This is supposed to have been the era of the imperial presidency. It has turned out to be the era of presidencies that have tried to make themselves imperial—and failed. The attempt and the failure of the Reagan presidency are only the latest of this kind. The basic elements that have gone into the Reagan effort are also not new. Other presidents have used and misused the National Security Council and its “adviser”; other presidents have deliberately kept their secretaries of state in ignorance of presidential policy; other presidents have found ways to keep Congress in the dark about what they were doing.
Yet there is something new about the Reaganite phenomenon. The elements of the present intrigue may be familiar, but they have taken a different and more ominous form. A would-be imperial president has prepared the way for a would-be presidential junta.
The transition has been a very long one. In his study of the imperial presidency, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. began the story with the disputes over presidential power in George Washington’s administration. But the present crisis of presidential power has a different dimension; it is a crisis not only about what a president has the power to do; it is also about the power of those around or behind him to act in his name.
The roots of the present predicament go back to the efforts of at least the last seven presidents to extricate themselves from the constitutional limitations of their office. Schlesinger places the “presidential breakaway” after the Second World War. “The postwar Presidents,” he asserts, “though Eisenhower and Kennedy markedly less than Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, almost came to see the sharing of power with Congress in foreign policy as a derogation of the Presidency.” This version lets Franklin D. Roosevelt off on the ground that though his “destroyer deal” with Great Britain in 1940 was arranged without congressional authorization, it was done for good and sufficient reasons. Schlesinger exonerates Roosevelt because the prospect of a British collapse represented a genuine national emergency, and because Roosevelt privately consulted with the Republican and Democratic leadership. But Roosevelt knew that his action was constitutionally dubious and at first did not want to send the destroyers to Great Britain without legislative approval. As Schlesinger notes, the leading authority on the presidency, Professor Edward S. Corwin, regarded the deal as an “endorsement of unrestrained autocracy in the field of our foreign relations.” The road to Reagan was paved with good intentions.
The imperial presidency, then, is one that acts autocratically. It does so far more in foreign than in domestic affairs. Yet it was not always so. As long as the isolationist tradition was still strong, presidents had less incentive or opportunity to act alone. Once the so-called Truman Doctrine of 1947 seemed to provide a license to intervene everywhere in the world, presidents were far less inclined to restrain themselves, especially in periods of congressional complaisance.
Before the end of the Second World …