaulle's Fourth Republic.

Three texts yield the basic allegations:

As one examined the impressive range of Nixon's initiatives—from his appropriation of the war-making power to his interpretation of the appointing power, from his unilateral determination of social priorities to his unilateral abolition of statutory programs, from his attack on legislative privilege to his enlargement of executive privilege, from his theory of impoundment to his theory of the pocket veto, from his calculated disparagement of the cabinet and his calculated discrediting of the press to his carefully organized concentration of federal management in the White House—from all this a larger design ineluctably emerged. It was hard to know whether Nixon, whose style was banality, understood consciously where he was heading. He was not a man given to political philosophizing. But he was heading toward a new balance of constitutional powers, an audacious and imaginative reconstruction of the American Constitution. He did indeed contemplate, as he said in his 1971 State of the Union message, a New American Revolution. But the essence of this revolution was not, as he said at the time, power to the people. The essence was power to the Presidency.

Then comes the second accusation:

What Nixon was moving toward was . . . not a parliamentary regime but a plebiscitary Presidency. . . . Certainly after his re-election he began what can be profitably seen as an attempt to establish a quasi-Gaullist regime in the United States. Instead of conciliating the defeated minority, he was cold and unforgiving. Instead of placating Congress, he confronted it with executive faits accomplis taken without explanation. The mandate became the source of wider power than any President had ever claimed before. Whether a conscious or unconscious revolutionary, Nixon was carrying the imperial Presidency toward its ultimate form in the plebiscitary Presidency—with the President accountable only once every four years, shielded in the years between elections from congressional and public harassment, empowered by his mandate to make war or to make peace, to spend or to impound, to give out information or to hold it back, superseding congressional legislation by executive order, all in the name of a majority whose choice must prevail till it made another choice four years later—unless it wished to embark on the drastic and improbable course of impeachment.

The third text taxes Nixon further:

Richard M. Nixon, for all his conventionality of utterance and mind, was a genuine revolutionary. Who can say why? No doubt it was partly out of inner need: he had to create for himself a Presidency he could handle psychologically. Partly it may have been out of honest ignorance of American traditions: few Presidents seem to have had such limited acquaintance with the history of the republic. It was partly, one must hope, out of a considered judgment that the old separation of powers had outlived its time: nothing else could confer dignity on what constitutional historians will otherwise regard as a piratical administration. Whatever the explanation, the theory of the Presidency he embodied and propagated meant that the President of the United States, on his own personal and secret finding of emergency, had the right to nullify the Constitution and the law. No President had ever made such a claim before.

What are we to make of these accusations? Plainly, Richard Nixon gathered unto himself all the prerogatives employed by other Presidents in the past. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had shared in wiretaps on Martin Luther King and others. Impoundment, executive privilege, tampering with elections, illicit military ventures, counterespionage episodes within the United States, and other kinds of activity of which Richard Nixon stands accused are not in the least unknown to recent history. What then was special about the Nixon Presidency? According to Schlesinger, that it was “imperial,” that it was “plebiscitary,” and that it was “revolutionary.” A cool look at the Nixon administration reveals that Schlesinger uses all three of these terms in a misleading way.


The word “imperial,” to begin with, need not mean non-constitutional and, in association with high office, need not be pejorative: Winston Churchill was an imperial prime minister. American Presidents of the future, however observant of the Constitution, will necessarily be executives of a worldwide economic and military power.

Secondly, the word “imperial” conjures up an image of the “militarization” of American life. Yet our army is inferior in manpower to the army of Russia and the army of China. It is falling short of its quotas for volunteers. It does not attract a preponderance of our best and brightest citizens. It has few articulate defenders among the molders of public opinion, the leaders of Congress, or major candidates for the Presidency. Can one think of any great power in history with a weaker military spirit?

If our Presidents are “imperial,” moreover, it is in good measure because our intellectual leaders have not helped to dispel illusions. Few such leaders call for large-scale national discipline, national service, national flexibility. The nation has made an extravagant commitment to elaborate military hardware in order to contrive a cheap way to balance Russian and Chinese divisions. To pay the salaries and to maintain the facilities for several million men under arms is beyond our seriousness. It is not our military spirit but our consumer spirit that has led to technological terror. We lack Spartan discipline; on their way to combat, our soldiers board helicopters from golf courses, officers' clubs, and dazzling department-store PX's, with stereos and TV sets under their arms. Our civilian life has not been nearly so militarized as our military has been consumerized.

Our intellectual elites have contributed little to the nation's willingness to accept intelligent and honest mobilization. In the Korean “conflict” as well as in Vietnam, our Presidents were duplicitous because the national psyche had not been readied for military discipline. Americans do not want to accept the economic burdens of militarization. War cannot be called war. Presidents cannot call up “war fever” to unite the population. They cannot promise a protracted, costly, low-level struggle of endurance. They could not keep men in Vietnam for terms of three or five years, so as not to lose hard-won lessons of experience with every batch of new recruits. Our society is not sufficiently military—and, therefore, not sufficiently political—to grant our Presidents flexibility. Our Presidents must be devious because we are.

There is a further “imperial” dimension to the modern Presidency which Schlesinger does not address. We have not yet found a way to separate the office of symbolizing the life of the nation from the office of exercising executive power. The confounding of these two offices was, in the beginning, a major source of presidential power. The Congress was diffuse, ornery, obstructive; the Presidency needed every possible symbolic lever to enforce coherence and direction. But since 1945 the advent of television has magnified the symbolic power of the Presidency a hundred times. Television is an intensely person-centered medium. It focuses on the individual, on his personality, on his manner, on his tacit as well as on his spoken views. Depending on newspapers, we depend on the President's printed words. Watching him on television, we not only deal with words: we watch his darting eyes, see him perspire or watch his fingers tremble, notice that his smile is not synchronized with his sentiments. Television heightens by many degrees the impact of the President's personality upon the nation, upon its moods, its judgments, its restlessness. Here, in this psychic forum, there is no constitutional balance. The Congress does not reach us so. The Courts do not reach us so. Only the President has acquired this new technological access to the citizen's soul.

Of this kind of presidential “imperialism,” Schlesinger says very little; it does not seem to be the swelling of presidential power that truly concerns him, so much as into whose hands such power falls. The triviality of the reforms of the Presidency that Schlesinger finally proposes at the end of his book builds up this impression irresistibly.


Schlesinger is equally misleading on the “plebiscitary” character of the Nixon Presidency. In 1960, John F. Kennedy barely won election; his uncertainty of his symbolic power among the people kept him under severe external check. In 1968, Richard Nixon barely won election and he, too, fell under severe external check. After the poor economic performance of 1970 and the increasingly unpopular prolongation of the war in 1971, prospects for Nixon's re-election did not seem certain. In January 1972, Senator Edmund S. Muskie was riding higher in the polls than President Nixon, although Muskie had not even been nominated yet or given the full attention of a long political campaign. With the nomination of George McGovern, the major political check on the Nixon administration was eliminated.

In 1972, Richard Nixon did not take his campaign to the American people. He did not even campaign as Richard Nixon. He asked people not that they should vote for him, but that they should “Re-elect the President.” To call this election strategy a move toward a “plebiscitary Presidency”—Schlesinger characteristically hedges by calling it an “unconscious” move—is both to misread the plain facts and to insult the American people. Nixon could not afford to play Charles de Gaulle in public because he did not have the respect, love, or legendary quality that Charles de Gaulle had—not the egotism, not the panache. Nixon's very name was a political liability. His face, his manner, his style, his past, his economic policies, were minuses. Nixon, anticipating in 1971 a very close race, won in 1972 without campaigning. The mandate was not for Nixon; it was against his opponent.2


What moved the Nixon men, moreover, was not a “revolutionary” design on the Constitution, conscious or unconscious. What moved them was a political design. Quite consciously, Nixon set out to alter the fundamental balance of power not in the American Constitution but in American politics. He was convinced that in the rapidly growing and increasingly rootless populations of the South and West he had the votes and the money to do what the Civil War had not succeeded in doing: transfer preeminence of power and symbolic reality from the Puritan culture of the North to the evangelical culture of the South. He was not trying to carve out a merely personal success, nor to alter the constitutional balance. He was trying to build a dynasty, a “new majority,” which could—like the New Deal coalition which was its obverse model—last some forty years. This was the real meaning of his “Southern strategy,” of his cozening of Connally, of his “White Houses” in Southern California and Florida, of his Supreme Court appointments (defeated in the act but symbolically the more powerful in the region where defeat represents reality itself), and of his struggle with the television networks.

The struggle with the networks was particularly important. Nixon understood that television functions today as the main information system for the largest proportion of citizens. Whoever shapes the sense of reality, the narrative line, and the symbolic context of the day's news goes a very long way toward shaping political reality. For political power is, in essence, power over symbols—power over the construction of reality itself. Since World War II, television has more and more come to control that power and the main lines of network news reflect the Northeastern style, values—and politics. What was finally most threatening about the Nixon Presidency was its ambition to transfer ideological control of the nation's instruments of communication from one ethos to another. Then there would indeed be a concentration of presidential power.

In short, where Schlesinger speaks of a shift in constitutional power, Nixon had in mind a shift in political power. Where Schlesinger holds up the civil religion of the Puritan Northeast as the guardian of the nation's traditions, Nixon holds up the civil religion of the evangelical frontier. Schlesinger cites Reinhold Niebuhr; Nixon cites Billy Graham. Schlesinger cites the national press; Nixon extols the regional and local press. Schlesinger turns his eyes toward “public figures in Washington” and toward the elite universities; Nixon looks to Miami, Houston, Tulsa, San Diego.

It is this revolution that Nixon was trying to accomplish. In its service, he became a tough, bold, forthright, adversary President, exactly the kind of President that Schlesinger himself has always celebrated—so much so, indeed, that one can easily imagine Nixon's ideas about the Presidency acquiring nourishment and reinforcement from Schlesinger's earlier writings. From The Age of Jackson (1954) through The Vital Center (1949 and 1962) Schlesinger has given no little support to men of “toughness” who ride roughshod over the obstacles in their way. He has thrilled to “the danger of power.” His vital center “believes in attack,” rejoices in “conflict,” generates “passionate intensity,” depends upon—the phrase is important to him—“the large resolute breed of men capable of the climactic effort.” He has commended “the Jacksonian attitude,” which “presumes a perpetual tension in society, a doubtful equilibrium, constantly breeding strife and struggle.” He has praised “an earnest, toughminded pragmatic attempt to wrestle with new problems as they come, without being enslaved by a theory of the past, or by a theory of the future.” And as he himself long ago predicted:

So long as democracy continues, the government will periodically change hands; and every accretion to the power of the state must be accounted as a weapon of a future conservatism as well as of a present liberalism. It is not too much to anticipate that the fortunes of interventionism may duplicate the fortunes of free enterprise, and what began as a faith for liberals end up as a philosophy for conservatives.

Thus Nixon has been the single serious challenge to the political and cultural power of the liberal elites. Shrewder than Taft, or Goldwater, or Reagan, Nixon was careful not to be an “extremist.” He came out of the very eye of the “vital center”; he hit Schlesinger where he lives. Some might call Nixon the embodiment of banality and conventionality, but they knew that for the first time since Andrew Jackson, a President had arisen who genuinely threatened both the economic and symbolic power of the Eastern elite. Schlesinger writes:

. . . the White House plainly saw as the real Enemies . . . the Eastern “establishment” with its attendant politicians, lawyers, journalists, television commentators, professors, and preachers. Nixon had long perceived this crowd as a self-appointed elite who did not know or understand or represent the real America, who had opposed him all his life and who were now using their domination of the media of communications to destroy his Presidency.

The old Eastern establishment has, of course, lost its power to a new one, centered in Washington politics and in communications. Schlesinger himself described the shift in a remarkable passage in The Bitter Heritage:

It has become recently fashionable to denounce the arrogance of the American Establishment. But one sometimes wonders whether the trouble with the American Establishment has been so much its arrogance as its cowardice—in other words, its fear of acting as an Establishment should. The point of an Establishment, I take it, is to provide support for the established values and institutions of society. This has been the triumph of the original Establishment in Great Britain. It is impossible to imagine a McCarthy terrorizing British public life: the Establishment would never permit it. But the so-called American Establishment crumbled up before McCarthy. . . . let us avoid the illusion that the American Establishment will be much braver the next time round. The nation will have to look to stouter and more principled figures if it is to contain another epidemic of political panic. One place to look, I think, will be in Washington itself.

Schlesinger in 1967 named our best hopes: Secretary MacNamara, Senator Fulbright, Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, the Supreme Court, “public figures and the press,” and “the increased size and weight of the academic community.” Here, then, is Schlesinger's basic constituency. His own hidden agenda is to provide the ideological transition from the high culture of the old Northeast to the political activism of the recent Left—including, where necessary, a touch of the radical Left.


Schlesinger is fascinated by an exhortation from Walt Whitman's later writings. He cites this passage in no fewer than three of his books and uses it at the very conclusion of The Imperial Presidency. Whitman looks around at the cities crowded with new immigrants. He sees masses “with hearts of rags and souls of chalk.” (How many of our grandparents milled in those crowds beneath his gaze?) He ponders “the shallowness and miserable selfism of these crowds of men, with all their minds so blank of high humanity and aspiration.” And he raises “the terrible query. . . Is not Democracy of human rights humbug after all?” With Whitman's answer, Schlesinger closes his latest book:

There is no week nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their supreme confidence in themselves—and lose their roughness and spirit of defiance—Tyranny may always enter—there is no charm, no bar against it—the only bar against it is a large resolute breed of men.

The grand body of workingmen, mechanics, clerks, and operatives who live in their many diverse kinds of families and neighborhoods across this vast and beautiful land do not have hearts of rags and souls of chalk. They do not wait for some “resolute breed” from among “the best and brightest” to lead them to morality. Neither Nixon's men nor Schlesinger's men hold the key to the American future.

Still, the marching banners of the Eastern elite are already flapping in the wind: leadership! morality! Compared to Nixon's tattered leadership, those flags are bound to stir the heart. The hallways are abuzz with preparations for a mighty comeback. That, finally, is the agenda, not really hidden, of Schlesinger's useful book.


1 Houghton-Mifflin, 505 pp., $10.00.

2 Alexander M. Bickel, who has used the phrases “plebiscitary” and “Gaullist” for some time, means by them something slightly different from the meaning Schlesinger employs (see, for example, Mr. Bickel's article, “Watergate & the Legal Order,” in last month's issue of COMMENTARY). But, in any case, the collapse of the external (political) checks on the Presidency in 1972-73 was not due so much, it appears, to Nixonian design as to the grand political failures of his opposition. The collapse of the internal checks was implicit in the resentment and lack of magnanimity in the Nixon men from the beginning, although some observers—Theodore White and John Osborne among them—thought for a time that Nixon was “growing with the job.”

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