A Different Take On Watergate – Guest Essayist: John Marini

The American Mind with Charles R. Kesler: Presented by The Claremont Institute. Originally published on Jan 30, 2014 in the third segment with University of Nevada Reno Professor John Marini, Marini and Kesler discuss President Nixon and his losing battle with Washington bureaucracies. Used with permission.


John:  You have to begin to see what Nixon’s plan was after the election, and there you get a better sense of his view that this is the last time that we’re going to be able to take on the centralized bureaucratic apparatus and be able to hold it back.

Charles:  John, if Richard Nixon were a character in a western, who would he be?  Simon Legree?

John:  Yeah, it’s hard to say.  I don’t know.  In a John Ford Western?

Charles:  Yes.

John:  Maybe a Mose Harper.

Charles:  Hard to cast.

John:  Yeah.  He would be hard to cast.  He’s a complicated figure in many ways.

Charles:  Well, what should conservatives think about Richard Nixon?  He was certainly not beloved by the American Right Wing at the time when he was president or even before he was the president.  There was a lot of disappointment, obviously, at how his presidency ended.  You’re a man who has studied that period.  What do we make of him in retrospect?

John:  Well I think Nixon was at the center of the two greatest controversies in the Post-World War II period.

Nixon comes out of the War, runs as a Republican from California in 1946, in a time when politics is dominated by Roosevelt and the New Deal.

It’s a time when socialism, communism—Many of the intellectuals in America were very willing and very hospitable to socialism.  And it was hard to draw a line between socialism and communism.  It was harder still to draw a line between the communism that was backed by the Soviet Union and its influence in America.

I think Nixon brought the problem of domestic communism to the fore in American politics in a way no one had done, and that earned him a great deal of enmity, in that his case, in the way in which he brought that to the attention of the American people.  Because when you look at the 1930s, you look at American intellectuals, many of them were very willing to extend the powers of American government far beyond anything that had ever been done.

Nixon was still in many ways, even though he thought that government should be powerful, I think he was an opponent of—however he understood it—administrative centralization because he knew it would be difficult to hold political officers accountable once the powers moved from the political to the administrative realm.

So the other thing he brought to the fore is —I think he’s the first real systematic opponent of the New Deal in American politics.  Not in a really coherent way, but in a way—let’s put it this way:  If you look at Eisenhower’s presidency, Eisenhower did not want to politicize the New Deal.  He did not want to politicize what it was that Roosevelt had done or what the Democratic Party had done, even expanded

Charles:  I mean, what Eisenhower called “Modern Republicanism” was really republicanism that had made its peace with the New Deal.

John:  And, in fact, he expanded in a way that even the New Deal didn’t when he created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; because you remember the New Deal was preoccupied still with national defense, and many of the resources, or most of the resources of the Federal government were still used primarily in terms of defense.

Once you start the possibility of creating federal monies for health, education, and welfare, then, of course, you’re moving in a direction towards changing the priorities of those who hold offices in America, because you have the possibility of subsidizing constituencies.

In other words, what I’m suggesting is, Nixon understood, in fact, he said the election of 1960, in his mind, the election was about whether or not we want a free society or a bureaucratic society.  He said John Kennedy will usher in a bureaucratic society.  He wanted to retain a free society.

Now that becomes obscured by the time he becomes president in 1968.

Charles:  Well, isn’t it obscured in part by Nixon himself?  I mean, he is responsible for a lot of Federal bureaucracy in his terms as president.

John:  Yeah, I think that the problem with Nixon and the difficulty of understanding this is Nixon’s two terms are like two different presidencies, in my view.

When Nixon won in 1968, the fundamental preoccupation of the country in his mind, and the White House, was winning the war in Vietnam.  There was no way in which he could negotiate with large majorities in Congress without accommodating many of the things that they wanted to do and could have done probably, even over veto.  Much of what he did in his first term was to try to fund the war in Vietnam.

Now, the key was the 1972 election.  Now even The New York Times in ‘72 said after Nixon’s election, what Nixon did was extraordinary in American politics.  It’s as if another party took power because, do you remember what he did?

  1. When he took office he told every member of his administration, including Henry Kissinger, every cabinet officer, you have to turn in your resignation. He said, I’m tired of appointing people to offices and then getting them co-opted by the bureaucracy.  I want people that are going to do what we have to do.

And so you have to begin to see what Nixon’s plan was after the election.  And there you get a better sense of his view that this is the last time that we’re going to be able to take on the centralized bureaucratic apparatus and be able to hold it back.

Charles:  Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because it’s true that the Left feared that side of Nixon, that plan of his.  They thought this was the beginning of the administrative presidency or the sort of imperial presidency working its way from foreign policy into control of domestic policy as well.

But what’s the evidence that he was thinking strategically?  He did have this, what you just pointed to, a plan to form super-departments, combining some of the existing cabinet departments.  And the theory, I guess, was that he would be able to control them.  The president would be able to control them or –

No, what he wanted to do in creating the distinction between departments is isolate what you would call the Pork Departments, those departments that were more concerned with satisfying constituencies, and those departments that were more concerned with the national interests.  In other words, he wanted to isolate those people that he was certain would be co-opted by those bureaucracies that provided services—

Charles:  Health, education, and welfare.

John:  Right.  Any of those kinds of departments.

And he also wanted to reorganize the bureaucracy in such a way as to cut the congressional oversight committees and their links to Congress, assuming, of course, that Congress would do it.  Which, of course, nobody in Congress would do what he wanted to do when he sent the Reorganization Act over.

What he thought he could do was—could he do it administratively?  And that’s when, of course, he got into trouble.

But here’s what Theodore White says about that problem at the time:  Nixon knew that the only way to decentralize power in Washington was to centralize authority in the White House.  But then he opened himself up to the charge of the imperial presidency.

Nixon’s ultimate intention, though, was centralize with the view to decentralize and getting it out of Washington.  That he failed at.  That’s what Watergate partly was about.

Charles:  But isn’t instituting wage and price controls a strange way to decentralize authority in Washington?

John:  No, no.  But you have to remember.  Those are in the heat of the election.  Those are temporary measures, I think.  Look, you have to win elections too.

Charles:  I know, but isn’t that a strange way to win an election?  I mean this is not the usual way to win an American election.

He did win though.  They thought that worked in the short run.  It certainly did in ‘72.

Charles:  Well, there’s a certain argument, if you’re going to have wage and price controls, you should have Republicans running them. conservative economists who hate what they’re doing administrating the thing.

John:  I think Nixon made a lot of errors of judgment.  I try to understand him in this context of what was going on in Washington, and how was he perceived?  How was he understood?

I think the man who understood Nixon best in terms of what he was doing was Reagan.  Reagan already understood it in ’59.  They started correspondence with each other in 1959.

In Nixon’s presidency, when he was president—you can listen to the tapes—all of the important things he did—whether in Vietnam—he would always call Reagan.  (He was governor.)  And he would tell him, “This is what we’re doing in Vietnam.”  And he would say, “I’ll let Henry tell you the details of it.”

You notice Nixon was destroyed politically and almost anybody who touched him after he resigned.  But who met him at the airport when he came to California?

Charles:  Ronald Reagan.

John:  Ronald Reagan.  So Reagan was the only guy, I think, who knew what Watergate was about really.  But you can’t make a public defense of Nixon anymore.

Charles:  Do we know what Watergate was about?

John:  Well, I don’t think he did.  I don’t think Nixon did.  In fact, when I wrote a paper in 1984 on the roll of the bureaucracy in Watergate, somehow it got into Nixon’s hands, and within a couple of weeks he wrote me a letter and said, “You know, I never thought about that element of the—“

Charles:  Is that right?

John:  And he said, “You’re far away.  You weren’t even here, and you pointed so something really about what was happening.”

And it wasn’t really a defense of Nixon.  It was just—there are institutional players.  There are people who have certain things that they want to do.  And I was trying to take into account the broader, the forces in American politics.

Charles:  Well say more about that.

John:  Not the personalities.

Charles:  What was your argument?

John:  The argument was, of course, that the permanent government, the bureaucracy was well aware that Nixon was a fundamental opponent.  All of the bureaucracy thought of Nixon as a threat, including the intelligence agencies.  All of them thought of Nixon as a threat.

And so whenever the bureaucracy is threatened, it defends its interests by going to the media, by leaking to political opponents.  All of Watergate’s so-called revelations that were supposedly done by Woodward and Bernstein through investigative—That wasn’t investigative reporting.  That was just using what somebody gave them.

Charles:  Soaking up the leaks.

John:  Right. Right.  And so, what you can see subsequently in looking at the bureaucracy in relationship to the parties, Republican presidents can never do with the bureaucracy what democratic presidents can.  Democratic presidents are shielded by the bureaucracy.  Republican presidents are undermined by the bureaucracy if they perceive them as a threat.

Charles:  So in the Nixon period, what the bureaucrats feared was not politicization of the bureaucracy;  they feared “conservatization” or a particular kind of political authority over the bureaucracy.

John:  They feared, I think, the view that you would revitalize various of the problems that had been brought to Washington to be decided by centralized bureaucracies—that you decentralize them, and much of the power and decision making, real politics in other words, goes back to the states.

Because once you centralize the administration in Washington, everything revolved around the center; and the congressmen had to make their reputations—not by a defense of their constituencies within the state.  Senators didn’t look out for the interest of the state within the state.  Everybody thought you delivered the goods from the Senate.

Charles:  So the bureaucracy was acting from organizational maintenance.

John:  Yes, of course.

Charles:  They feared loss of power.

John:  Right.  And all of those forces in Washington that benefitted from centralization, which includes, by the way, the national media, national economic interests, all of them would prefer to have to deal one place.

Charles:  You would say that’s true of the national security bureaucracy as well?  Or primarily of the domestic ones?

John:  Well the national security bureaucracy hated Nixon for other reasons that were related to the Vietnam War.  Remember, he was actually going to put one of his admirals on trial for treason.

Charles:  Is that right?

John:  Yeah!

Charles:  I don’t remember that.

John:  And they talked him out of it.

I don’t know that we have full knowledge of what was going on in that period, but a lot of things were going on.  But they hated him for other reasons as well, the national security and the CIA bureaucracy.

But what you had by the Nixon Administration is, first of all, the official bureaucracy was often co-opted by the committees in Congress that had had control over those things for a long time period of time.

Just one example:  When Nixon made the opening to China, normally you would think you would do that through the State Department.  That’s what it’s set up for.  Nixon did it absolutely without anybody in the State Department, including the secretary of state, William Rogers, who was not informed about the opening to China until about two hours before Nixon went on television.

Charles:  Kissinger did it all out of his back pocket.

John:  It was all done through the National Security Council out of the White House though.

So what you see is, these presidents had to create their own bureaucracies that were loyal to them, to go against the permanent bureaucracies that were in the hands of those people in Congress who had tenure for long periods of time.

Charles:  And thus were disloyal to them as president.

John:  Right.  And responded really to the interest of those people that they know they’d have to deal with for 30 years, not four years or eight years.

So the relationship between the branches, the Congress and the presidency, once the administration was centralized and Congress ceased to be able to understand itself in terms of lawmaking, in terms of the national interests, it became really a force for delegating great power to the administrative apparatus and becomes an oversight body.

And so it’s very difficult for it to think in terms of a national interest.

I mean, one of the Lincoln Fellows yesterday said you can’t get some congressmen to talk about a national security problem because, “Oh, I’m concerned with energy.”  Now this is a congressman!  So each picks his own policy arena to be able to be a major player.

And the problem with the presidency, of course, is there’s a lot of major players in minor areas.  But you need to have major players in the representative branch and the deliberative branch of the government.  You need to have coherent policy that’s made by the body.  And that doesn’t happen.

Charles:  Congress as a body.

John:  As a body.  And you get to the point, the kind of absurdity you see right now.  The American Congress is held—it’s public approval rating is 11 percent.  But look at every person—90 percent of incumbents still get reelected.

That means that the fate of the body is different than the fate of the individual member.  The people don’t judge the body.  They judge the member.

Charles:  That’s right.  You like your congressman.  You hate Congress.

John:  Right.  Right.  But that’s not a good way to keep the government of the United States accountable.  And that’s what Nixon, I think, saw.  Nixon thought, and he says this, if it’s going to be impossible for the people to be able to consent to government when they don’t have access to the people who have real power.  And that is a big problem:  How to deal with that problem is, of course, the problem of the administrative state.

Charles:  Right.  The popular government turns into unelected power in agencies and commissions, bureaus, and so forth.

John:  Right because as Congress has to delegate more power to specialized bodies, they don’t have the kind of expert knowledge, the technical knowledge, and they give more—and more and more of the decisions are crafted by the people that are in those technical fields.  And so Congress doesn’t even attempt to do the actual making of the rules or regulations that establish what you can do or what you can’t do.  It just enables the bureaucracy to do those kinds of things.

And so it shields the bureaucracy in a way, and it makes it impossible for the people to hold the representatives accountable as a body; and you have the situation that we have that the American people are almost impotent when it comes to getting to the sources of what constitute real power.

Charles:  And, thus, controlling their own government.

John:  Right, the powers, really, the rules and regulations, the things that pass for laws are not really general laws anymore.  These are particular laws, and people can get particular favors or privileges through these administrative bodies, but you don’t get good general legislation.  You don’t get the rule of law.  Because a law should be a general law and it should apply equally.

But these are all ways of enabling unequal treatment.

John Marini previously served on the faculty of the University of Dallas and Ohio University, and is currently a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute in California. He has written extensively in the areas of American politics and public administration, focusing on the separation of powers and bureaucratic politics. His most recent work, in progress, is “American Constitutionalism and the Administrative State.”

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2 Responses to “A Different Take On Watergate – Guest Essayist: John Marini”

  1. Barb Zakszewski says:

    Interesting and insightful.

  2. Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Extremely fascinating. I read that after a couple of centuries that Roman Caesars were Caesars in name only. That the real power was held by the Praetorian Guard [the Bureaucracy] and they would assassinate any Caesar who strayed too far from what was considered acceptable to the Praetorians.

    The phenomenon described herein is even more accentuated today. Just watch a head of a Bureaucracy address the Senate to House oversight committees. It is an astounding display of mega passive aggressiveness as they dodge and ignore questions, refuse to provide documents for months or years. Their attitude reeks with defiance. “You can ask, but you can never compel me to answer or submit that which you by law can demand.”

    It appears the same happens politically today with the Bureaucrats. Make one wonder what the NSA would do if the President or Congress tried to disband them. I doubt it could be done without real, physical bloodshed of Congressman or the President.

    Thank you. PSD

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