, Salem, MA


May 4, 2013

Shribman: The limited power of presidents


“No threats,” says Peter Robinson, who wrote the Reagan speeches, which were heavy on sweet reason masked as sweet talk. “Reagan just went to Kasten’s home and persuaded the senator’s constituents.” Kasten voted for the measure.

Nor did Richard Nixon, regarded in retrospect as a fearsome pugilist, employ fear in his pre-Watergate dealings with Congress.

“Nixon knew how to deal with Wilbur Mills and Russell Long,” former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in those days, said of the former chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. “It wasn’t about vindictive narrow partisanship — on either side. These guys detested Watergate, but earlier in his administration, they respected Nixon.”

Historical legends warp our perspective on the presidency. In the folklore, Johnson was a political magus, wielding irresistible power from the Oval Office over the Congress. Not so, at least in foreign affairs, where presidents have the widest latitude.

It is true that LBJ won wide running room from Congress by virtue of the huge majorities (414-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate) in support of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the president to take all necessary measures to fight North Vietnam.

But Johnson’s closest Capitol Hill mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, expressed reservations about the administration’s Vietnam policy as early as 1964. By 1966, efforts to revoke the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution began.

That same year, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas began holding critical hearings on the war, an undertaking that enraged LBJ and led him to refer to the Arkansas Democrat as “Senator Half-bright,” a name that originated with Harry Truman after Fulbright took issue with the 33rd president’s views on the atomic bomb and the United Nations.

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