The Colossus of Johnson City

Presidential Government: The Crucible of Leadership

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

Lyndon Johnson et al.
Lyndon Johnson et al.; drawing by David Levine

“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.