IMPACT ON THE PRESIDENCY
August 13, 1998
What impact will the Starr investigation have on the institution of of the presidency? The NewsHour historians plus Joan Hoff, professor of history at Ohio University, discuss the possible effect of the Starr investgation on the nation's highest office.
MARGARET WARNER: Has the Kenneth Starr investigation and all the court decisions it has generated had an impact on the institution of the presidency that will outlive Bill Clinton? To examine that issue we have three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Joan Hoff, professor of history and director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. She's written books on two American presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Welcome all.
July 30, 1998:
Should Clinton address the public about the Lewinski matter.
July 29, 1998:
The President agrees to provide videotaped testimony to Ken Starr's grand jury.
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 28, 1998:
Law professor Paul Campos discusses the Lewinsky immunity deal.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of his grand jury
July 21, 1998:
A roundtable discussion on Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision not to interfere with the subpoenas of secret service agents.
July 16, 1998:
The Clinton administration appeals to Chief Justice Rehnquist to keep secret service agents from testifying before the Starr grand jury.
July 15, 1998:
Can the Justice Dept. force secret service agents to testify?
July 4, 1998:
The Supreme Court refuses to hear from Kenneth Starr.
July 1, 1998:
A report on the question of executive privilege and the Starr investigation.
June 29, 1998:
The Supreme Court upholds attorney-client privilege in the Vincent Foster case.
June 8, 1998:
The Supreme Court hears arguments in the Vincent Foster attorney-client privilege case.
June 4, 1998:
The Supreme Court refuses to expedite matters in the Ken Starr investigation.
May 1, 1998:
Dan Balz discusses the new charges against former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
The Washingtonpost.com's library of legal documents in the Starr investigation.
Michael, has this investigation wrought changes on the institution of the presidency?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think, you know, one way of thinking of it, Margaret, is imagine if Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman during World War II or the Cold War were hauled before a grand jury to testify about the kind of private matters that Bill Clinton will be doing next week. They were presidents who operated at the apex of a powerful presidency in this century, and you have to remember that the presidency, itself, doesn't have terribly many powers given up by the framers of the Constitution. They were worried about presidents getting too powerful. So the result is that you have to get the power from other things. So one of the ways that presidents are powerful is by having a voice that allows them to persuade Congress and persuade Americans sometimes to do things that they may not at first want to do, such as civil rights or mobilizing America to fight World War II. If you have a president without prestige, it's a lot harder to do that. Another way presidents get power is to be able to operate behind the scenes, get very good advice and use various kinds of machinations to, for instance, twist the arms of congressmen if you've got aides who are afraid to talk to presidents, presidents who are afraid of what they say that their aides might become public, as now will be the case very possibly after the last seven months. It's going to be much tougher for presidents in the future to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Ms. Hoff, that Bill Clinton's successor will essentially inherit a weakened office?
JOAN HOFF, Ohio University: Not to the degree I think that Michael has said, what you have to remember is that the presidency's powers were greatly enhanced by the Cold War, and all of those things powers remain in place, despite the decisions and despite the situation we're now facing with the White House. The institution of the presidency has the same powers it's always had, as Michael has outlined, plus these enhanced powers coming out of the Cold War. So, consequently, perhaps the office, itself, has declined in reputation, but the powers of the institution remain in place. If Clinton tomorrow wanted to commit or try to commit 500,000 troops, he has the same power to do that as President Bush did, or as other presidents have in terms of committing and taking action abroad.
MARGARET WARNER: Where do you come down on this question, Haynes, about whether the institution, itself, has been affected by this?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Presidential Historian: I think profoundly affected, and I guess I come out where Michael does in this case. It's certainly true the Cold War heightened and advanced the powers of the presidency, which is inherently a weak office, not a strong office. That's certainly true and that remains, as Professor Hoff has said. But when you think the very fact that the President of the United States is now liable to be sued in a civil case as a sitting president, and the idea we'll look back on the Supreme Court ruling, not just the Kenneth Starr ruling, where all this began nine to nothing, and it has tied up this presidency and it could do so in this incredibly litigious society even more so. The fact that a president could be hauled into court to appear in a criminal grand jury, which has not happened before, is a precedent that lasts beyond us. And I think the real story of this down the road—Michael touched on it—is the advice the president gets—not just the privilege of your lawyers—but it would be unthinkable 25 years ago, 24 years ago during Watergate, that the counsel to the president, and all of those people giving advice would have been hauled before the special prosecutor—unthinkable, because not a single one of those prosecutors would have done that at the time. Now you have a potential precedent down the road. But I think the greatest damage is also on the quality of people who work for the president. I can't begin to tell you the fear that has existed among themselves. They don't take notes when they meet with the President of the United States. They don't keep E-mails. They purged their files. There are no diaries kept. The idea you may have to pay a price for going to the jury, hiring lawyers, even young aides. I had a student who was an intern, was called before one of the juries. She knows nothing. She happens to work for Paul Begala. I mean, this is just--the notion of this is something I don't think the public has figured that one out, the impact of it. And then there's one more I would add—beyond the presidency—that's on the other institutions of our society, the law and the press.
MARGARET WARNER: But let me get back to the presidency and with Doris. Where do you come down on this overall question? Have these changes been made, and are they lasting?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think I come down with Joan on this. I think there's no question that there's a temporary eclipse in the integrity of the institution of the presidency for all the reasons that Michael and Haynes have outlined. But I'm not sure that it's necessarily permanent. I mean, take the first eclipse, which is what the independent prosecutor has done, to extend his powers, which after all were put into place because of the imperial presidency of Nixon, the need for more accountability. He's now stretched it beyond imagining to pre-presidential act and abuse of private lives. I'm not so sure but that when the Congress has to come back and look at that law, they're not going to change it and try and rein it in somewhat, which would mean it's not permanent. In terms of the whole business of the Supreme Court decision, while I think it's true that that decision opened up the president's private lives and litigiousness can allow suits to take place in an ordinary time, I can't imagine that another Supreme Court being presented with a similar circumstance could ever make the same argument. It won't distract the presidency. It will just be able to go on. I don't think they'll decide that way in the future. Similarly, I think for the Secret Service protection, even though the court said there was no constitutional protection, Congress is already talking about writing such a protection into law to protect future presidents. As far as the chilling effect, however, of the aides, in terms of not being able to keep diaries, not being able to have an easy camaraderie, not being able to relax, not being able to have a lawyer privilege with a counsel relationship with the White House, I think that may be a permanent thing that we have to figure out how to protect, because I think that's a real loss for the kind of go and take and replenishing of energies and relaxing and getting advice that we do need for the future. But I think every time we think something's permanent with the presidency, another president can come along, get dignity, get respect. Maybe I'm just optimist by nature, but I've got to hope so, because I think it would be terrible for this institution to have its integrity undone the way it has been now.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michael, both Doris and Professor Hoff have taken you on. Defend your—
JOAN HOFF: I think the chilling effect, Margaret, is something that only applies if the president and his aides are discussing something that might come under a subpoena. Most normal foreign policy and domestic issues aren't subjected to that kind of scrutiny.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me let Michael back in on this, because both of them have taken you on.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I would say that what they're talking about was absolutely true of the presidency from early Franklin Roosevelt 1933, perhaps, to late Ronald Reagan. But that was an artificial period, because people were willing to give presidents power and attention because Franklin Roosevelt was fighting the depression. Other presidents were fighting World War II and the Cold War, and also the American people thought it was a good thing during that period for flower to flow to Washington. And during that time the president became the national celebrity, the center of our national not only politics but our national life in a way that it really had never been before in American history. I think over the long-term you might see presidents—say if Colin Powell were elected in 2,000, he could perhaps restore a statute of the presidency in a way that would bring him power. But I think over the long run what we're much more likely to see is an office much more like the 19th century, where you have a lot of Benjamin Harrisons, minor figures who perhaps are not the center of political issues in American life and perhaps not as dominant figures.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you're saying this already was at least a post Cold War trend, a continuum, and that this investigation may have exacerbated it, but that it was happening already?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's taking away a lot of the mystique of the presidency that would give added impact to a president like Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford was not a particularly persuasive public speaker, but because he was president during that time, it gave him an artificial lift.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Hoff, respond on that point that Michael has just made, that really that the presidency has been on this continuum or this trend of diminished power at least since the Cold War. Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., the author of the "Imperial Presidency," dates it from Watergate actually.
JOAN HOFF: Again, I have to disagree, because the powers of the presidency, for example, the War Powers Act coming out of Watergate was never imposed on any president since Nixon, and I think what you have to look at in terms of what Michael has said is the changing or ephemeral popularity of presidents. It's true that Franklin Roosevelt was popular; so was Reagan, but they were popular in ways that Clinton has not carried on. They were popular in a dignified way. And I think in the way in which Clinton has popularized the office has temporarily downgraded the dignity and distance of that office. I don't think we really want the guy next door in office, and that's what we have now. You didn't have that with a popular president like FDR or like Reagan. And while this president is popular, he's popular in a way I think that is somewhat undignified. So, consequently, you really have to push to find diminution of real power on the part of the presidency since Watergate. The reputation of the office suffered immediately after Watergate but came right back with other presidents. And, consequently, I think the reputation will come back after Clinton is gone, and the powers will remain in place.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I hope that she's right, and I hope that Doris is right, and like Doris, I'm an optimist, and I believe in redemption, and that this is a self-correcting society. We do that all the time, but the potential precedents are very grave here for the presidency in the future. If you assume that presidents won't be followed by suits—haunted by suits right now, that seems to me maybe naïve in the process, because that's the society we're in--whether they won't be asked the kinds of questions that will tie up their aides and so forth. I hope it won't happen. I hope the Congress will give principles about security for your own confidence and security advisers and the rest, but we're not sure about that. First of all, we have to say one more thing. We don't know how this ends, and there's going to be a process long ahead of us now with hearings and whatever the potentiality is, and all of that is going to affect the presidency in some way or other, and it may be that they're absolutely correct, and this is going to be a catharsis in the democratic society. I hope so.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, just two comments on that. I mean, I think one it is true that the Cold War is over, so that the kind of powers that the presidency had because of that have to some extent diminished, but on the other hand, there's a very unruly world situation out there where we need the same kind of creative thought that we saw after World War II when the Cold War started. I will admit that this scandal has taken away the creative thought that focused the discipline that the Clinton administration might have used to figure out America's stance vis-à-vis terrorism, India and Pakistan, et cetera. Those problems are still out there, though, requiring a strong president. And secondly, I think the one thing that may be permanent or troubling for any president in the future is the relationship of the media and the presidency. We've got a situation now where the word of the president—everything is such spin. He says something, someone counter spins it. We've got a 24-hour news cycle. He gives a State of the Union message, and everyone knows, because the White House people blabbed that he focus paragraphed every paragraph. Someone that takes away the authority of the word when you know what's going into it. It's like knowing the undergarments of a beautifully shaped lady, and you don't see the beautiful thinness, if you know the girdle is there. So somehow I think that relationship between the media and the presidency has been hurt in this fragmented media we're in today, and it does undo the dignity; it does undo the respect of the office. And I don't see that easily changing.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, you've been trying to get in here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. You know, the presidency in terms of its constitutional powers, they're still there. The president is just as able to drop a nuclear weapon on another country now as he was 10 years ago, but the central influence of the presidency really comes from the idea that Americans have that because this person was able to get nominated and elected, this must be someone of uncommon wisdom that we should listen to, particularly in crisis. Joan Hoff referred to the Persian Gulf War. At the beginning of August 1990, the chance that Americans would agree to send ½ million troops around the world to support an Emir of Kuwait, whom most of them had never heard of, those chances were very small. It was George Bush's voice and authority that changed things. That's the kind of thing that is going to be much harder for a president to do, I think, in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Joan Hoff, respond on that point, would you please.
JOAN HOFF: Yes, I'd like to, because I think what we really have is a kind of unique situation here. You probably have an over-partisan Congress—overly partisan Congress and overly—what—predatory press at the moment, as Doris has pointed out. We have a Congress and a press and a president allegedly who has personalized the office to a degree that the situation is simply unique, with a prosecutor, a Congress, and a very passive public. And I don't think you're going to get that combination of press, public, president, Congress, together again over what is a trivial issue, since it lacks all public policy connotations, that is, this investigation of Monica Lewinsky. And it seems to me, if we put it in that perspective, we'll see that this too shall pass. This is an ephemeral situation and a relatively unique one. And consequently, I don't think that while it will affect probably the election of 2000, presidential candidates' private lives will probably be scrutinized very carefully, I think ultimately we'll pull out of this situation and the president will be able to function with the dignity and distance that I think most Americans would like a president to function in the 21st century.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We're just—we actually are out of time, but Haynes wants a last word.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I just want to say I hope you're right again, but faith and trust is the coin of the realm, and I see nothing in the predatory press that she described or the behavior of Congress or our political system in the last quarter century since Watergate to make you think that won't continue. And I hope I'm wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much.