Category Archives: Commentary

A Switch in Time: How Nixon Might Have Survived Watergate

On Jan. 27, 1969, less than a week into the Nixon presidency, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman relayed the following request from President Nixon to White House aide and former Time magazine executive editor James Keogh: “The President is most anxious to bring in an official White House historian to make sure that we maintain on a current basis an accurate record of the work of this administration.” Nixon even had a person in mind for the position: Professor Ernest May, a historian at Harvard University who had served on the Lindsay transition task force. More generally, Nixon sought someone “who has outstanding intellectual ability to analyze everything as it is happening in historical perspective and keep an accurate record… .” Here is the full memo from Haldeman to Keogh.

haldeman historian.1.27.69
On February 10, evidently after canvassing various White House aides regarding Nixon’s proposal, Keogh responded with a four-page memo to the President that began, “There are some serious questions involved in the recruitment of a White House historian. The first is the ultimate: Should there be a staff historian, as such, in the White House?” Would the President want an outsider sitting in during key meetings? Keogh’s answer, shown here at the bottom of the first page of his memo, was: “I would say he should not, for his presence surely would tend to inhibit what the President and others might say and do. And so the historian’s presence could have a negative effect not only on the Presidency but also on history.”

keogh historian 1

In addition to inhibiting conversation, Keogh warned that “any established historian that we might bring on would have very definite ideas about his own freedom of point of view.” That might mean a desire to prove “his credentials to his colleagues in the profession by being critical even if that meant doing so only for the sake of being critical.” Keogh also warned that “Loyalty is another problem” – someone who initially expressed support for the President might, over time and in reaction to events, change his views.

In seekng a “court historian” Nixon may have had in mind some counterpart to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian who served on JFK’s White House staff, and who used his position to write A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a not uncritical but generally quite positive account of JFK’s presidency. But Keogh had other examples in mind, telling Nixon: “The recent track record on all this is not encouraging. Eric Goldman, professor of history at Princeton, was brought into the White House by Lyndon Johnson. He has just produced the Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which can only be described as an anti-Johnson book.”

Keogh noted that he had discussed Nixon’s request with his immediate team of White House aides: “The consensus in this group is that this Administration should not bring in a historian as such. This position is based on the feeling that the risks are too high and the potential for positive results too low.” Rather than a court historian, Keogh suggested instead that aides be assigned to keep detailed notes of meetings, “recording the color, the tone, the asides for the general Administration record.” For more intimate conferences with the President “I see only one process. The people involved should as often as possible record their own impressions… .This also suggests that the President himself should, as often as possible, dictate his own thoughts and impressions… on tape or on paper…and on some kind of more or less regular schedule.”

We now know, of course, that Nixon did Keogh one better. In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration’s proceedings, he had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called “smoking gun” tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

[youtube.com/watch?v=_oe3OgU8W0s]

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate.  But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record.  For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House “court historian”.

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon’s in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity.  Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes.  But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: “I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape.”  Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially “conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings.”

“From the very beginning,” Nixon writes in his memoirs, “I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.”  Little did he know how prescient that statement was.  No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president’s time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration’s presidential records).  Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device.  But he did not.

For want of a switch, he lost the presidency.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.

 

Why Political “Corruption” Is Good

In his column in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall makes the case for what he calls “good corruption.” His essential point is that effective government is often weakened by reforms that make it harder for politicians to make the compromises necessary to strike political deals and build voting coalitions. As he writes, “The best politicians are sensitive to the relative importance of moral considerations as they shift from the public arena to the back room, aware that ultimate judgment of what they have done will be based more on what they produce than how they produce it.”

One need not adopt Edsall’s juxtaposition of “good” with “corruption” to appreciate his broader argument. It is one that political scientists have been making for some time, particularly in efforts to explain the growing partisan polarization within our governing institutions. They have documented a series of well-meaning reforms that have collectively made American institutions and processes far less insular, and much more open to direct popular participation during the last four decades. These include an increase in presidential primaries, more open committee meetings and recorded votes in Congress, expanded rules of standing and a more activist judiciary, and technological advances that have made it easier to gauge public opinion and reach out to prospective supporters, to name only the most prominent. In each case supporters hoped that these reforms would make politics both more transparent and more accessible. But, in a classic illustration of Dickinson’s Third Rule of Politics – “for every intended benefit of a political reform, there is likely to be an unintended cost” – the cumulative impact of these reforms has arguably made American politics less representative. The reason is that most members of the public are not very interested in politics on a daily basis. As a result, a more open political process tends to reward the most politically active, who typically possess more ideologically coherent and extreme views, and thus are less likely to support the “good corruption” that Edsall favors. When one is doing God’s work, as most issue activists and ideological purists believe they are, compromise with the opposition is the road to damnation.

To drive home his point, Edsall points to two reforms that he argues have reduced the ability of political leaders to forge the compromises necessary to govern effectively. The first is the elimination in 2010 of congressional earmarks – those legislative directives to fund specific projects that helped grease the wheels of the lawmaking process. In a rare instance of bipartisan compromise, House Republicans worked with President Obama to remove these side payments from the legislative process. The idea was to end the wasteful (and corrupt?) practice that led party leaders to trade tax-subsidized projects for legislators’ votes. However, with earmarks eliminated, Edsall argues, party leaders have one less source of leverage with which to forge coalitions. Edsall’s point is driven home in Robert Draper’s wonderful When the Tea Party Came to Town, in which Draper recounts a conversation between House Speaker John Boehner and his veteran House colleague Ralph Hall during a particularly tough vote: “It’s not like the old days, Ralph”, Boehner lamented. “Without the earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”

Edsall’s second example is campaign finance reform. Here he is particularly critical of three recent Court cases – Citizens United v. F.E.C., McCutcheon v. F.E.C. and Speechnow.org v. F.E.C. – that he argues have collectively reinforced “the public’s view that government is run for the benefit of powerful special interests.” Here, however, I think Edsall’s example works against his broader argument. The fact is that public suspicion of the role of money in politics predates these recent court rulings – indeed, that suspicion helped fuel previous campaign reform efforts, such as the McCain-Feingold bipartisan campaign reform act of 2002. However, in a sterling illustration of Dickinson’s Second Law – “money always finds its way to candidates” – the biggest impact of campaign finance reform dating back to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, (as amended in 1974) has not been to reduce the amount of campaign contributions to candidates or the importance of money in campaigns more generally. Rather, the general impact has been to shift how money gets to candidates while simultaneously forcing those running for office to spend more time fundraising. The early evidence is that the three most recent court decisions Edsall cites have not necessarily increased the importance of money so much as altered the way it flows from contributors to candidates. In contrast to Edsall, I believe it is this combination of repeated efforts to limit the impact of money on elections juxtaposed against the reality that candidates spend an increasing amount of time fundraising that fuels public cynicism toward campaign finance reform. Indeed, one could argue that for all its faults (and they were significant), the pre-1971 era of campaign finance at least exhibited something of the “good corruption” that Edsall believes exerts a salutary impact on government in other contexts.

My point is not to advocate a return to the pre-1974 era when presidents shook down companies that were doing business with government. Rather, it is to express general agreement with Edsall’s broader point (if not all his specific examples), which is that reforms that make it harder to engage in the vote trading and compromise necessary to cut deals may not, despite reformers’ best intentions, have a salutary impact on our political system. Instead, increased transparency and more participatory institutions and processes can make it harder to govern. In short, if we want politicians to get things done, we may need to relax our zealous efforts to take politics out of the political process by, for example, persisting in thinking we can eliminate the role of money in campaigns. And rather than condemn our elected leaders for sacrificing principle on the altar of political pragmatism, Edsall suggests we instead take a look at our own behavior in the context of his proposal: “Political morality in this context becomes something far less rigid and rule-bound than many in the public conceive it to be – even though, in their own lives, most people act more like politicians than they would like to think.” Politicians are not angels – and neither are we.

Why Suing the President Makes Good Politics

Yesterday the House voted 225-201 to approve a resolution authorizing Speaker Boehner to sue the President for his unilateral decision to push back the implementation date of a key provision of Obamacare. The vote broke down on nearly straight party lines – five Republicans voted against the measure, while no Democrats supported it. Predictably, the partisan decision set off a flurry of debate among political pundits, with liberals arguing that it was a further sign of Republican extremism run amok, and likely a prelude to a vote to impeach the President. Conservatives countered that it was necessary to prevent the President from encroaching on Congress’s constitutionally-based lawmaking authority.

As legal experts point out, there’s not much likelihood that this effort will be any more effective than previous attempts by members of Congress to sue the president. Courts typically rule that congressional members fail to prove they have been injured by the President and thus lack standing, and that Congress has the power to correct the President’s action via the legislative process rather than resorting to judicial fiat. For this reason it is unlikely that the Republican’s latest effort will have any real impact, legally speaking.

So why sue? The legal perspective misses the central logic driving the Republicans’ decision. The political scientist David Mayhew, in his classic study of Congress, labeled votes like yesterday’s “position taking” which he defined as “the public enunciation of a judgmental statement on anything likely to be of interest to political actors.” The key point for Mayhew is that the position – in this case voting to sue the President – is the political commodity; the legislator seeks approval from constituents for taking the position rather than for achieving effects. From Mayhew’s perspective Republicans don’t have to win the lawsuit for it to pay electoral dividends in this fall’s midterm elections. Indeed, as they head home for the midterm break, Republicans will have ample opportunity to explain their position to potential voters. Democrats, too, can use their opposition to the resolution to gin up support back home as well.

Mayhew wrote his classic work in 1974. In today’s era of divided government and deeply polarized and evenly matched congressional parties, however, position taking is probably a more important component of congressional activities. Because parties are so well sorted ideologically today – the Democratic party more uniformly liberal, and the Republican thoroughly conservative – a party’s “brand” means much more electorally than when Mayhew wrote. Members of each party are thus deeply vested in staking out positions that they think help draw a contrast with the opposition party in the next election. Moreover, as the public face of his party, the President is often the target of this position-taking exercise as political scientist Frances Lee documents.  That is precisely the logic driving the Republican caucus’ decision to sue President Obama, and why Democrats are intent on portraying this as a prelude to impeachment.

As position taking becomes a more integral part of congressional activity, Congress continues to vote on issues, but with far less to show for those votes in terms of legislative productivity. Indeed, as this chart by Day Robins shows, in terms of laws passed, the current 113th Congress is on pace to be the least productive in the last 40 years.

laws passedThe reason is that legislators vote not so much in the expectation of passing laws as they do to send positional messages that help clarify the party’s standing on issues that divide the parties. The electoral effect is the message conveyed by the vote rather than whether it becomes law.

Early last month, President Obama dared Republicans to sue him over his use of executive action. Republicans in the House were only too happy to take him up on the challenge. Both sides believe they will be rewarded by their party faithful for staking out such extreme positions. And they are likely right. Although this CNN poll suggests a majority (57%) of those surveyed do not support suing the president, fully 75% of Republicans do, while only 13% of Democrats favor a lawsuit. Independents oppose the effort by a 55%-43% margin. Both sides are betting that in a typically low-turnout midterm, their respective party bases – motivated in part by this lawsuit – will turn out in disproportionately higher numbers come November.

Suing the president may not be good government, but in a midterm election year it makes for great politics.

 

Sunday Shorts: Hillary’s Money, Midterm Turnout and Illegal Immigration

It’s Sunday, and that means time for some short takes on trending stories:

In this earlier post I argued, tongue only partly in cheek, that Hillary Clinton may not be rich enough to be a great president. As I pointed out, our greatest presidents as rated by historians are, beginning with George Washington, often extraordinarily wealthy. Indeed, wealth seems to be a predictor of greatness! Despite this, I noted a spate of media stories of late suggesting that Hillary’s wealth may somehow prove to be a stumbling block for the presidency. Not surprisingly, given this narrative, Republican Party operatives have established a website designed to make Clinton’s wealth a campaign issue.

That Republicans are using Clinton’s wealth against her does not surprise Democratic pundit Paul Waldman. However, that the media seem to embrace the same logic does surprise him. As he writes in this Washington Post opinion piece, “But what may be even more remarkable is that so many in the press go right along with this stupidity… There’s a hidden assumption in some of this coverage that candidates should be nothing more than advocates for their class. If you’re rich, then you can’t sincerely care about the well-being of people who aren’t, and anything other than advocacy on behalf of other rich people is odd, even suspect.” The irony here, of course, is that Waldman’s Democratic colleagues used precisely this logic to attack Mitt Romney’s candidacy during the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, in an otherwise illuminating discussion of the reasons why midterm election turnout is typically much lower than that for a presidential election campaign, Pew Research Center author Drew DeSilver posted this graph based on research by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist:

As you can see, turnout out for congressional midterm elections was actually higher than for presidential elections during the period 1789-1824, which runs contrary to the norm for most of our nation’s history.  What explains this apparent anomaly?  DeSilver’s answer: “History break: As McDonald’s chart shows, in the early decades of the republic, midterm elections typically drew more voters than presidential contests. Back then, most states only gave voting rights to property owners, and Congress — not the presidency — tended to be the federal government’s main power center and focus of electoral campaigns.” What DeSilver’s explanation does not say, however, is that for the first several presidential elections, many states did not choose electors through the popular vote. In 1792, for example, George Washington won reelection, but only 6 of the 15 states chose electors based on some form of popular input.  It is no wonder, then, that turnout for congressional elections was higher – many people simply did not have the opportunity to vote for the president (or, more properly, for the electors who chose the president). Indeed, it was only after most states began using the popular vote as a means of choosing electors, along with a decline in property-based voting requirements, that popular participation in presidential elections began increasing. That increase in participation provided presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson in 1828, with an independent base of power and rescued the office from a dangerous dependency on Congress.

Peter Rothschild brought the following Security Weekly article on immigration by Scott Stewart to my attention. You might think, given the extraordinary media attention to the immigration issue, most recently in reaction to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to post the National Guard at his state’s border with Mexico, that we are facing a record influx of illegal immigrants. Think again. Stewart writes, “Lost in all the media hype over this ‘border crisis’ is the fact that in 2013 overall immigration was down significantly from historical levels. According to U.S. Border Patrol apprehension statistics, there were only 420,789 apprehensions in 2013 compared to 1,160,395 in 2004. In fact, from fiscal 1976 to 2010, apprehensions never dropped below 500,000. During that same period, the Border Patrol averaged 1,083,495 apprehensions per year compared to just 420,789 last year.”

Of course, as Stewart acknowledges, apprehensions may not be the best indicator of the rate of illegal border crossings. Still, the data seems to belie the media narrative that the country is enduring an illegal immigration crisis. But it is easy to lose sight of this with the media focus on the apparent increase in undocumented children crossing the border. That story has far greater media legs than does one focusing on the fact that “the Border Patrol will apprehend and process hundreds of thousands fewer people this year than it did each fiscal year from 1976 until 2010.”

Finally, we are scheduled to begin occasional “simulposting” with the Christian Science Monitor sometime this coming week. If past experience is any clue (see the comments to this post on the debt ceiling crisis!), the more visible platform is likely to mean more comments from readers who often have strongly-held views. That’s fine – I always enjoy the comments from readers from both sides of the political aisle and try to respond to all of them. I also exercise a very light touch on the censor button – as long as the comments are civil, I don’t care how passionate the language or what political views are expressed, although it is worth reminding everyone that my response to a comment doesn’t necessarily imply agreement (or disagreement) with that comment.  This is a non-partisan blog – it says so right in the title! I learn a lot from readers, and my hope is that we can continue this dialogue in the months to come.

Have a great Sunday!