TOPICS > Politics

Confirmations in Context

March 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Article II of the Constitution gives the President power to appoint judges and high-ranking executive branch officials with the advice and consent of the Senate. It is this confirmation process that is now under intense scrutiny. And we get historical perspective on it from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Malcolm Wallop, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming. He was on the Armed Services Committee during the confirmation fight over John Tower, who was nominated to be Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration. Wallop is now the chairman of the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a grassroots advocacy group and public policy organization.

Haynes, let’s look at this confirmation process historically. Has it gotten more brutish, to use Tony Lake’s term?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: In Tony Lake’s case it was nothing brutish compared to what it was with Bork or Thomas or some of the other more recent ones. But the process, itself, has been very much politicized, polarized. There’s a background in Washington where over the last–I would say since Watergate, where there has been a deeper feeling of enmity, a loss of civility, a loss of comity. The Senator can speak to that or not or agree or disagree. I know many of your colleagues who left the Senate–the idea of the old comity and civility just wasn’t there anymore, and I think you’ve seen this spilling over into these kinds of highly polarized, highly publicized committee confirmation hearings that Mr. Lake has just gone through.


MALCOLM WALLOP, Former Republican Senator: Well, I agree that Tony Lake’s experience was more like a game of golf where one player didn’t much like, rather than the kinds of problems we had, especially with the John Tower hearings.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it wasn’t as brutish as that.

MALCOLM WALLOP: Oh, goodness, no. I mean, it was very mild compared to the Tower hearings, and certainly to the Bork and Thomas nominations. But I have to tell you that I think the Senate has been declining in civility ever since we were televised. It happened that the old Senate, you’d go down in the evening and the debate really took place. If you wanted to know what was going on on the floor of the Senate, you had to go down to the floor and listen. And now it’s a place where people go to give speeches on television and ideas to get a sound cut for the evening news. And they hurt.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wondered about that. So it’s not necessarily that it really is rougher but that media scrutiny and wanting to make a certain impression in the media is what’s doing it.

MALCOLM WALLOP: It turned into a stage. It used to be an arena. It used to be a place where ideas were in combat. Now, it’s a place to see how quickly you get on television.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, how do you see this historically? Do you think it’s gotten more brutish?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think somewhat, but, you know, we’ve got this image of this huge number of presidential appointees getting turned down. There have only been three cabinet nominations by Presidents in this century that were actually rejected on the Senate floor: Calvin Coolidge’s attorney general, a secretary of commerce under Eisenhower, and then secretary of defense under George Bush, John Tower, for whom Sen. Wallop voted in 1989, so you really haven’t had Congress asserting itself. And I think actually the founders intended to be–there to be a great deal of struggle between the White House and Capitol Hill. I think that actually if you have a somewhat more rigorous process, you get better nominees in the first place and you also tend to learn things about them in the course of the hearings. And also presidential nominees are going to have to work with Congress. And this is a very good test of that. I think we would want these to be within the realm of civility as much as possible and certainly without personal unfairness, but I think the founders very much intended this to be a partnership between President and Congress, not just Presidents dictating to the Senate who they want in their cabinet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, Michael’s right about that, isn’t he, that the founders wanted to limit the power of the President by–and this was a way to do it?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Absolutely. And in fact, not only have there only been three nominees rejected in the 20th century but of the more than 600 appointments evidently since 1789 only 12 have been rejected, which shows that it’s very rare to have it reach this kind of dramatic point that it reached today. And the reason is I think you need a whole series of special circumstances to come together to really make the Senate use that power in the way that it does on all three occasions.

The first person who was rejected was during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Tawney, who was being recommended at the time when Jackson was in the middle of a big fight with Congress over Treasury policies, he was being recommended for the Treasury. He didn’t get it. During Andrew Johnson’s battle for survival, he recommended somebody. He obviously didn’t make it either. Coolidge’s nominee for secretary of the commerce came at a certain time when the Teapot Dome Scandal had just occurred. People were terrified of having been this guy in there who would do special interests. He got undone. Louis Strass in 1959 was Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce, and he had made a million enemies as chairman of the AEC. Plus, there was a real personal vendetta on the part of Clinton-Anderson who hated him and had lot of people in the Congress who loved Anderson, and he was able to call in those chips. And during John Tower’s time I think the unfortunate timing for him was that the rumors that surfaced about his womanizing and his excessive drinking came at a time when right after Gary Hart’s problems with women in 1988 it was “the” thing to worry about the private lives of our public figures. So he fell at that moment on an issue that had just become the sexy issue of the time. And now I think, as Paul said much earlier, this one fell at a time when the fund-raising scandal is “the” issue of the time. And it got all wrapped up in it. So you need those circumstances.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Doris, does it seem to you that–is it just circumstantial, or has something changed in the mores of the Senate?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I have no doubt that things have changed in the mores of the Senate. I mean, it used to be a place where to be a senator was the highest expectation you could have. You weren’t all running around, trying to be President. So as a result, there was a great sense of pride to be in that institution, an institutional patriotism. It used to be before senators went home for fund-raising every weekend they knew one another; they spent more time with each other. And Lyndon Johnson used to read the “New York Times” with Richard Russell every Sunday morning. There was a real camaraderie. So I think there was more of a give and take, a willingness if one side really wanted something to say, unless something really happens, I’m going to go along with you. Now, I think, as the Senator said, the media has intruded into that. They care more about their public image than they do about their private friendship. And it’s a different institution. And that’s why we’re in a more brutish time.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, is more than the media involved in these changes?

MALCOLM WALLOP: Yeah. It has. Now, this will sound absolutely strange, but when I first got to the Senate, the Secretary of the Senate, the two whips often would have a little bar in their office late in the afternoon. People really didn’t go there to drink. I mean, they’d have a coke or something, but they sat and talked with each other, and they could kind of see what was coming over from the House. They could begin to get a flavor of the kind of reaction that was going to come if a certain piece of legislation rose on the floor. So there were fewer surprises, and there was a great deal more cordial relations between Senators than there is today.


HAYNES JOHNSON: And it’s more than just the Senate. I mean, what Mark was saying earlier and Paul too is exactly right. The old shark in the water said there’s blood. The sharks are circling. We’ve seen it again and again. It’s the President that’s the–that’s the target here, and I think in many ways Tony Lake was the victim of this case, and I think the most disturbing of all the aspects of it were the FBI files, the uses of the FBI files, which had not occurred–

MALCOLM WALLOP: I beg to differ.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But not the raw files.

MALCOLM WALLOP: No, but–but worse than the raw files is that we–in our case we had people tossing little things over the transom every night and substantiating them out of raw files. Now, where they got them I don’t know.

HAYNES JOHNSON: That was the allegation it would have happened on this, had they been disseminated in the committee. And I think that’s a troubling aspect.

MALCOLM WALLOP: But there’s one thing that happens. Very quick on this, but one thing that happens is that usual ly when there’s a controversial nominee, there’s a rationale behind the controversy and I disagree that this was Cold War rationale. This was a management rationale.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, you had something to say?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Very much in keeping with history throughout the two centuries you’ve seen nominees rejected in some cases for lack of personal fitness, as Alexander Hamilton used to say, and also they’re oftentimes victims of their President’s political problems. And 1973, Richard Nixon had to appoint an attorney general, William Saxby, who is probably his greatest political enemy among Republicans in the Senate. That was because Nixon was so weak because of Watergate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Doris, what is the long-term effect of this process on getting good people to be willing to take these jobs?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think that’s the worry, not only the hearing process we’ve seen here, but the whole scrutiny that candidates for public life go through now in campaigns, with the negative campaigning, the personal attacks on them. It means you have to fear not just losing a nomination or losing an election but losing your reputation, as Lake said losing your dignity. And I think there’s a lot of people that feel nothing’s worth losing your dignity for even at the prospect of public office might be a good one. That’s what we’ve got to think about.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think that’s changed a lot historically?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, it has, and I think also the other day–we haven’t talked about it–inside the agencies themselves of government–it isn’t just those who’d be in charge of it–but the de-moralization of the bureaucracy, those that are doing good work, and in the case of CIA they’ve had six directors in seven years. I mean, this is not a happy situation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all for being with us.