Jackson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy have been the main reasons for what Arthur Schlesinger here admits has been his own past contribution to the “presidential mystique,” his notable infatuation with “strong” Presidents. Anyway, Nixon has chilled the affair but not killed it. To anyone well acquainted with Schlesinger’s fascinatingly partisan, tendentious, highly literary biographies of his favorite administrations, the texture of this new book, a book of course motivated by Nixon, will nevertheless come as a surprise. Schlesinger has read carefully in the literature about the separation of powers. His attack on Nixon comes wrapped in a more theoretical and seemingly even-handed consideration of presidential authority—by which we in Nixonland mean the excess of that authority—than I would have expected from that politically scrappy but, as a historian, old-fashioned hagiographer, whose many books and polemics on the Presidency will likely some day be read as a guide not so much to Jackson, Roosevelt, Kennedy as to the last-ditch liberalism of my generation.
The substantial opening of this new book takes the form of a historical review of the many controversies around the unprogrammed but inevitable extension of presidential power. But be not deceived. Nixon may look like the crisis in the drama of administration that Schlesinger retraces in this book (summitry has been his intellectual passion as a historian). But much as Schlesinger conscientiously tries to affirm the part that all Nixon’s predecessors played in making him possible, Schlesinger’s heart (very sagely) is not in this. Nixon comes out as a bad hat. Since Schlesinger does not believe that Nixon’s peculiar falseness can be accounted for by the “imperial” Presidency, he cannot prove it. And since Schlesinger is too much a historian of administrative elites and their manners, he cannot search out the responsibility for the phenomenon of Nixon in contemporary American society.
So what we get is a review of the presidential power that prepares us for Nixon but does not explain him, a brilliant summary of Nixon’s “revolutionary” excesses in the White House that does not get at the unconscious nihilism behind Nixon’s Boy Scout rhetoric, and a final prescription for a more sensible and balanced Presidency that interestingly (considering Schlesinger’s affection for politicians and his experience in the White House) has no relation to the violent economic interests that are already chewing up our future.
All our “good” Presidents (“good” because honest and capable minds, good because activists concerned for the public progress) have been strong, dominating figures and centripetal attractions for the American people. That was implied from the very first in the powers granted to the executive of a constitutional republic, by his necessary role as our most personalized figurehead—and by the respect for George Washington. Jefferson, the first stealthy and perhaps mightiest presidential empire-builder, understandably saw his constitutional powers rather more positively than he did his limitations. The extension of presidential authority followed from the uniqueness of the office, from the natural aggressiveness of American leaders trained by the political wars to be equally assertive in office, and perhaps above all by a historical sense of the American opportunity (it seemed to grow decade by decade), to which the Constitution substantially gave encouragement even when it did not grant explicit authority. (Often enough by making the separation of powers a way of actually uniting Congress and the Supreme Court behind presidential initiatives to war as a show of national policy and purpose.)
Yet Lincoln, the most imperious and unconstitutional of presidential monarchs during the Civil War, understood the nature of presidential power better than most legalists and historians when he admitted that events chose him rather than the other way around. Obviously accidents of the presidential succession and the “presidential character,” with which Americans have always been obsessed, can be decisive enough. Lincoln might very well have prevailed on Reconstruction if he had lived, McKinley (if he had lived) would not have confused and angered the trusts as TR did, Kennedy might indeed have escaped Johnson’s hysterically irreversible identification of self with Vietnam. But any review of the extensions and “excesses” of presidential authority that shows the “constitutional” accommodations to presidential power to have been inconsistent—therefore further openings to “strong” Presidents—does not explain what, in the nature of our social arrangements, made TR the imperialist the successor to McKinley the imperialist and LBJ on domestic policy more of what JFK at his best sometimes hoped to be.
To the discussion of presidential power, his subject indeed, Schlesinger brings an easy familiarity with the Washington scene, a passion for the powerful that commendably does not cheer their habituated indifference to human life,* an ability to sort out great masses of information into an engaging chronicle. He has above all an old-fashioned reverence for leadership that represents his liberal, progressive faith that American history has purpose and that our great Presidents have known how to put us together with purpose. It is because Schlesinger lives intellectually in the American tradition that he sees the “revolution” Nixon represents. But Schlesinger, dwelling on the heights, does not fully take in the extent and source of this revolution. Like the rest of us, he makes it seem arbitrary.
Schlesinger sees that Nixon amazingly has no knowledge of and no respect for the Presidency as a tradition of moral leadership. Because Nixon’s compulsions for “order” and control have long been as public as TR’s teeth, Schlesinger does not need to indulge in the banal itemization of Nixon’s anxieties and cruelties that are now, typically, retailed in our culture as an explanation of his political policy. But he neatly calls Nixon’s our first “solipsistic” administration without seeing that Nixon’s amazing isolation as a President is made possible by the fact that he is entirely a child of the aggressions of the American power system.
This system has its own values, couched in the language of a disused Protestant ethic. It has replaced the respect for differences that made up our morality, the sense of mutual obligation that was the classical core of politics. The drives, the “battle” that Nixon proudly says is “always with me,” the necessity to obliterate an opponent rather than to persuade him, the computerized, militarized football-stadium language that vindictively brings all loyalties down to the “team” as the corporate ego in which a man may find his necessary virility, the lack of any cultural ties outside the overwhelming monoliths of American power—these are the “operabilities” behind Nixon’s Mein Kampf, born of mid-century American toughness and drive and planetary megalomania fascinated by and envious of Soviet ruthlessness. Bit by bit our old scruples have been eroded by a new value system that recognizes no truth that is not part of what is “operable.” As a result Nixon has his critics and enemies at bay because, with his total immersion within the system, Nixon can no longer recognize when he lies.
Nixon with his Middle America homilies is not a hypocrite. Despite strains, pressures, and contradictions that would have turned anyone else into a howling lunatic, Nixon continues to function—if with more and more lapses of attention to the public business. It would not have occurred to him that he lied in his “Checkers” speech, that he went back on his anticommunist faith in turning to Brezhnev and Mao as his great opportunity to score a win in foreign policy, that he misrepresented his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief to make them seem broadly executive rather than strictly military, that he lied after secretly bombing Cambodia. Nixon must always be perfectly right: Nixon can never admit an error—or a weakness. He doesn’t have to, except for tactical reasons.
The point is not merely that we have another President with a “credibility problem,” but that for the first time we have a President who lies systematically, who undertakes governmental operations and vendettas against “enemies” that necessarily demand lies for their very inception. In public, earnestly fixing his face into the required look of sincerity, Nixon can still justify himself in pious gobbledygook because so many agencies of American culture no longer have any idea of truth that is stronger than what prevails as the operational truth of American advertising, American stock-jobbery, American labor unions, American business. An ignorant, boastful, unforgiving secularism in every sphere has found its perfect embodiment in an American President who has no visible culture or belief except the grinding on of “my battle” that put him where he is today—side by side with Bebe Rebozo.
A totalitarian system is one where the Leader’s replacement of the truth with the emotions of the “battle” may not be challenged. In our system there are plenty of challenges to Nixon. Schlesinger’s may be called the challenge from American history. “Pragmatic” or just hoping to be, the Kennedy intellectuals still know the difference between our traditional politics and Nixon’s unconscious contempt for the political system itself.
What students of the Presidency too infatuated with certain Presidents used to overlook was the extent to which, as Lincoln said, events chose him. What they now overlook is the challenge that comes from an executive who—like so many corporation executives, generals, labor bosses, ideologists pandering to American panic, the drifting helpless integers everywhere who most admire the powerful—belongs more to the new value system than to our old American history. Schlesinger says that Nixon is the first President to have no respect for the office. This can happen because Nixon does not know how much he despises what is not immediate sovereignty. Nixon in office is entirely the consequence of what produced his sense of truth. The “imperial” Presidency has less to do with it.
December 13, 1973
“It’s the little wars that stop the big wars,” another Kennedy assistant comfortably explained Vietnam during its first act. Schlesinger in this book retains the usual Kennedy affection for “even so civilized a general as Maxwell Taylor,” but flatters him in order to disagree with him, just as he disagreed with Kennedy about the Bay of Pigs. ↩