Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Power Game, Part One

"Voters added the most fractious division of all: the gridlock of divided government... (T)he conflicts built into our system of checks and balances have been exacerbated to the point of periodic paralysis in the past three decades-- by split partisan control of government."-- Hedrick Smith, The Power Game, 1988

Political affairs and legal matters intrigue me...

Occasionally, I revisit books that taught me much on those subjects.  Among them is Hedrick Smith's The Power Game, first read many years after completing my formal schooling.  I disagree with some of Smith's recommendations on how to solve the dysfunctional politics of our times.  But I have no disputes with his objective reporting and perceptive analysis...

The Watergate Complex in Washington, DC: site of America's
most infamous political burglary

Smith is nearly eighty now.  Born in Scotland and educated at Oxford in England and Williams College in the United States, he produced Frontline for PBS.  Smith edited and reported stories for the New York Times before winning an Emmy for his stint in public broadcasting.   He won a Pulitzer in 1974 for accounts of life and politics in the Soviet Union.  In the course of a year as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a highly-regarded conservative think-tank, Smith tackled the problem of why Washington can't seem to get things done...

Over the course of 700 pages, The Power Game looks at the roles played by corporate lobbyists, the military industrial complex and congressional staffers in hammering out a budget and setting our national political agenda.  It also examines the changing nature of the Presidency and why someone like Lyndon Johnson could succeed in having his legislative agenda enacted yet fail so miserably in managing the Vietnam War.  Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter left office-- the one widely praised and the other considered weak and ineffective.  Yet both were, Smith contends, failures and one of them showed more disregard for the rule of law and the Constitution than Richard Nixon, a very smart man who triumphed internationally and destroyed his Presidency domestically...

The revelation that President Nixon had secretly recorded
conversations in the Oval Office proved fatal to his claims
of non-involvement in the coverup of a burglary at offices
of his political opposition

It is a book worth discussing over the course of several essays.  We begin with a topic Smith touches upon but does not discuss in great detail... 

Readers of my age who do not live and breathe politics likely remember Richard Nixon's resignation from the Presidency as the Big Story of the year in 1974.  He voluntarily left office facing certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and almost equally certain conviction by the Senate and removal from office...

The Watergate scandal, for younger readers, began with the June 17, 1972, arrest of five men charged with burglarizing offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.  An FBI investigation found cash connected to CREEP (the Committee to Re-elect the President) on the men.  The FBI investigation also sparked a labyrinthine plot to cover-up the involvement of John Mitchell, then the Attorney General of the United States, and John Dean, Presidential Counsel, in ordering the break-in after G Gordon Liddy, a former district attorney in New York State and the general counsel to CREEP, presented them with a plan to gather campaign intelligence by illegally wiretapping Democratic National Committee offices...

Left to right: Senators Fred Thompson, Howard Baker, and
Sam Erven hear testimony during the Watergate Hearings.
Thompson, a lawyer, became an actor famous for his role as
a New York City District Attorney.  Baken served as Senate
Majority Leader in President Reagan's first term.

A tape-recording system installed by Nixon to secretly record his conversations without the knowledge of other participants ultimately revealed the President was aware of his re-election campaign's criminal activities within days of the Watergate burglars arrests.  Not only was he aware, his own words confirmed, but Nixon himself approved a plan to derail the investigation by having the CIA falsely claim the burglary was related to a top-secret national security investigation...

Nixon had few options after this conversation became public.  He chose to resign and was succeeded by Gerald Ford, the nation's first Vice President to become President under provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.  Ford had not, incidentally, been elected Vice President by the Electoral College as the result of a nationwide ballot.  He attained that office as a result of the 25th Amendment after Spiro Agnew, Nixon's first Vice President, was forced from office due to criminal charges related to Agnew's time as Governor of Maryland.  Agnew later claimed, probably not truthfully, that Nixon and his allies concocted a bribery case against him to divert attention from the growing Watergate scandal and threatened to have him assassinated if he didn't play the game they told him to play...

[The irony of Nixon's downfall is that he installed his secret tape-recording system to "insure his place in history."  He did just that.]

Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward flank publisher
Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, the newspaper whose
reporting toppled a Presidential administration.  In the odd way
politics work, the very liberal Graham became close personal
friends with the very conservative Nancy Reagan during Ronald
Reagan's Presidency, despite the Post's often unfavorable stories
about Mr Reagan's administration 

Richard Nixon triggered other action in Congress besides serving as a target for an impeachment investigation.  He personally disapproved of certain programs and refused to spend funds appropriated by the Congress to fund them.  Although he was not the first President to "impound" funds, he was the first to outrage the Legislative Branch to the point that it actually passed a law specifically stripping him of the power to withhold funds.  Thomas Jefferson had not spent monies allocated for naval vessels at the turn of the 19th Century, explaining to Congress the ships in question were poorly designed and manufactured with inferior materials, a combination which would result in defeat in battle on the High Seas...

Impounding funds, or the attempt to do so, proved costly for Nixon.  He had angered not only Democrats but Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  As the Watergate Scandal grew and evidence that the President had personally committed crimes also grew, Nixon's lack of friends in Congress meant he would likely become the first Chief Executive to be forced from office...

A two-third's majority of the Senate, in a trial presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, must vote to convict a President who has been impeached by a simple majority of the House of Representatives.  The fact that Nixon feared conviction in what required strong bi-partisan agreement speaks to two simple facts: the wise President avoids criminal activity and the wise President does not do things to alienate members of his own political party...

Our Founding Fathers took the business of impeaching any President seriously.  They wisely heeded James Madison's advice to limit the legislative branch's power to do so only when the nation's leader had committed the gravest of crimes.  Personal dislike or partisan disagreement with Presidential policies would not constitute cause for removal from office...

Attempting to boost his image, President Nixon appeared
on the wildly popular Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
comedy program.  Mr Nixon's previous television experience,
during debates with Senator John F Kennedy, did not go

Note: All photographs located through Google Images, without source information, except as noted: none   


  1. interesting info, particularly the history of impounding funds... thank you Louis


  2. You're welcome, MD. The history of impounded funds is, of course, far lengthier than the examples of Presidents Jefferson and Nixon. One of the more recent incarnations of this struggle between the Executive and Legislative branches is the push by Presidents subsequent to President Nixon for a line item veto. Impoundment by any other name...