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Historians Consider Presidential Powers in a Time of War

February 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now, on this President’s Day, the peaks and valleys of presidential power. The issue is in the news through conflicts over the NSA surveillance issue, among other things.

We get some Longview perspective from two historians, both NewsHour familiars: Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American History at the University of New Hampshire.

Ellen, first, as a matter of history and reference, is it possible to say who have been the most powerful American presidents?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I guess there’s some debate about that, but I think overall when you think about the long trajectory of the presidency, the wartime presidents have made an enormous mark on the entire history of the nation. Certainly Lincoln and in the 20th century, both Wilson, even though the First World War from the American standpoint was a limited involvement, Roosevelt really transformed the presidency. So I think in the 20th century certainly Roosevelt is the key figure and in the 19th century, Lincoln.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, would you agree with that?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I would. You know, there’s a posthumous power. The fact is that you can point all sorts of things that Lincoln did during his lifetime or FDR did in the twin crises. Remember, the Great Depression of the 1930s and then World War II.

But the legacy, the continuing impact, we live in Franklin Roosevelt’s world in many ways. I mean every single day, every customer of the Tennessee Valley Authority, every recipient of Social Security, you know, you name it, they are in many ways Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy. So in that sense I think maybe I’d argue that FDR might be the most powerful, certainly the most historically significant president of all time.

JIM LEHRER: Even, Richard, if there had been no World War II he would still be marked as one of the most powerful presidents of history.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think so because, you know, what he transformed not only was the office itself, but he transformed the relationship between the average American citizen and their government.

Before 1933, you know, that wasn’t much more than the post office and maybe a service in the Army. But the fact is that under FDR, Washington –for better or worse — became an enormous influence in terms of setting economic policy, in terms of redefining the relationship of this country with the rest of the world, and let’s not forget the post war world, the United Nations, all of that is, again, part of Roosevelt’s legacy.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Ellen, is it possible then to spin off from that, to say that the power of a president at any given moment is as dependent, you would say on events as much as it is the individual president or anything that’s written down as rules in the Constitution or anywhere else?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I guess I would step back a little bit from that to say that since the Second World War and the rise of the United States as a major force in the world, as a super power, that the United States has –its enlarged role has certainly greatly magnified the role of the American presidency.

And so I think since the United States acquired nuclear weapons, since we entered the atomic age, since 1945, in other words, any president that occupies that office will immediately have inherent to his holding the office of the presidency enormous powers over the lives of Americans and indeed over many people everywhere in the world.

JIM LEHRER: To go another step, Richard, what’s been the connection through history of a president’s political power and his real power as president, in other words, what his party has got and doesn’t have in Congress, what the margin of victory was, what the polls show, et cetera?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Relating to our own situation, Lincoln said in the fall of 1964 that it was a subject long debated whether a government not too strong for the liberties of its own people was strong enough to protect its own existence at a time of national emergency.

Now, stop and think. However you define national emergency, whether it’s a foreign war, whether it’s a civil war, whether it’s an economic depression, whether it’s a Cold War or the current war on terror, the fact is power gravitates towards the president. And there are a lot of reasons for that including modern communications.

With the 24/7 news cycle, a president whatever his poll ratings has at least in theory the ability to influence and maybe even to set the national agenda. Why do you think we pay so much attention every year for example to the state of the union address?

And it’s been this way for really 200 years. It’s a tug of war, Jim, that’s been going on, a constitutional tug of war between the executive and the legislative branch. And what I was picking up off what Ellen said I think the last 75 years has, if anything, distorted what the founders intended. Because of the Great Depression, because of World War II, because of the Cold War, now the war on terror, the fact is that that tug of war has actually been very one-sided. I don’t think this is the presidency that the founders really envisioned.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Ellen?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I do agree with Richard, but I would lay greater emphasis I think on the period from 1945 forward because the National Security Act in 1947 really had the effect of creating a set of institutional measures that greatly enhanced the powers of the presidency. It created the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, all of these things, and most of all the doctrine of national security which put the United States in a state of permanent military readiness.

Once that happened — because the Constitution confers upon the president — these powers as commander in chief and because we’ve only had two declared wars in the 20th century, although we’ve had troops on the ground in many, many instances of military intervention, we can see just enormous power inhering to the presidency.

JIM LEHRER: But, Richard, Vice President Cheney and others in the Bush administration have said recently that the power of the president has actually been reduced particularly since Watergate and Vietnam. Does that make sense to you?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it makes sense to the vice president. And I guess that’s really all that matters. Where do you think that came from? Go back 30 years.

Gerald Ford was a man who spent 25 years on Capitol Hill. He was a child of the legislative process. Well, then in August of 1974, to his astonishment, he finds himself in the Oval Office. Overnight, he becomes a defender of executive prerogatives.

And, for example, the War Powers Act, which had been passed in 1973, there was a sense after the Vietnam War and the scandals of Watergate that there was blood in the water, that the presidency was weakened. And whenever that happens there’s no doubt that the legislative branch will move in on that tug of war.

Who was Gerald Ford’s chief of staff? A 34-year-old wunderkind named Richard B. Cheney. And 30 years later I suspect that the vice president’s attitude about the power of the presidency is in many ways a direct outgrowth of his youthful experiences in that combat during the Nixon-Ford era.

JIM LEHRER: But, Ellen, is it a natural evolution that when there has been a scandal, there has been a difficult situation, that the immediate impact of that is for, naturally, there would be a downgrading of presidential power if the presidency was involved in a scandal or some bad decisions? Would you buy that?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, I do. But I think the vice president’s comment was absolutely fascinating to me because see whenever a president or a vice president specifically references historical events, one, if you’re a historian you want to prick up your ears. The mention of Vietnam and Watergate I thought was fascinating because he brought it up in the context of a diminution of the presidential authority in the context of worrying about matters of national security.

But the resonances for people who lived through this period and for historians are that the Vietnam War, the entire conflict in its most escalated phases was fought on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was not a declaration of war, of course, and that really allowed the president to take any necessary means to protect the security of the armed forces and to prevent further aggression.

And, of course, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution later was called into question. And it passed unanimously in the House, two votes against in the Senate. It was based on faulty intelligence in part.

The Watergate scandal, of course, involved domestic surveillance in part. And these are the two things that the vice president has said are kind of irrelevant; we should set them aside. They’ve diminished the power of the presidency.

It’s sort of hard to make that case, I think, if you look at the longer view.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, do you agree?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, actually I would take a slightly different view. We’re all of us the product of our life experience. When was Dick Cheney born? He was born in 1938. If not politically then just in terms of the calendar he is a child of this modern era of World War II, of the Cold War.

When — whatever his own personal politics might be, he’s part of a culture that has come to take for granted presidential and executive power in a way that had he been born in 1838, I guarantee you he would not have.

So in many ways we have a whole generation of policymakers, whatever their ideology, whatever their party, who have grown up with a very different set of expectations about presidential authority.

JIM LEHRER: Before we go then, the final to you first Richard and then Ellen, it’s been said, the cliché is that Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history. Is that true?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it is. Look at his predecessor. Al Gore reinvented government. Dick Cheney wants to reinvent the Middle East.


ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think he is an enormously powerful force and that certainly he is the most powerful president in modern American history.

JIM LEHRER: Vice president.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Vice president — excuse me — a slip of the tongue that is itself revealing.

JIM LEHRER: But, also, would you not both agree that that is power that that is been ceded to him by the president?


JIM LEHRER: It’s not in the Constitution or anything else, right, Richard?


JIM LEHRER: You would agree too?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The famous line a constituency of one. He’s as powerful as his boss wants him to be.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you both very much.