Power in Washington
Power at the Pentagon
In recent years, liberals have written much about the forms, distribution, and uses of power in America. Their thought has been dominated by the feeling that too much power—political, social, and economic—is unresponsible, hidden, often simply improper in its methods and purposes. With the ever greater prominence of large public and private bureaucratic structures, the sense has grown that things no longer go on unplanned and haphazard, but are determined by human will. But whose will? Is it the will of the people, or the majority of the people, as is proper in a democracy (however hard it may be to ascertain the will of large numbers of people)? Or are the wills of a comparatively small number of people decisive? There is surely no “power elite” that controls the American system in its entirety. Great interests, each in the charge of a few men, however, seem to do as they please, and often at the expense or to the hurt of the larger public. And always in the background is the brute fact that simply in running their establishments, men controlling business, labor, the armed forces, make decisions and exercise power on a scale usually thought to be appropriate only to men chosen by the people for public office, and held accountable to them.
In Douglass Cater’s Power in Washington we have a book that treats the facts of unresponsible power with great urgency. Mr. Cater is an editor of The Reporter magazine, and the author of a book on the role of the press in American society. He is, in this new book, a quite self-conscious reporter, aware that his access to daily fact is more intimate than that of most political scientists, and aware also that there are “mysteries of the struggle to govern” for a good reporter to penetrate, that power in Washington has many “guises” and turns up in unexpected places, and that the “trappings” of power have an iconological importance that the trained eye can disclose. This is not to say that Cater believes that behind every policy there is a conspiracy, or that all politics is dirt. Nor on the other hand does Cater succumb to the charm of power, despite his incessant exposure to it. His book is, in short, exceptionally pure. It is nevertheless something of a disappointment.
The early pages are the strongest. For Cater, the overwhelming political fact is that our national government is fragmentary or “disintegrate.” “The central problem confronting government today is to make power in Washington more cohesive.” His bias is towards stronger Presidential leadership. His main culprit is obstructionist Congressional committees, dominated by their baronial chairmen, and especially sensitive to local interests or to special interests. But Cater’s concerns are not limited to the formal separation of powers. He stresses the intractability of the giant bureaucracies of the executive branch of government, the evidently unavoidable freedom of action on the part of permanent officials who are supposed to be the servants …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.