Channelling George Washington: The Presidency Imperiled?

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“I haven’t been this upset in a century.”

“What’s troubling you, Mr. President?”

The White House news that I—and millions of Americans—watched on TV and read about in the papers.  It’s prompted me to drop my policy of avoiding controversial comments on current politics.  If what I saw transpire a few days ago happens again, the office of the presidency is in danger.”

“Are you talking about ex-president Bill Clinton’s extraordinary performance on Dec. 9?”

I’m talking about President Barack Obama inviting that walking talking political disgrace to the Democratic Party and the nation to the White House and permitting him to seize a microphone to orate for the better part of a half hour while the president stood mute, apparently helpless to stop him.”

“What should President Obama have done?”

He should have told him in a private conversation that what he proposed to do was out of the question.  He’s the president and he and he alone made statements of national policy.”

Is there any precedent for an ex-president doing such a thing?”

“NONE!  Ex-presidents have almost invariably followed my example and said as little as possible about their successors.  Only Teddy Roosevelt, driven by a conviction that Woodrow Wilson’s policy in World War I was wrong, attempted to challenge a sitting president’s leadership—and the attempt was an abject failure.  But TR never held forth inside the White House, while Wilson passively watched.”

“Have you asked other presidents their opinion?”

“Every man with whom I spoke was appalled. Harry Truman told me he would have personally escorted Bill Clinton to the White House door and told him NEVER to come back.  Harry’s been troubled by the way this man has continued to lurk on the fringes of presidential power, thanks to his wife’s role in Mr. Obama’s cabinet.  No president has done more harm to the office of the president than Bill Clinton.”

“I once interviewed Mr. Truman on that subject. He rated presidents by the way they strengthened—or weakened—the office.”

“A rating system that I wholeheartedly endorse.  The presidency is the greatest political office humans have ever devised.  It is the heartbeat, the enginetake your pick of metaphors—that drives our system of government.  Nothing I did in my years in public service was more important than helping to create the presidency.”

“More important than winning the war for independence?”

A lot of people have won revolutionary wars.  After most of them they seized power and ruled as dictators.  The greatness of the American Revolution rests on the way we created a republic, led by a president, elected by all the people.”

“Did Clinton say anything that disturbed you?”

“The speech was his usual narcissistic rant.  One minute he said he was out of politics and the next minute was bragging that he’d done 133 events for Democratic candidates in 2010.  That means he could be accused of helping to create the worst defeat his party has experienced since 1946.  But Clinton claimed it only proved that if he had worked a little harder, the disaster wouldn’t have happened!”

“I take it you think Mr. Clinton should have been convicted at his 1998 impeachment trial for his conduct in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky?”

“Not only for that, but for lying about it to the American public on national television.  And then lying about it under oath.  Perjury is one of the most serious crimes a president can commit.  It renders worthless his solemn oath to perform the duties of his high office.  Congress’s failure to convict Clinton was its greatest single lapse in its history as a national body.”

“Did anyone in our national media do a good job of reporting this?”

“Christina Ballantoni of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call summed it up superbly when she wrote:  “This. Is. Un. Real.”  The New York Times was unsparing in its detailed report of how the unreality evolved from a private visit to Bill Clinton’s demand for a press conference and Mr. Obama’s astonishing submission.”

“What do you think the impact of this will be on Mr. Obama’s presidency?”   

“Looking so weak and helpless will make his job infinitely more difficult, perhaps impossible.  He’s already facing a revolt in his own party about the compromise he struck with Republicans to preserve the Bush tax cuts.  But I’m far more worried about the long-term impact.  Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to realize he’s dealing with an imperial congress, which requires every iota of presidential authority he can muster.”

“Would you remind us of what you mean by imperial congress?”

From the start of our federal republic, Congress has repeatedly tried to weaken the president’s authority.  Twice they’ve succeeded.  The first was in 1867, when they almost impeached President Andrew Johnson.  Forty years of congressional arrogance followed that disaster.  The second time was in the aftermath of President Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment in 1974.  Since that time, Congress has been in another imperial mode, interfering with the president’s right to conduct foreign policy, and limiting his ability to control the budget and administer the government in a dozen different ways.”

“Do you have any advice for President Obama?”

“As soon as possible, he should demonstrate he understands the importance of presidential leadership.  He should insist on the passage of his compromise and persuade the Democratic Party to join him with an absolute minimum of backbiting and protests.  It’s crucial for him to look and act like a leader as soon as possible.”

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vaughn davis bornet - 12/14/2010

First, it was Taft who joined the Supreme Court. This quick slip doesn't mean a thing.

On the original essay before us: As a matter of record, it is totally common for sitting presidents to call forth endorsing comments from living ex-presidents. When not called for some reason, they may well speak up anyway.

Or, by pointedly remaining silent, they are definitely helpful.

Just go through some Great Events and you will see that I'm right. Packing the Court. See Hoover's blast of Feb. 5, 1937 in Addresses on the American Road 1933-1938. And the next volume is brutally frank in re FDR. (By the way: the cover says the addresses are to/through 1941 but it only goes to November, 1940. Factoid.)

Presidents chipped in after JFK's demise. Truman endorsed LBJ in writing in 1964. Hoover's backing of his enemy (yes!) FDR was complete on December 8, 1941. Yes, ex-president Carter has felt free to say all kinds of things in his ex-presidency, I think.

If presidents expect reinforcement for their policies in crisis, perhaps they need to accept commentary all the time?

As I looked into all this I came across these calm words of Herbert Hoover on February 9, 1948, directed at the Patterson Committee on the Marshall Plan: "...it is at least unusual that such a responsible group of men should have given as an answer a brazen lie-smear that smacks of totalitarian intimiidation of proper debate." On the Atom Bomb Hoover's remarks are not just full of candor; they are just as apocolyptic as the subject warranted. (Sept. 25, 1945)

Earlier, on Surrender Day, August 24, 1945, Hoover gave peace one of the strongest emotional endorsements that it surely ever had from anyone. With peace, we can have "recovery," hope for 'regeneration of civilization, "the everlasting stir in the hearts of men and nations to be free will return to the world;" ahead could be a new age that could be "the golden era of all history if we have the will and the wisdom in our statesmanship." (Then came, instead, Korea and Vietnam and now....)

I can't join in any campaign to muzzle our ex-presidents--if that's the idea. We need ALL our brainpower.

And, if our presidential power fluctuates up, and down, with letting a former president chat with a bunch of newsmen and women in a room built for conferring, well, somebody help us.

Slurring off on Goldwater and Reagan enroute (apparently just for the hell of it) doesn't do much for me, by the way. The late Sam Cohen (the neutron bomb) praised Goldwater as probably the most intelligent person he ever briefed, a remark in his oral history interview I did in the early Sixties, now declassified.

The final remarks in the article read very well, however, to my taste.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Jonathan Dresner - 12/12/2010

....in the same week, Pres. G. H. W. Bush publicly came out in favor of the START treaty.

Let's review, though, our recent presidents.

Nobody wants to hear what George W. Bush thinks on anything except his own guilt. The current Republican Party wouldn't support him if he ran today.

George H. W. Bush was persona non grata within the Republican Party for losing to Bill Clinton.

Ronald Reagan was bordering on incompetence when he left office, and his family and friends knew better than to let him make public statements.

Jimmy Carter has been making foreign policy and domestic policy statements for decades.

Nobody wanted to hear what Richard Nixon thought about anything except his own guilt.

LBJ was persona non grata in his own party for failing to run for reelection again.

Eisenhower campaigned for Goldwater - there's a stellar record of judgement and restraint - and Republicans really didn't want to hear much of what he had to say anyway.

FDR died in office. Herbert Hoover nearly ran again several times, and spoke on foreign and domestic affairs routinely. Coolidge wrote a newspaper column. Harding joined the supreme court. Wilson died.

Truman may well be the only former president of the last century who can credibly be said to have eschewed the opportunity to speak on current affairs.