Richard Reeves

Bush and Nixon: A Cautionary Tale

WASHINGTON -- President Nixon, among the most introverted of American presidents, would sometimes stand inside the White House, look out and say: "This would be a great job if it weren't for the people."

Or, sometimes, he would say "... the Congress" or "... the press."

President George W. Bush is no introvert. He actually seems to like people, and he makes an effort to mask his deeper feelings about Congress and the press -- in conversation, at least.

But in practice, the incumbent, waving the flag of war, is doing just what Nixon and other presidents did in their time: Bush is trying to cut Congress and the press out of the decision-making loop -- and, for good measure, he has tried to cut off the nation's courts, too, with talk of military tribunals to prosecute war criminals when we have declared no war. Declarations of war are congressional business; at least that's what it says in the Constitution.

All presidents, sooner or later, are frustrated by that Constitution and its deliberate checks and balances on the power wielded by the three branches of government established after a revolution against monarchy. It was only 40 years or so after the American Revolution that our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was reputed to have reacted to a Supreme Court decision he did not like by saying: "The court has made its decision; now let's see them enforce it."

Under Commander in Chief Bush's military tribunal plan for captured terrorists or "war criminals," the Supreme Court would not have any jurisdiction over such cases. And so far as Congress' power in this time of war fever, the president has managed to ignore Congress as well. "We're really not being consulted at all," said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. He added that he gets his information from the newspapers, but the press doesn't know what's going on either, until it has already happened in quiet corners somewhere inside the White House.

Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling. While I was inteviewing former White House aides for my book "President Nixon: Alone in the White House," I was told by Winston Lord, who was National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger's personal assistant: "They (Nixon and Kissinger) deliberately mirrored adversaries who were secretive. In China, only two or three people were involved in decision-making."

Nixon was extraordinarily successful, for a time, in governing without any consultation at all, ruling by decree. Influenced by the anti-democratic bent of French President Charles de Gaulle, Nixon governed by surprise. His trip to China and then his decision to take the dollar off the gold standard -- television announcements that changed the geopolitics and economy of the world -- were decisions made without a word of public debate, congressional action or press analysis.

Brilliant. But there was a huge price, for him and for the rest of us. The surprises, basically crafted with only Kissinger and Treasury Secretary John Connally in the know, required secrecy above all. And maintaining the secrecy required layers of lies to the point that no one, including the great deceiver himself, could unravel the truth at the end of the day. Finally, inevitably, the house of deception collapsed, taking down the president and crushing America's confidence in its own government and essential decency.

Bush is obviously no Nixon -- that cuts in more than one way -- but he and the two or three or 20 people involved in decision-making right now are carelessly playing with the system, the checks and balance and delay of constitutional governance, that has made American democracy so fruitful and enduring. Here the people govern -- and at the moment are delighted with Bush -- and someday in some way the secrets are revealed and the price is paid. American greatness is directly proportional to its leaders' trust in openness and in the people of the democracy.

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