Monday, October 21, 2013

The Saturday Night Massacre and the Presidency

"The recall of MacArthur, the steel seizure, and the dispatch of troops to Little Rock share still another notable characteristic: In each case, the decisive order was a painful last resort, a forced response to the exhaustion of all other remedies, suggestive less of mastery than failure -- the failure of attempts to gain an end by softer means" (Neustadt, Presidential Power, 24).

The Saturday Night Massacre, forty years ago yesterday, was critical in the public story of Watergate; it marked the point at which impeachment of the President of the United States became part of the normal political conversation. Indeed, one might say that it marks the point where the standard for a major presidential scandal became impeachment; ever since, from Iran-Contra to Lewinsky to, I don't know, whatever they're talking up on Fox News these days, everyone has been a lot quicker to bring up impeachment than they ever were before Richard Nixon needed three Attorneys General to fire a special prosecutor.

The Massacre was also one of the best illustrations of Richard Neustadt's key point about presidential power: that presidents do not, and can not, govern by command as a normal way of going about their business.

The problem for Nixon was that he was saddled with a special prosecutor who was, in his view, overreaching his mandate (and, at any rate, threatened the presidency by attempting to obtain White House tapes which would prove Nixon guilty of offenses he would surely be impeached and convicted for if they became public). Now, Archibald Cox was supposed to be independent, but he was still part of the Department of Justice. Could Nixon either get him to back off, or, even better, get rid of him?

In the event, the answer was: only by command. Persuasion utterly failed. Which ultimately meant that Nixon couldn't get what he wanted -- relief from a truly independent prosecutor.

Remember, "persuasion" for Neustadt doesn't really mean convincing someone that the president's preferences are good in some abstract way; it merely means convincing someone that to do what the president wants is in his or her own self-interest at that moment. That could involve an appeal to the good of the nation, but it's more likely to be done by some combination of bargaining and the sort of influence that the president's scope gives him. That is, the head of an agency might do what the president wants in order to receive budget support in the future, or the promise of a promotion to a bigger job, or perhaps threats to a political ally. Whatever is available; and while presidents have very limited powers of command, they have nearly limitless tools to use for this kind of persuasion. If, that is, they know how to use their office.

What Neustadt tells us is that the structure of the presidency and the executive branch is set up that way. Part of that is because command only works in particular circumstances; without fairly unusual conditions (Neustadt identifies five), it doesn't work at all. Part of it is that executive branch officials must obey multiple masters -- even when the president can technically fire them (as was the case for the Attorney General), they can often nevertheless ignore what he wants. Indeed, that's part of what happened here. Elliot Richardson simply refused to do what Nixon wanted, meaning that eventually Nixon needed to turn his lower-case order into a proper Presidential Order that Richardson could no longer ignore. And yet even here, Richardson resisted and resigned.

Why? Because Richardson had made a promise to the Senate -- that he would appoint a special prosecutor and let him do his work. Why? Because the Senate insisted; they would not confirm him otherwise. Why did Richardson keep his word to the Senate over his loyalty to the president? Because he was the sort of man who would do that. And why did Nixon appoint such a man to such a post, anyway? Because the politics of the situation required it during a time that spring when the outgoing Attorney General and the previous one were both implicated in wrongdoing, and during a time when the independence of Justice Department investigations of White House wrongdoing was under fire.

Nor is this the only time when executive branch refusal to go along with presidential plans mattered in the Watergate saga. Indeed: the whole thing started when Nixon's ("Huston") plan for domestic surveillance was shot down by the FBI, leading Nixon to bring an alternate version of that plan inside the White House. And while presidents generally can get their orders followed within the White House, it's the regular executive branch departments and agencies which have the expertise to carry out policy successfully.

Neustadt calls command -- director orders, rather than persuasion -- a "last resort" for a president:
Not only are these "last" resorts less than conclusive, but they are also costly...[D]rastic action rarely comes at bargain rates. It can be costly to the aims in whose defense it is employed. It can be costly, also, to objectives far afield (27).  
So he wrote, over a decade before Nixon's attempt at command was successful at ridding him of Archibald Cox, but at a terrible price indeed.


  1. While we're looking for political science lessons in all this, here's another one: the whole affair really pointed up the status-quo bias in the US system. Recall that even after this blatant act of obstruction, Nixon hung on for nearly another full year. I don't think even Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers would have made it through the week. (In fact it was a high-profile but much less dramatic Cabinet resignation that triggered the events that brought her down.) A party whose leader isn't separately elected and can be replaced mid-term has very little reason to put up with one who's already as damaged as Nixon was by this point.

    Also, and relatedly, to finally force him out, the whole skein of events had to be intensely judicialized. It wasn't enough just to say, well, something went badly wrong here, let's start over with a new leader. No, there had to be Senate hearings that were distinctly inquisitorial (for a good cause, I think, but still), special prosecutors, court orders, further congressional hearings where backbenchers made solemn speeches about The Fate of the Nation, and even then we weren't at the formal impeachment trial yet, but that too would have been needed if one tape hadn't been a "smoking gun" and/or if Nixon had hung on any longer. The last event before he resigned, recall, was a visit from three elders of the legislative party telling him the party couldn't prop him up any longer. Under other systems, that visit would have happened probably either in April or (at the latest) October 1973.

    That's an amazingly strong bias toward the status quo. Is it good? Well, it's probably good that Bill Clinton's opponents, trying though they might to reprise Watergate as comedy improv, couldn't trump up an "Arkansas Project" civil suit into a scandal capable of bringing him down. But -- and even though Watergate came out "right" -- I wonder how many neutral observers would point to America's 1973 and '74 as worthy models of how a great nation should be governed.

    1. I pretty skeptical of this whole argument. If a majority party in the Westminster system decides to keep a leader around for their own reasons they are able to do it for quite a while, regardless of what that person has done. Just look at Tony Blair, I think you could make a case that by 2004 his own party didn't like him anymore and that he was deeply involved in, well lying to his country to get it into an unpopular war. But because Labour leaders, especially Gordon Brown, decided that getting rid of him might be more trouble than it's worth, Blair was able to survive for quite a while. It's true that it's easy for a party to depose their leadership in the Westminster system, but it's easy for a Speaker to be deposed if they get unpopular with their party in our system too. Removing a President from office might be harder than removing a Prime Minister, but a President without allies in Congress is basically dead in the water anyway.

    2. But the president being "dead in the water" is exactly the problem. What kind of system keeps a leader around for months at a time after he's dead in the water? What's the point?

      As to the Blair analogy, what you had there was a policy question (Iraq) that provoked significant -- though hardly universal -- dissent within his own party, but also, ironically, lined up the larger opposition party on his side. Many also objected to Blair's imperious or "presidential" style, but there was no significant question of personal corruption, nothing remotely like taped conversations about paying off burglars. In a perfect world, maybe lies about great issues of war and peace would loom larger than tawdry lies about wiretaps and hush money, and in the long run perhaps they already do even in our world. But, bottom line -- and however much we might disagree with Blair on the substance -- in terms of the various parties' and factions' positions and the state of play in the Commons in 2003-07, Blair was on the right side of the big questions. Recall that he won re-election in 2005 with a majority that in any other era would have been a landslide, but looked small only by comparison with his earlier even bigger landslides.

    3. "But the president being "dead in the water" is exactly the problem. What kind of system keeps a leader around for months at a time after he's dead in the water? What's the point?"

      Well if having a president "dead in the water" is a kind of problem then so is a system that has an election which produces a parliament where after months of bargaining you still can't form a government. What kids of system does that? What's the point with that?

      You can argue that the American system has problems that are unique to it, but it's not really clear that those problems are objectively worse than the problems inherent in other systems. Compare what happened with Nixon to what's been happening in Hungary in the last few years and I'd argue our system shows some major advantages.

    4. The Westminster system may make it easier to get rid of the leadership, but it still isn't cost-free as sending a leader to the curb can end up making the governing party look like they're either infighting or incompetent. Which can then lead to a huge loss in standing for the entire party. One reason why it isn't done every other year or so.

      In the case of Nixon's hypothetical path to election, he would probably have not been able to gain a majority on his own and would have ended up in a coalition of the GOP and whatever third party the Southern Dems were made up of. He could have been stuck in there awhile longer than he should have because kicking him out would cause the coalition to break up and trigger elections (which the GOP coalition would likely lose).

      You also seem to be focusing on the single difference of the executive while ignoring the fixed versus flexible terms of elections that is also a huge difference between the systems. The US system makes it difficult to remove people from office because power is divided between branches and elections are going to remove them sooner or later so the damage they can do is limited. With the Westminster system, a party that is out of touch can still cling to power much longer than they normally would in the US. It's the issue of one bad apple versus an entire party of them running things.

      Although, under a Westminster system, the entire budget/debt ceiling craziness would have had no chance to actually occur. So that's something in its favor.

    5. @longwalk: Right, I think we're agreed that our model should not be the Hungarian system (!!).

      @MyName: "You also seem to be focusing on the single difference of the executive while ignoring the fixed versus flexible terms of elections that is also a huge difference between the systems." Not ignoring this, it just didn't come up in this round. But I would agree that fixed-term elections are another cross that American for some reason have pointlessly chosen to bear.

  2. I get the distinct impression, reading the comments not only here but at several other blogs, that the people who post at these blogs believe that there is a real possibility of the U.S. switching to a parliamentary system, and that this will be decided not by popular vote or legislative action or judicial command but by debate.

    Have I been missing something? Because I have seen nothing in the news about this.

    1. I, for one, do not think there is any such possibility in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, if you want to accurately understand and diagnose what's going on, you need to account for the possibility of basic flaws in the design of the system. They may be there whether anything is done about them in the near term or not.

      And, as far as eventual changes, well... things can last a long time, but nothing lasts forever -- nothing, including the U.S. Constitution as we know it. And when a flawed system finally crashes, it can crash in a hurry. Stable systems are stable, until suddenly one day they're not. Will that day be ten years from now, or a hundred? There's literally no way to know.

    2. I am willing to bet whatever sum you name that the U.S. government will not switch to a parliamentary system ten years from now.

    3. I don't think "switch to a parliamentary system" is the likely result of systemic collapse. It will never be presented as that kind of choice. What's more likely is some sort of package of reforms, probably not happening all at once but maybe within a relatively short time, that massively changed the actual functioning of the system even while it looked more or less the same to outward appearances. These sorts of changes of basic "regime" have happened before in US history -- probably three or four times, depending on which political theorist you follow -- and I think another one becomes not only possible, but inevitable, if the system keeps seizing up the way we just saw it do, and/or if there's a major dislocation like the '08 crash (and particularly if the seizing-up and the crash seem related). As to the timetable, yeah, ten years goes by fast, usually with little change -- but then again, it would have been hard in 1928 to predict (a) the Crash of '29 and (b) the basically different regime that was in place by 1938. And I think the particular kinds of reforms we're due for next, if not creating anything formally called a "parliament," would indeed involve some trimming back on the veto points, the minority prerogatives and the status-quo bias that make our current system as unwieldy as it is.

  3. After October 20, it was soon not only impeachment but resignation that began to be openly discussed. I'm thinking in particular of the Time editorial "The President Should Resign" (November 12 issue, but likely on newsstands a week earlier). Searching on that phrase takes you to the Nixon Library's PDF of the two-page spread in Time.


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