Histroical Perspectives: Division within the Cabinet
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MARGARET WARNER: It’s an open secret in Washington that secretary of state Colin Powell and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld frequently disagree on how to handle security issues facing the United States. The differences first broke into public view after 9/11. They’ve played out publicly and often since then between Rumsfeld and Powell and their departments. Disagreements have surfaced on numerous issues, including the role of the United Nations, how to handle Iraq, pre- and post- war, the nuclear crisis posed by North Korea, and the Middle East peace process. The two men insist they get along, but they don’t deny they have policy differences.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I came to this town in 1957 to work up on Capitol Hill, and I don’t suppose there’s been a year in the period since that there haven’t been stories just like the ones you’re citing here that there are differences of opinions. The truth of the matter is that the president’s national security team meets together frequently. We do so in person, we do so on the phone. We have excellent discussions and it is a very friendly, professional and constructive set of discussions that take place in that process. I don’t know of “differences,” that — there are always difference of perspective, there’s differences of, institutional differences from time to time.
COLIN POWELL: It’s not the first time I have seen discussions within the administration between one department or another. I have been in four straight administrations at a senior level, and thus it has been, and thus it has always been, and thus it should be. There should be tension within the national security team, and from that tension arguments are surfaced for the president. And the one who decides, the one who makes the foreign policy decisions for the United States of America, is not the secretary of state or the secretary of defense or the national security advisor, it’s the president. And it is our job, my job and Don’s job and Condi’s job, and the vice president’s job, and George Tenet’s job, to give the president our best advice.
MARGARET WARNER: So how unusual is this Rumsfeld-Powell split? For some historical perspective on that question and on the impact such differences have on a presidency, we turn to two presidential historians: Michael Beschloss; and Richard Norton Smith, who also heads the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. And to Jean Baker, professor of history at Goucher College, who’s writing a book about President James Buchanan. Welcome to you all.
Michael, we heard Colin Powell say, “Thus it has been, thus will it always be.” Is this not unusual?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It usually isn’t unusual. People just fight in life and they really do when they’re in cabinets with a lot of power. But at its best, you really want something like this. And you’ve seen it through history when there’s a big issue, especially in foreign policy– like the issues we’ve got right now. You would see, for instance in the ‘teens, Woodrow Wilson who wanted to make the world safe for democracy, had a secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, who was very isolationist, argued the other side. Or for instance in the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy formed this cabinet committee to argue what we should do about missiles in Cuba. On the one side were people like Dean Atchison, the former secretary of state who was very tough, even talked about bombing Moscow at some point. At the other end, Adlai Stevenson, the ambassador to the U. N. and Stevenson and Atchison argued in a way that some people thought they would have had a fist fight. That’s what you want at a time like this when there are big issues.
The problem is when it gets personal. Under Roosevelt, the secretary of state hated his deputy, Sumner Wells, who hated him, and he finally drove Wells out by passing out information saying that wells was secretly gay and subject to blackmail. He would hand out these pieces of paper himself. It gets nasty. One thing that usually happens, though, is that when the differences become too great, there does usually come a resignation. That happened with Brian in 1915, and it does call the question that if Colin Powell feels he’s losing too many battles in this argument about how aggressive you should be in the world, how much you could use diplomacy, how much you should resort to the use of the U.N., I think there’s a very good chance that if there’s a second bush term he will not be in it.
MARGARET WARNER: Jean Baker, what would you add to that in terms of how frequently this has happened where you have high profile cabinet secretaries whose areas intersect and collide?
JEAN BAKER: There is an institutional issue here between the Department of Defense and the State Department.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean particularly because their areas are so interwoven?
JEAN BAKER: Yes, yes. But I think presidents feast on this. If you can get two disagreeing cabinet members who present somewhat different views on policy, and you keep them in the cabinet, this is wonderful for your positions in the electorate.
I’m reminded of that famous story about Abraham Lincoln, in which some senators came to him in the fall of 1862 when things were really going badly for the union, and they said, “You must get rid of Seward.” Seward was the secretary of state and was considered to be more mild on various issues, especially insofar as fighting the war was concerned. Now, Salmon Chase, who was the secretary of treasury, had instituted all these ideas. But Lincoln, with his adroit style, got the cabinet together without Seward, asked the cabinet if in fact they thought that the cabinet direction was not going well, and he, Lincoln, was not listening to the cabinet, which in fact he was not doing. Chase was humiliated, and of course the next morning gave Lincoln his resignation. Lincoln, with those long, bony arms reached up, grabbed it from Salmon Chase, and said, “Now I can ride on, I have a pumpkin in both my bags.” Now, of course, that’s what all presidents want. They want pumpkins in both of their policy bags.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, chime in on this. How frequent is it? Is it healthy?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It is healthy, it is healthy. George Washington had two of the most distinguished pumpkins in American history. Washington had Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, men who disagreed, whose disagreement became violently personal, who worked to argue their case around the cabinet table, but in fact had enlisted proxies. At one point, Jefferson actually hired with State Department funds a clerk, ostensibly a clerk, who really edited a newspaper criticizing the very administration that paid both of their salaries. But the point is, Washington got some of the most brilliant advice in American history from Hamilton, who of course represented the eastern industrial urban commercial viewpoint, against Jefferson, the southern agrarian perspective, and out of this debate really emerged the first American political party system.
Now, there is a subtext to this whole issue, and that is, it’s not only a policy dispute that we witnessed, it’s also a fight for the heart and mind and soul of the president. And there were journalists then and there have been historians since who argue, I think inaccurately, that Washington was in fact a bit player in the drama of his own administration rather than, as say Dwight Eisenhower was shown 150 years ago, a very guileful manipulator working behind the scene what is became known as hidden hand leadership to actually keep both of these warring men in his official family long after they wished they could leave.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, one of the classics was the Reagan administration. Having covered that, I can remember the story with the battle for Reagan’s mind, will it be over this issue or that issue? Do you think, what does history tell us about the sorts of presidents who encourage this kind of dissension and division? Did it mean that they were indecisive and easily influenced, or was it because they were strong, and as Richard suggests and Jean Baker also suggests, able to manipulate and use them both for their advantage.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Usually it’s exactly that, because a president knows that he has to have these things argued before him. And let’s think during the last two years when George W. Bush was thinking “what do we do about Iraq?” — what if Colin Powell had not been there at the high level of the administration arguing “let’s go slower, let’s use more diplomacy, think more about the U. N..” it might have been a somewhat different result.
The thing is that presidents usually encourage at least people with different views, but often it’s accidental. For instance, it would seem that Don Rumsfeld at the Defense Department was preordained. It wasn’t. From everything we know, there was a very good chance that the secretary of defense might have been Dan Coates of Indiana, and that he may have botched his interview with the president and the people around him. And Colin Powell is largely secretary of state because he’s a person of such stature, not necessarily because George Bush set out to put someone in that job with these views. But what you want from a president is someone who makes sure that there are the two sides argued, you know, when the debates occur on a big issue as big as Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s always healthy, Jean Baker, that it shows a president’s strong and at the end as we heard Colin Powell say, well, in the end it isn’t the secretary of state or secretary of defense who makes the decision, the president makes the decision. Is it always that kind of clear cut?
JEAN BAKER: I’d like to hark back to the James Buchanan cabinet, which I’m sure is not a household cabinet for all your viewers. It certainly was the case in James Buchanan’s cabinet that they were a directory at least to a point. There’s a comment by one of them Howel Cobb from Georgia who says Mr. Buchanan is defying the administration, meaning that they the cabinet officers were the administration. This is a longer tale than I think the NewsHour has time for. But nonetheless, it’s true that some presidents do have cabinets that agree, and they themselves do not have to take any action insofar as taking sides.
I’m reminded of — Michael brought up Woodrow Wilson. I think presidents deal with cabinets in the way that they are presidents, and there’s a terrific cubbyhole into looking into what the administration is like. Woodrow Wilson, who had some disagreement, and of course William Jennings Bryant resigned, nonetheless he treated his cabinet in a way that made them become pretty unanimous on some issues because he used to come in, professorially and lecture to them. So after a while they found themselves pretty much I think out of the mainstream of any decisions.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, have there been presidents who either discouraged or simply didn’t create an environment or assemble a group that did have differences, and that turned out to have been a mistake?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, sure. I mean, there are a lot of forgettable presidents. With all due respect. boy, Jean, you have my sympathy on writing a biography of James Buchanan, boy, there is a season in political hell.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The NewsHour has just put him on the map, Richard.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, he’ll still never have a memorial on the wall. Although, Jean, good luck. You know, what’s interesting, part of the story though, it’s not just presidents, it’s not historians, it’s journalists. Journalists love to write about conflict. Journalists love to write about personal drama. I mean, Powell and Rumsfeld were sent over from central casting. If you look at the yellowing clippings about President Reagan – I mean, you were there, Margaret, a generation ago, you think it was all about the Weinberger-Schultz view, state-defense. And a generation later, we talked about Ronald Reagan as a man who ended the Cold War.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And also a generation later we will know what’s actually being said between these people in private. We will know, for instance, twenty or thirty years from now, what was actually said between Powell and Rumsfeld. Did Powell threaten to resign at some point in this, did Rumsfeld do that? That’s the kind of thing we can’t know in real time. But what you always want to avoid is a situation like Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam. The only person who was a dissenter in that administration when Johnson sent the troops in 1965 was the deputy secretary of state, and his voice was just not strong enough, he wasn’t on the first string.
JEAN BAKER: I’d like to make the point that I think we’re paying too much attention to cabinets, that their importance is really declining in terms of getting the eyes and ears of the president.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Richard, in foreign affairs, wouldn’t you say still state and defense are very important?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, they are. Just as it was state and treasury 200 years ago, it is — it’s state and defense today. And that has been the case. But look beyond the cabinet. Presidents want as many sources of information as they can get. In Bob Dallek’s new biography of JFK, there’s a marvelous scene where JFK goes to two men, Clark Clifford and Richard Neustadt, the distinguished political scientists, and asks each of them to do the same job, basically to plan the presidential transition and Neustadt says, “how do you want me to relate to Clifford.” And Kennedy says, “I don’t, I want to you send me all your information directly, I don’t want to be beholden to any single set of advisors.” And that, to me, is the mark of a strong leader, not a weak one.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you all three very much.