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The Colossus of Johnson City

Presidential Government: The Crucible of Leadership

by James MacGregor Burns
Houghton Mifflin, 366 pp., $5.95

Someone has said,” wrote Lord Bryce in The American Commonwealth, “that the American Government and Constitution are based on the theology of Calvin and the philosophy of Hobbes. This at least is true, that there is a hearty Puritanism in the view of human nature which pervades the instrument of 1787. It is the work of men who believed in original sin, and were resolved to leave open for transgressors no door which they could possibly shut. Compare this spirit with the enthusiastic optimism of the Frenchmen of 1789.” And compare it with the spirit and the political practices of the Americans of 1966!

The American system of government reposes upon two premises, which are in strict logic mutually exclusive: first, that the government must be strong enough to govern, and second, that it must not be so strong as to be able to abuse its power. Thus on the one hand, the Constitution, supported by the dynamics of American politics, confers upon the President powers which, as the Founding Fathers recognized with awe, are the equal of those of any king; on the other hand, it confines those powers within a strait-jacket of checks and balances, which interposes seemingly insuperable obstacles to their effective exercise. The dynamic interplay between these two contradictory principles has called forth a dialectic in which the Supreme Court and Congress have tried to shackle the President’s powers while the President has tried to free himself of these shackles.

In the short run, Congress and, more sporadically, the Supreme Court have been able to hamstring a succession of Presidents, to delay, water down, and divert their policies. When Woodrow Wilson published his Congressional Government in 1885, he saw Congress as the center of governmental power and the President as a mere appendix to it. “The President,” he wrote, “is no greater than his prerogative to veto makes him; he is, in other words, powerful rather as a branch of the legislature than as the titular head of the executive.” This was written, of course, under the impact of the experience of a succession of weak Presidents. Yet in the twentieth century a succession of strong presidents—Wilson himself, the two Roosevelts, Truman, and Kennedy—could have recognized more than a grain of truth in Wilson’s analysis. And where the President and Congress were able to cooperate, as in the early New Deal legislation, the Supreme Court struck their legislation down as unconstitutional.

IN THE LONG RUN, however, strong Presidents have known how to mobilize their constituency, that is, the nation as a whole, in support of their policies, and Congress and the Supreme Court have not been able to resist that combined pressure of President and people for long. After three decades, the radical innovations of the New Deal have become the orthodoxies of the American consensus. Yet after each new departure, Congress and the Supreme Court have known how to reassert their limiting functions, calling forth a new presidential initiative.

Thus the American political system seems to have fulfilled the intentions of its founders: It continuously oscillates between the ascendancy of the President and that of Congress and the judiciary. It is indeed a system of checks and balances. In consequence whenever the presidential scales are heavy, one must wish for an increase in the weight of the congressional and judicial ones, and vice versa. Thus I could write in 1962:

It is for the President to reassert his historic role as both the initiator of policy and the awakener of public opinion. It is true that only a strong, wise and shrewd President can marshal to the support of wise policies the strength and wisdom latent in that slumbering giant—American public opinion. Yet while it is true that great men have rarely been elected President of the United States, it is upon that greatness, which is the greatness of its people personified, that the United States, from Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt, has had to rely in the conduct of its foreign affairs. It is upon that greatness that Western Civilization must rely for its survival.

These words I addressed in 1949 to Mr. Truman and in 1956 to Mr. Eisenhower. It is the measure of the chronic weakness of Presidential leadership that the same words must be addressed to Mr. Kennedy in 1962, at the beginning of his second year in office.

Obviously I would not write these words today. For today the President’s power sweeps all before it. The Supreme Court has become his ally, and Congress stirs but half-heartedly and ineffectually in its bondage. Mass communications, with very few and again half-hearted exceptions, are at his service. The individual citizen, opposing the President’s powers and policies, may fulfill the mission of keeping the voice of conscience alive, but as for his political effectiveness, he might as well talk to himself. When Theodore Roosevelt said that he had only one wish, to be for twenty-four hours President, Congress, and the Supreme Court at the same time, he was daydreaming. Lyndon B. Johnson has achieved what Theodore Roosevelt was dreaming about, and for more than twenty-four hours.

What is so ominous in our present situation is not that the President has reasserted his powers, but that in the process he has reduced all countervailing powers, political and social, to virtual and seemingly permanent impotence. What the Founding Fathers feared has indeed come to pass: The President of the United States has become an uncrowned king. Lyndon B. Johnson has become the Julius Caesar of the American Republic.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

WHAT MAKES OPPOSITION to such a concentration of power particularly burdensome is its exercise on behalf of aspirations commonly possessed by the great majority of the American people. Quantitatively, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society signifies the consummation of the great social reforms which the New Deal initiated for the first time on a broad scale. Qualitatively, the Great Society seeks the restoration of man’s dignity in an environment worthy of him. These aspirations are not selfish even in the sense that they are limited to a particular nation; in truth, they embrace mankind, and for the time being at least individual doubts and parochial dissatisfactions cannot prevail against the attractiveness of these great designs, so much in tune with the humanitarian aspirations of America. If Lyndon Johnson were a selfish tyrant, protecting, say, “the interests” against the popular aspirations, the people, Congress, and the Court would cut down his powers, for they would find distasteful the ends on behalf of which those powers are being used. If a contemporary Mark Antony were to tell us what Caesar has done and will do for the people and for mankind, who cares that Caesar is “ambitious”; that is, that he has, and seeks, too much power?

Lyndon Johnson’s power is benevolent at least with respect to the President’s intentions. Who could quarrel with him if his policies designed to bring peace, security, justice, and nationhood to South Vietnam had a chance of succeeding? But this is not the issue here. Even if the President’s great designs could be realized, they would require a concentration of presidential powers that would stagger the imagination. Thus the benevolence of inordinate power must not blind us to the dangers inherent in such power, regardless of the intentions and purposes of its holder. For no man, however good and wise, is good enough and wise enough to be trusted with unlimited power. This is the perennial truth which the Founding Fathers wrote into the structure of American government. “Th’abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power.” This is what Brutus feared in Caesar; that is what we must fear in Lyndon Johnson.

This astounding imbalance in the distribution of governmental powers has become obvious in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, but it has not been created by it. Comparing the powers of Napoleon III and the President of the United States, the London Economist remarked on January 27th, 1866:

The key-note of the American Constitution is the existence of an Executive which during its term of office is responsible to the people, which acts by its own volition, which can pursue if necessary a policy diametrically opposed to the wishes of those who elected it. That also is the key-note of the system established by the Second Empire. The President does as he pleases in all matters within his province just as the Emperor does, and like him is irresponsible to the Legislature—need not, indeed, explain to the representatives of the people his own official acts.

Almost a decade ago, a French writer, Amaury de Riencourt, referred to the President’s “powers of truly Caesarian magnitude.”

THE OBJECTIVE CONDITIONS for the ascendancy of presidential powers have been long in the making; they only awaited a President willing and able to make full use of them. First of all, the President has a natural advantage over the other branches of the government because he can take the initiative, he can act, while the others can only prevent and delay. This natural advantage of the executive has since the beginning of the Republic been particularly marked in the conduct of foreign policy.

Secondly, and most importantly, our age has witnessed a drastic shift in power from the people at large to the government, within the government from the legislative to the executive branch, and within the executive branch from the democratically responsible officials to certain technological elites. These shifts of power are the result of the revolutions in the technologies of transportation, communication, and warfare. These revolutions have transformed the business of government into an esoteric undertaking, unintelligible to the uninitiated and far removed from the experience of the man in the street. The issues of whether or not to build an anti-missile system or fallout shelters are different in quality from, say, the issue of the prohibition of child labor of more than half a century ago. In contrast to the former, the latter was intelligible to the man in the street, and he was capable of passing moral judgment on it and translating the judgment into political action. In consequence, political participation has given way to apathy, and “consensus” has taken the place of political controversy.

Thus the stage was set for a new Caesar to bestride it. Only Caesar was missing. Presidents Truman and Kennedy could not fill the role because they were unable to manipulate Congress, and President Eisenhower, even though he created the administrative machinery of the contemporary presidency, was not interested in using it for the actual enlargement of the President’s powers. It is the signal contribution Lyndon Johnson has made to American political life that he has taken advantage of the objective conditions of American politics with extra-ordinary skill and with an extra-ordinary taste for power. He has well-nigh exhausted the possibilities of power of the modern presidency, dwarfing the other branches of the government and reducing the people at large to helplessly approving bystanders.

Professor Burns has addressed himself in a previous book, The Deadlock of Democracy, to one force in the dialectic of American politics: the decline of Congress and the four parties, Presidential and Congressional, operating within it. In this new book, he deals with the other force, the President. He shows clearly—and herein lies his distinctive contribution—the inevitability of the growth of presidential powers, regardless of the use individual presidents have made of them. This thesis is clearly stated in the book, but it does not dominate its structure. The book does not have a single focus or thesis, but is rather a collection of essays, approaching the modern presidency from different angles. In one chapter, Professor Burns gives us a typology of the presidency based on its Hamiltonian, Madisonian, and Jeffersonian models. In another chapter, he surveys the attitudes of the historians and political scientists towards the presidency. Elsewhere again, he analyzes the different forces which are brought to bear upon the making of the President’s decisions. In the last section, he assesses the modern presidency in terms of its relation to the national purpose, individual liberty, representative government, and national leadership.

THE BOOK IS DOMINATED by a curious ambivalence, which in a sense reflects the ambivalence of American politics itself. On the one hand, Professor Burns is fully aware of the enormous concentration of power in the hands of the modern President.

Thus the Presidency has absorbed the Cabinet, the executive departments, the Vice-Presidency. It has taken over the national party apparatus. Through consistently liberal appointments over the years it has a powerful influence on the doctrine of the Supreme Court. It has transformed the federal system.

And Congress is tied to the President by partaking in the aspirations of the Great Society.

Yet Professor Burns is not concerned with the perils of imbalance and the restoration of the system of checks and balances. Rather he wants “to set to rest some of the fears of people that worry about the perils of the presidency.”

The old and accepted fears of presidential power…do not seem justified on the basis of actual experience. Increased authority and scope have not made the Presidency a tyrannical institution; on the contrary, the office has become the main governmental bastion for the protection of individual liberty and the expansion of civil rights. The office “represents” the electorate at least as effectively and democratically as does Congress, though in a different way. The office has attracted neither power-mad politicians nor bland incompetents but the ablest political leaders in the land, and these leaders in turn have brought the highest talent to the White House…as a general proposition, the stronger we make the Presidency, the more we strengthen democratic procedures and can hope to realize modern liberal democratic goals.

Professor Burns fears not an excess of power in the President but a lack of it.

The real danger, it seems to me, is just the reverse—whether we have created such an institutionalized Presidency that the President will be smothered by the machinery, whether he will lose the vitality, independence and inventiveness necessary for creative leadership.

The danger…lies not in the failure to achieve our essential contemporary goals of freedom and equality but in their substantial realization and in the incapacity of presidential government to turn to new human purposes.

What concerns Professor Burns here is “the end of ideology,” which drains the democratic process of the vitality that stems from controversy over great issues. This trend is not limited to America; it is a common experience of Western democracies, most obvious in Great Britain and West Germany. However, I doubt that in the long run there is much to worry about. For the seemingly permanent exhaustion of great issues is likely to be the quiet before the storm. The domination of man by man, with all the conflicts this entails, is not about to be replaced by the administration of things. The attempt in earnest to build the Great Society at home and abroad is bound to give rise to conflicts of interests, which, in turn, will bring forth new intellectual positions to justify and rationalize the different interests. If, on the other hand, no such attempts are made, that very failure will give rise to deep disappointment in those whose hopes have been raised by the promises of the Great Society, and new conflicts of interests and new ideologies will grow from that disappointment.

PROFESSOR BURNS’S MOOD thus seems to be utterly at variance with the distrust of power which has inspired the American Constitution and the American political system. Since presidential power thus far has been in benevolent hands, Professor Burns seems to argue, let us have more of it and let us not worry about its possible abuse. But Professor Burns is not a son of the Enlightenment. He shares the failing of many academicians, who for themselves must be satisfied with the appearances of power: He is dazzled by real power. But interestingly enough, he is not blinded by it. In the same breath that he extolls presidential power he calls for opposition to it.

The greatest need of the Presidency…will be an opposition that challenges presidential values, presidential methods, presidential institutions, that is eager to take power and to present its own definition of the national purpose…. The impotence of the opposition becomes more serious as presidential government becomes more powerful. No matter how benign a government may be, it will be tempted to manipulate public opinion, to try to dominate the flow of opinion, to cover up mistakes and to cast doubt on the patriotism or at least the honesty of outside critics. The more that government represents a consensus, or claims to, the more tempted it may be to succumb to some of these tendencies.

Professor Burns here clearly recognizes the complementary relationship that exists between an overpowering presidency and an impotent opposition. Thus he cannot have it both ways: He cannot, on the one hand, look complacently at unchallengeable presidential power and even advocate its increase and, on the other, call for a strong opposition. He cannot at the same time yield to his fascination with presidential power and satisfy his concern for democratic restraints. If he wants an all-powerful presidency, he cannot want a strong opposition, and vice versa. Here is indeed the dilemma which the institution of the presidency has posed from the very beginning for the theory and practice of American democracy.

An impotent opposition is a mere function of an all-powerful presidency. To affirm the latter and to call for a strong opposition to check it is a contradiction in terms. It is the very existence of an all-powerful President that reduces the opposition to impotence. The opposition can criticize the President’s conduct of the Vietnam war. But it can do nothing but talk, and it is the President who acts. By virtue both of the constitutional arrangements and the dynamics of American politics, the Congressional opposition cannot prevail against the President as a parliamentary opposition can. The remedies are both broader and narrower than that.

On the one hand, the Congressional opposition can mobilize the people at large who will render their verdict in the next Congressional and presidential elections. On the other hand, Congress can refuse to grant the President the financial means with which to implement his policies. Both the general remedy of bringing about a change in policies by changing the policy makers and the specific one of forcing the President to give up certain policies by withholding financial support from them must be nurtured by a spirit of political realism and of democratic independence, which recognizes both the need for presidential powers and the necessity to restrain them. At this point we return to the wisdom and dilemma of the Founders: a system of checks and balances which will promote the effective use, and prevent the abuse, of presidential power.

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