Global Policy Forum

From Republic to Empire


By Roger Morris*

Globe and Mail
April 14, 2003

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were labelled 'imperial presidents,' recalls former White House adviser Roger Morris. But neither could hold a candle to today's George Bush.

Whatever his triumph in Iraq, George W. Bush already enjoyed a victory of historic proportions in the United States. By unique dominance of Congress and the rest of government, and to the approval of the American media and an impressive majority in the polls, Mr. Bush had acquired power beyond the grasp of any predecessor. Before U.S. forces ever roared through Baghdad, their Commander-in-Chief was America's most imperial president.

The spectre of an emperor in the White House is familiar to an American system that lurches between the wider powers of the modern president and the long-sacred constitutional restraints placed on executive supremacy. In his noted 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned of "presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity." Cases in point were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, whose conduct from the Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal seemed to many to be a dangerous culmination of might and pretension assembled in the Oval Office.

By the mid 1970s, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Nixon had left Washington in disrepute. Congress reasserted itself in the War Powers Act, which limited the unilateral power of the president to go to war, and take certain other steps. Presidential authority shrank under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As Capitol Hill and the White House divided between Republicans and Democrats, the traditional shifting balance between legislative and executive branches continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s under the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. An imperial presidency seemed the relic of a bygone era.

Now George W. Bush has sharply reversed that history. His empire began with the surrender of Congress, a collapse almost as sweeping as the fall of the Baghdad regime. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson had his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 1964 act that endorsed U.S. entry into the Vietnam War. President Johnson liked to refer to it as "grandma's nightshirt" because the legislation covered everything. To strike Iraq, Mr. Bush demanded and got from legislators an even broader cloak for invasion, occupation, and further military action in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Like the Tonkin measure, hastily voted amid what proved to be false reports of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. vessels, this Congress's Iraqi resolution passed with scant debate and a brandishing of bogus intelligence, such as the forgery of Iraqi nuclear procurement from Niger. In a stroke, the blank cheque for Mr. Bush swept away the legal requirement of a congressional declaration of war or even compliance with the 1973 War Powers Act. As a result, the White House was ceded sovereign authority to justify and launch full-scale hostilities -- a right vested by the Constitution in the Congress precisely to prevent such fateful power falling to any one president and handful of advisers.

The groundwork for this usurpation was laid last September with the National Security Strategy Mr. Bush sent to Congress. In this document, the President claimed the right -- indeed, responsibility -- to take pre-emptive action against perceived future threats to the security of the United States. From this, it was but a short jump to his Iraqi venture. Claiming a prerogative to invade Iraq as a "clear and present danger" to peace -- it was by no means "clear" to much of the world or even Iraq's closest neighbours, and it was by no means "present" even in his prediction of a threat "in one year or five years" -- Mr. Bush erased long-recognized limits on the right of any nation to attack another. If the unilateral abrogation alarmed allies, friends and the United Nations, however, it went unchallenged on Capitol Hill, another sign that any internal democratic restraint on the President's war-making was a dead letter.

Added to all this was an equally historic concentration of power in domestic affairs. By the Patriot Act and other enabling laws in the pervasive new realm of "Homeland Security," Mr. Bush has brought an imperial presidency home to a depth and breadth that Lyndon Johnson, with his furtive FBI spying on antiwar groups, or even Richard Nixon, with his Watergate "plumbers" and other extraconstitutional means, never contemplated. Under Attorney-General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department now has the kind of licence to conduct the political surveillance without probable cause or court sanction that many of the Nixon men went to prison for. As no other federal government before it, the Bush administration wields the authority to arrest and hold suspects without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, and deny access to legal counsel, all with unparalleled secrecy.

It would be easy to attribute this singular massing of power to predictable chauvinist politics in America's reaction to the shock of Sept. 11. There is comfort in thinking of Mr. Bush as one more president riding the crest of a breaking wave -- and that the tide will turn back, as always, to constitutional balance. Yet, even apart from the uncertain course of the "war on terrorism," or Washington's open-ended evocation of it, that optimistic view ignores decisive new realities in U.S. politics -- and the emerging reality of George W. Bush himself.

Today's imperial presidency looms over political parties and a Congress very different from those of the recent past. President Johnson faced formidable critics from his own party, such as senators William Fulbright, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Mr. Nixon fought to the end a Democratic-ruled Senate and House, and the resistance of many influential Republican moderates. President Bush, on the other hand, will deliver his Iraqi war victory speech to houses of Congress dominated by conservative Republicans, with GOP moderates a rarity and rebels extinct. Their religious fundamentalist leaders, as well as the rank and file, not only back the President's new reach with domestic repression and foreign retribution, but also share the larger geo-strategic urge to American hegemony behind the war on Iraq.

In their all but silent minority, today's congressional Democrats are similarly to the political right of their predecessors, and bow no less to enlarged presidential power at home and abroad -- if not to Mr. Bush benefiting from it. The "bipartisan" approach by this Congress that goes beyond terrorism and Iraq is an abdication of legislative responsibility. Congress has ceded the White House exceptional authority over trade agreements, allowed it to rewrite the usually sacrosanct farm bill, capitulated on the $400-billion military budget. The sort of party revolt that forced Mr. Johnson to retire, or the bipartisan ballast to Mr. Nixon's command, are nowhere in the offing for Mr. Bush.

Not least in a new calculus of an imperial presidency is the man in the Oval Office. George W. Bush, of course, was an unlikely emperor -- America's least informed modern president in world affairs. For the first nine months of his term -- it now seems hard to remember -- he was a lacklustre, evidently purposeless and unprepossessing politician of ridiculed syntax and shrouded electoral legitimacy. Questions about his suspect business dealings, or the sway over his administration of corporate interests, even more egregious than Washington's accepted captivity to moneyed power, began to swirl about the White House. Then, in perhaps the most dramatic effect of its kind in American history, Sept. 11 transformed the man as well as the political setting. "Every president reconstructs the presidency," Mr. Schlesinger wrote of the imperial impulse, "to meet his own psychological needs." Elevated by terrorist attacks from a butt of satire to a commanding leader disposing an awesome, vengeful power, Mr. Bush took on his own reconstruction with earnest determination, even gusto, finding his yet undefined political destiny in an expansively defined war on terrorism.

As the first inside testimony of his presidency tells, he remains much the man he was before his new power and purpose, still lacking knowledge and experience, while still caustic about opponents, still convinced of his own sound judgment and moral rectitude. By all accounts, he has adopted naturally the concept of a "spacious" and "peremptory" authority that Mr. Schlesinger saw in the elected emperor. In contrast to Lyndon Johnson's Washington-backroom politicking or Richard Nixon's aloof cynicism, it is Mr. Bush's mixture of his old defiant self-assurance and his new sense of mission that makes his exercise of the imperial presidency all the more formidable.

That grip only tightens with the President's domination of the government beneath him, as well as the acquiescence, if not outright support, he enjoys from the American media, and the personal popularity he wins. The role of a small clique of officials in the decision to invade Iraq -- Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon consultant Richard Perle and others who have long advocated an attack -- is well known from coverage of the war. Less noted, however, is how much their bureaucratic dominance of the military, State Department and intelligence agencies in the process added to the power of a president who embraced their strategy so completely. Mr. Bush and his hawkish advisers face another battle altogether in their ambitious vision of Iraqi democracy and its inspiration for freer regimes across the Middle East. But their swift military victory disarmed, along with Saddam Hussein, any U.S. bureaucratic opposition to the President's writ, fixing a White House mastery over foreign affairs not seen in Washington since the policy autocracy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

So, too, Mr. Bush stands likely to have a prolonged honeymoon with the American media. It is not only that television coverage in particular -- epitomized by the ironically named "embedded reporters" -- has cheerled the advance into Baghdad. Crippled by self-censorship, often by its lack of knowledge or sensibility, and without a vocal opposition in Congress to report by default, American journalism will give the new imperial president publicity his forerunners could only envy.

Finally, there is Mr. Bush's paradoxical popularity. If 70 per cent to 75 per cent of Americans approve of his war and performance, the same number question a sagging economy and other issues that are his least-imperial domains. Yet the White House has a manifest capacity to keep the terrorist threat a political preoccupation. Its public shows an equally clear acceptance of a strong leader to deal with the post-Sept. 11 world. The combination will certainly rescue Mr. Bush from the return to domestic concerns and resulting fall in popularity that his father suffered after the first war in the Persian Gulf -- yet another reason why this imperial presidency will not soon wane. All this makes for a certain irony when Mr. Bush comes before the Congress to announce the triumph in Iraq, basking in his new power won at the constitutional expense of the very chambers that will hail him.

Not that this should surprise us. Shortly before he died in 1989, the eminent American writer Robert Penn Warren, author of All The King's Men, a novel about a democratic demagogue and dictator, was asked if he foresaw another president with too much power. "Well, it'll probably be someone you least expect under circumstances nobody foresaw," he said. "And, of course, it'll come with a standing ovation from Congress."

About the Author: Roger Morris, a member of the National Security Council under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is the author of Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician and Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.