The Twlight of the Presidency: An Examination of Power and Isolation in the White House
© 1970, 1987
In Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy uses his personal experience as a Johnson aide, along with the study of other administrations of the 20th century, to comment on the apparent decline of the US Presidency as an effective force for serving the public good. Writing in an age that had seen the ill repute of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, followed by the benign but inept administrations of Ford and Carter, Reedy was pessimistic about the future of the presidency. In our own age the imperial presidency has revived and waxed even stronger, to the degree that American families may hear or mention the president by name more than their own relations! Yet for all the time that has passed, Twilight of the Presidency‘s insight into how the presidency as an office works remains incredible.
Reedy refers to the office as an elective monarchy, and maintains it had that potential from the beginning. Yet except for Abraham Lincoln, no president of the 19th century really used the office to its full authority. The essential advantage of the presidency, Reedy writes, is the will to action: the Supreme Court can only decide on such issues arrive at its doorstep, and the Congress is an enormous bureuacracy whose wheels are clogged with corruptive grime. The president can act on his own accord, can be — The Decider. He can seize the initiative and put everyone else on the defense while Congress is still attempting to get a bill from a subcommittee to the floor. Another advantage in the president’s court is the aura of his office; the American president is simultaneously the head of government and the head of state. He enjoys much of the reverence given to a figure like Queen Elizabeth the II, escaping direct personal abuse as someone like Tony Blair or Nick Cameron might have to endure during “Question Period”.
In one chapter, Reedy dwells on more of the monarchical trappings of the office of POTUS: the fact that the chief executive is surrounded by hundreds of people every day, all of whom are fixated on him. They may be White House staff serving his needs so he can focus on the issues of the day, or enthralled aides waiting for their chance to bask in the royal farr and be noticed. This bureaucratic cloud has the effect of isolating the president from society at large; their own opinions being the only ones the president hears. They’re hardly representative: Reedy writes that Johnson couldn’t understand the youth rebellion against him, because all of the young men in his employ were perfectly at ease with the administration’s current Vietnam policy. More substantially, Reedy comments that because the host around the president is there to serve and administer his wishes, he rarely receives pushback from policy suggestions. (Reedy alleges that the only president of the 20th century who was nearly completely successful at staying connected to the people, instead of being hemmed-in by his advisors, was FDR. ) Reedy comments mournfully that there were numerous times that the United States might have resisted further entanglement in Indo-China, but when Johnson passively expected alternatives, all he received were alternating views on what his aides thought he wanted to do — stay the course. Staying the course is almost always the easiest thing to do, even when considered objectively it’s unwise. Presidents are not objective, however; they are the subject of national attention, and of history books. They are the face and will of the nation. If a private citizen makes a mistake that costs him dearly, he is free to cut his losses and walk away with a slightly reddened face and a lighter wallet. But if a President decides engagement in Vietnam or Iraq was a mistake, he has not only wagered money but lives and honor. To write off the lives of thousands of young men and women is not a task easy to do in a democracy.
The office’s isolation and policy inertia of part of the reason why perfectly intelligent men can make astonishing missteps in office, whether it’s invading Cuba on bad intelligence, or invading Iraq on….can the WMD threat even be dignified as ‘intelligence’?. Another aspect, though, is the growth of the office itself: we’ve come a long way from Washington and his three secretaries. Because so much authority has been delegated to executive agencies, it is perfectly possible for people of one department to make pivotal decisions under the aegeis of presidential authority without the executive actually knowing about it. The bureacracy is now so large that it has institutionalized itself; it moves under its own inertia, and a particular department’s long-running policies and officers can outlive presidents. This is why Reedy, despite being a Democrat, thinks it is perfectly possible that Iran-Contra could have been created and implemented without Reagan actually knowing in full what was happening.
Twilight is incredibly insightful, and admirable. Although he wrote out of concern for an office whose efficiency was fast diminishing, his exposure of why remains true today. At least in part, that is; I assume the presidency has become even more isolated from the American people because of security concerns. The 2016 election results, which took D.C. utterly by surprise, may indicate how out of touch the imperial center is with the people beyond the coasts. I wonder if such a book could be written today: Reedy had the advantage of witnessing or knowing people who remembered the presidency when it was still boring, before Hoover and Roosevelt made the office a source of daily fixation. Could an author who has grown up with the imperial presidency analyze it in this fashion? I doubt it.
- The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy, which quoted on this and recommended it to me.
- The Once and Future King, F.H. Buckley. Buckley contends that effective monarchy has re-established itself in the form of the American presidency and the prime ministers of the UK and Canada, echoing some of Reedy’s chapter on the making of the American monarchy. This is one I really must re-read..