Nixon imperial presidency essay

The imperial presidents were happy to exploit congressional deference that stemmed from the Cold War danger to get controversial domestic programs passed. Eisenhower justified his highway and education programs by saying they were essential for national defense. When Kennedy wished to shoot for the moon—a program that had little direct military value and in fact took resources away from more important military ventures—he reasoned that Americans needed the added prestige and would have to command outer space in order to win the struggle with the Soviet Union. The strong presidency of the twentieth century also gained power by acquiring new symbols, mystique, and ways to influence the public that it had never had before.

In the absence of kings and queens, Americans had always wanted to hold up presidents of special stature like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as examples for their children. But after World War II, the office was provided with new theatrical props. When Truman's aides advised him that the presidential aura was a valuable asset in fighting the Cold War, he authorized them to design a new presidential flag and mount a presidential seal on his lectern wherever he spoke.

The image of Air Force One was so potent that when Gerald Ford's campaign against Jimmy Carter was flagging, Ford's handlers had him deliver a televised campaign speech from aboard the plane, engines screaming as it hurtled through azure skies, because they thought it would make Ford seem more "presidential. The mass media of mid-twentieth century America made certain that every American knew about their leaders' tastes in dress, cinema, and food. JFK started a craze for two-button suits.

His refusal to wear hats he thought they made his cheeks look too fat threatened to ruin the hat industry.

The Imperial Presidency and the Founding

Besieged by desperate hat moguls, Kennedy was persuaded to at least carry a hat during public ceremonies like airport greetings and military parades. Richard Nixon's well-publicized obsession with Patton helped make the film a winner at the box office. Ronald Reagan, after spurring the national consumption of jelly beans, launched the literary success of an obscure insurance agent named Tom Clancy by praising Clancy's first thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

What Watergate revealed about presidential power in America

Senator John F. Kennedy debates Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the first televised debates, National Park Service Presidents of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had had to address the public through newspapers or handbills. But when presidents of the mid-twentieth century had something to say, they needed merely to call the three major television networks there were only three and almost every American watching the tube would be confronted with' a presidential speech or press conference.

When you saw the presidential seal dissolve into JFK talking about Cuba or Nixon about Cambodia, you knew it was something important and you usually watched. Another way presidents seized power for themselves during this period was in no way public.

These were the illicit abuses of presidential power that constituted a scarlet thread in the underside of the presidential carpet. Members of Ulysses Grant's and Warren Harding's entourages may have exploited the presidency to line their pockets, but twentieth-century agencies like the Bureau of Internal Revenue later the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation gave presidents and their aides new opportunities to secretly intimidate or thwart—sometimes under the guise of national security—their political enemies.

When Senator Huey Long threatened Franklin Roosevelt's reelection, federal tax agents were sent to Louisiana to dredge up compromising information that could be used to discredit him. Dwight Eisenhower's chief aide, Sherman Adams, asked the FBI for damaging evidence on Democratic senators that could be used to embarrass them. Under Kennedy, the telephones of presidential critics were tapped and their tax returns, including those of Richard Nixon and his mother, were audited.

These misdeeds expanded presidential influence. If you were a Washington columnist whose private life might look tawdry in an FBI file or who had cheated on your income taxes, you might have thought twice before incurring the wrath of a sitting president. After the Watergate scandal burst open and Nixon's malfeasance was exposed, he complained that he had merely followed his predecessors' custom—and that besides, just as Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War and just as Franklin Roosevelt had cut the corners of American neutrality laws to secretly aid the British, he too was a wartime president, waging a struggle in Vietnam that, he noted, other presidents had started.

In the wake of Nixon's scandal, Americans, happily, succeeded in yanking most of the scarlet thread from underneath the presidential tapestry. The congressional opposition and a new watchdog press leaped at any public hint of abuse.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the foundations of the strong presidency cracked. In December , when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended once and for all, George Bush found that his influence not only in foreign affairs but also domestic policy shrank almost overnight. Americans wanted a stop to the era of Big Government, as Bill Clinton acknowledged in his State of the Union, and one of the chief casualties was the strong presidency. What better symbol was there of Big Government than imperial presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson and Nixon—and Reagan, who expanded the federal budget?

In the absence of an overwhelming foreign or domestic crisis that seemed to cry out for executive leadership, Congress stopped acceding so often to presidential will as it had during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. There was the prospect that the clock might be turned back to the post-Civil War period, when speakers of the House and Senate majority leaders often dictated to presidents and were sometimes better known and more influential than the men in the White House. By the end of the twentieth century, the belief that presidents were well-intentioned and told the truth, the idealism and trust that endowed presidents such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy with so much of their public impact had been drained away.

After presidential deceptions over the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam as well as the Watergate, Iran-contra, and Monica Lewinsky scandals, Americans especially the young were much more skeptical about what they heard from the White House. And in the age of round-the-clock television news and the Internet, presidents would have to compete for air-time with Madonna and O. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, as I write, we are therefore in a period in which it will be very difficult for presidents to exercise strong leadership in the absence of some all-encompassing crisis like the Civil War or the Great Depression—or the election of some leader with such extraordinary stature and political skills that he or she can overcome the ebbing authority of the office.

As the Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote in , "If the story of the Presidents proves nothing else, it testifies to the enormous stability of the office itself and of the nation that devised it.

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How Congress Became Colonized by the Imperial Presidency

But at critical moments, the absence of that distinctive presidential voice and of the executive power to push foot-dragging public officials and skeptical citizens to think anew or make vital sacrifices can endanger the country. Few historians today would argue that Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt belong anywhere but at the top of the presidential ladder.

Bur for most of the other presidents, the metaphor should be not ladder but stock exchange. Presidential reputations are constantly fluctuating—some much more than others —as we discover new information about them from letters, diaries, secret memoranda, tape recordings, and other sources, and as we see them in more distant hindsight, the phenomenon that the historian Barbara Tuchman so vividly called the "lantern on the stern.

On pale-blue-lined grammar school paper, I scrawled a letter to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, saying, "You could get some large carving firm to carve his head in the Mount Rushmore Memorial of South Dakota.


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As an eight-year-old, I could not know that LBJ, had he read this boy's letter, would not have welcomed my advice. Already feeling enveloped by Kennedy's shadow, he privately believed that JFK was a "Joe College man" of minimum accomplishment but that Ivy League historians would stack the deck in Kennedy's favor. As for himself, until Johnson died in , disparaged for his rough-hewn style and his war in Vietnam, he insisted that those same historians would have no wish or ability to understand him. But a quarter-century later, Johnson's reputation is sharply on the upswing.

The LBJ surge is a superb example of what makes the history of the American presidents so mesmerizing. Like a rushing river drawing force and direction from unforeseen new currents and streams, what we think and write about the leaders who have gone before is never final and is always changing.

The Friday Cover

Reprinted by permission of American Heritage. Written at the beginning of the 21st century, this essay does not address the administration of George Walker Bush and thus does not evaluate the impact on the presidency of September 11, ; the war on terrorism; and the other momentous events that have occurred in the first decade of this century.

The end of the imperial presidency

Written by Civil War historian Bruce Catton in his foreword to an earlier edition of this book, in Library of Congress. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. National Park Service. He might also hold that a president can refuse to answer questions in a criminal investigation. In , the Supreme Court faced the same question. In United States v.


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Nixon , the court required then President Richard Nixon to hand over tape recordings on which he discussed the break-in at the Watergate. They argued that the separation of powers and the unique role of the president made him not subject to a criminal subpoena of evidence. But in a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court rejected that argument and ordered him to hand over the tapes—which turned out to be damning indeed.

His resignation from office soon followed. During his legal career, Kavanaugh has expressed two drastically different views on the U. Nixon decision and its implications for the scope of executive power. First, Kavanaugh seemed to support it. But this view of a constrained executive branch faded when Kavanaugh worked for President George W.

Introduction Essay--Presidents: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary

Bush and later as a legal scholar. Far from being a defender of U. By rendering unconstitutional any attempt by Mueller to compel Trump to turn over incriminating evidence, such a ruling would make it nearly impossible to amass the information needed for a case against him. If Kavanaugh believes Mueller cannot subpoena evidence from a president, it is also likely that he believes he cannot require him or her to testify, further imperiling the investigation. This effective immunity from criminal investigation is exactly what defenders of a limited presidency should be worried about.