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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Oba Saint Dubya and His Yes People? 

When you become the President of the United States, you are physically and psychologically isolated from the people you are supposed to govern. At the same time you have (or are perceived to have) a great deal of power, and are surrounded by people with less power - and if you don't watch out, the people surrounding you will become yes-men and yes-women, and you will not hear other voices. This may be a good thing - you may end up like Lincoln and save the nation - or it may be a bad thing - you may end up like 1974-era Nixon and screw up your (expletive deleted) party for three consecutive Congressional elections. So, is Dubya a Lincoln, or a Nixon?

From Newsweek:

Jack Murtha still can't figure out why the father and son treated him so differently. Every week or so before the '91 gulf war, President George H.W. Bush would invite Congressman Murtha, along with other Hill leaders, to the White House. "He would listen to all the bitching from everybody, Republicans and Democrats, and then he would do what he thought was right." A decorated Vietnam veteran, ex-Marine Murtha was a critical supporter for the elder Bush on Capitol Hill. "I led the fight for the '91 war," he says. "I led the fight, for Christ's sake."

Yet 13 years later, when Murtha tried to write George W. Bush with some suggestions for fighting the Iraq war, the congressman's letter was ignored by the White House (after waiting for seven months, Murtha received a polite kiss-off from a deputy under secretary of Defense). Murtha, who has always preferred to operate behind the scenes, finally went public, calling for an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. In the furor that followed, a White House spokesman compared the Vietnam War hero to "Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party." When that approach backfired, President Bush called Murtha a "fine man ... who served our country with honor." The White House has made no attempt to reach out to Murtha since then. "None. None. Zero. Not one call," a baffled Murtha told NEWSWEEK. "I don't know who the hell they're talking to. If they talked to people, they wouldn't get these outbursts. If they'd talked to me, it wouldn't have happened."...

Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly told reporters that Bush needs to "have much more of a cadre of people in both houses, from both parties" visiting the White House "very frequently." Lugar cited Bill Clinton as the model....

Clearly, George W. Bush's role model is not his father....Nor is the model John F. Kennedy, who during the Cuban missile crisis reached out to form an "ExCom" of present and past national-security officials, from both parties, to find some way back from the abyss short of war. Nor is it Franklin Roosevelt, who liked to create competition between advisers to find the best solution. Or Abraham Lincoln who, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her new book, "Team of Rivals," appointed his political foes to his cabinet....

Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon....

David Gergen agrees with the negative assessment of Bush the Younger on this point:

Gergen...awarded President George W. Bush high marks for character and ambition - but his lack of curiosity has caused trouble for him, Gergen said. Bush didn't, for example, gather enough information and listen to enough dissenting voices before planning his invasion and reconstruction strategy for Iraq. "You have to be willing to ask tough questions and then listen to the answers," Gergen said.

But listen to what John Dean (yeah, that John Dean) says about George Reedy, and Gerald Ford's reaction to Reedy's book:

George Reedy, a working Washington journalist, went to work as President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, at the time the war in Vietnam was being rapidly escalated....It was several years after leaving government that Reedy wrote The Twilight of the Presidency. The book is a critical look at the modern American presidency....While Reedy wrote nothing negative about Lyndon Johnson, the former president was most unhappy with Reedy's frank assessment of the presidency. Indeed, after the book was published, LBJ refused to speak with Reedy ever again.

President Gerald Ford, on the other hand, found the book so instructive and insightful he insisted - when he became president following the Watergate-forced resignation of Richard Nixon - that his White House staff read it. At the time, Ford was not only dealing with the final phases of the Vietnam war, but also the aftermath of Watergate....

Reedy's general concern is quite simple. He believed...the modern presidency had become an institution that, by its nature, kept a president out of touch with the country he must lead and the real problems he must solve. The modern president, Reedy explained, is cut off from those who will tell him the truth, and surrounded instead by "yes men" who tell him only what he wants to hear.

As a one-time insider, Reedy found that the presidency had become a uniquely American monarchy, an institution never contemplated by our founders. There are few checks on the man (or perhaps in the future, woman) elected to this office, other than his (or her) own character....

Based on his experience and observations, Reedy concludes that the working environment at the White House is unreal, if not unhealthy. This is true, Reedy says, because when a presidential aide "picks up a telephone and tells people to do something, they usually do it." In short, those acting in the name of the President of the United States get results. I'll attest to that being true, and it is actually quite astonishing.

Reedy found this particularly unwholesome for young people, whose White House experience only sets them up for disillusionment when they return to the real world. If Reedy were writing the rules, his first would be: "There should be a flat rule that no one be permitted to enter the gates of the White House until he is at least forty and has suffered major disappointments in life."....

A young Bill Moyers, a man in his early thirties, replaced Reedy as press secretary. Moyers was willing to do the president's bidding regardless of his personal feelings....Once when I was visiting with Bill Moyers before an interview, he said to me that he had no doubt about how so many young White House aides got involved in Watergate. "But for the grace of God there go I," he added. He said he felt himself lucky to have made it through the Johnson presidency untarnished.

From what I've learned of the Bush II White House, in chatting with those who do business there, the White House staff includes many young people. And George W. Bush is a president who tolerates no dissent. In short, he's created the world that worried Reedy. Former President Ford would do his successor a favor if he were to send Bush a copy of the book Ford insisted his staff read.

You'll recall that Lincoln was mentioned earlier as a model of a good president who placed his rivals in his Cabinet so that he could hear dissenting voices. Yet some argue that Lincoln, despite surrounding himself with strong voices, pretty much ignored them. By the way, if any teachers read papers from their students that pretty much repeat the words listed here, they may want to check essayworld.com:

After Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, he was forced to battle a split cabinet because of campaign promises made to various Republican factions, which made it almost mandatory for certain individuals to be appointed to cabinet posts. He ruled his cabinet with an iron hand, and often acted without cabinet consent or advice. Although his opponents called his method of rule "dictatorial" and "unconstitutional," it was the only effective way to get anything done....

In the beginning, Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward, clearly considered himself the President's superior, and blandly offered to assume the executive responsibility. He entered the cabinet with the thought of becoming the power behind the Presidential chair and openly opposed Lincoln's control of the Union....As time passed, however, Seward recognized Lincoln's capabilities and gave him complete loyalty....

This could not be said of Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's first secretary of the treasury. Blinded by an inflated ego, Chase pursued his own presidential aspirations. He was in constant conflict with Seward, and in general opposition to Lincoln, particularly over the issue of slavery....

[Simon] Cameron's successor [as Secretary of War], Edwin M. Stanton was a man who shared Seward's initial opinion of the President, but who made an excellent secretary of war. Prior to his appointment, Stanton had strongly criticized Lincoln,
and mistrusted his motives. In fact, he was later accused of masterminding the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Although no proof was found to substantiate the charge, many historians today lend credence to the accusation. Stanton's rudeness and intolerance made him many enemies in the cabinet....

So perhaps Bush the Younger believes that he is pulling a Lincoln by ignoring the dissenting voices and doing what he believes is right. History will judge.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

[12/28/2006 - my del.icio.us tags for Gerald R. Ford Jr. are here.]

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