Richard Nixon and the Notion of Presidential Power
"Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation." The idea that certain actions are not illegal if used to preserve the best interests of a nation has drawn sharp criticism from the time of Lincoln through today. Presidents of the United States do take a solemn oath in which they promise to " . . . preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States", but the means which they have employed to accomplish these ends have greatly differed and have occasionally sparked great controversy. The unjustified means which Richard Nixon used to defend this nation and its Constitution have drawn a great deal of attack not only on his methods but also on the greater notion of Presidential power.
Many Presidents have faced many different tumultuous challenges and obstacles which have posed potential threats to American societal stability and security. Yet very few have used such controversial means to overcome these threats. For example, after the birth of the nation, Executives faced the threats of political division and the ideas of the many dangerous paths prescribed for the Union. As the debate over slavery escalated, the future of the states and of the Union seemed uncertain. Furthermore, as the nation moved rapidly through the Industrial Revolution, the future of the nation's labor force and of its general welfare seemed uncertain. As time passed, the nation would encounter the greatest economic depression of all time, and the challenges would continue. Our nation would still battle the divisive issues of racism and discrimination. Yet none of the Presidents who governed during these daring times exploited the authority of their position in unwarranted manners. The Nixon Administration would however, exploit its authority and attempt to justify its actions based on the 'similar' actions of Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, this nation's greatest test of will and spirit, President Lincoln felt it incumbent upon the President to assume certain authority and responsibility not specifically granted to the Executive by the Constitution. His rationale stemmed from his desire and oath to preserve the Constitution and the Union as a whole. On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln, fearing a strong Confederate threat, initiated a blockade of all Southern ports; ordering no vessels in or out of the South. Clearly an act of war, Lincoln faced immediate challenge from Congress and Confederate leaders. His reasoning, though, for carrying out such a dangerous and controversial act was his belief that it would tame the South and prevent massive bloodshed in the future. His concerns would later prove to be warranted.
Although public resentment and dissatisfaction can be used to provoke government action at any leader's discretion, Lincoln truly believed that the future of the nation was in jeopardy. He saw the issue of slavery as one which threatened both the economic and social balances between the North and South and one that could ultimately destroy the young nation. Lincoln sought to blockade the Southern states and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (a power originally granted to Congress) in order to foster stability and security in the confused nation. He would continually be challenged by Congress, but the Supreme Court would ultimately uphold his actions as necessary to the security and interests of the nation, its people, and its future.
While Lincoln was extremely concerned with public opinion, he was not convinced that the Presidential elections would be the ultimate check. Rather, Lincoln asserted that the success of the actions taken by a government to preserve its interest and peace cannot be measured by the electorate but rather by the final outcome of the actions. Nixon's opinion, however, differed. Richard Nixon saw the ultimate check not in the result or consequences of his actions, but rather in the response of the electorate / popular opinion. This, in my opinion, is the dangerous flaw which lead to Richard Nixon's decline.
Great danger lies in placing too much value on popular opinion. The opinion of the electorate, while important for electing a President, should not have a great deal to do with the process of day to day government decision making. Because people can be too easily convinced and persuaded into believing dangerous popular opinion, too much value should not be place on the opinion of the masses. This nation has seen a great deal of popular support for issues like discrimination, segregation and a refusal to grant women the right to vote, yet now these issues are seen as wrong; morally wrong. The public has been wrong on such issues all too often and public opinion has been swayed all too easily over the years. A dependence on public opinion can prove dangerous for a policy maker and divisive for a nation. Nixon would sadly discover this.
For Nixon to rely upon an election as the ultimate check for the electorate is in my opinion irrational. A great deal of decision making takes place between every election and a great deal of information regarding the actions of an Administration remains confidential. Nixon would then have us believe that the electorate should make a decision based on only some of the facts. An idea strongly frowned upon by the founding fathers.
Yet, the matter which I have the greatest disagreement with is Nixon's attempt to present the political activity of a select few Americans as being on a considerable par with the events leading up to the Civil War. Furthermore, Nixon's attempt at portraying himself as being remotely comparable to Lincoln is not well taken. The challenges that the two men faced were entirely different. The problems plaguing the nation under the two leaders were extremely different. And the tactics used by one leader were bold and courageous while the other's were deceitful and deliberate. Nixon's actions were clearly not essential to national security.
Nixon attempts to validate his argument by stating that the nation was torn apart during his term of office by the tumultuous times of the Vietnam War era. He attempts to compare the Civil War, the most difficult time in the history of this country, to the social protests and challenges of the Vietnam era. The differences are immense. Lincoln witnessed the very nation that he governed dissolve before him. He witnessed the issue of slavery eat away at the moral fabric of this nation as it shouldered the economy of the South and he questioned the future of this nation. Richard Nixon, however, faced no such threats. He encountered opposition to the Vietnam War and to the American government shortly after becoming President and he attempts to convince us that the nation was ideologically "torn apart".
Also, Nixon's attempt to portray the President as somehow being above the law is in complete contradiction to the principles of the Constitution. Article II, Section 4 to the Constitution clearly states that " The President . . . shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."; illustrating that the President is required to abide by a standard of law and jurisprudence. However, in his interview with David Frost, Nixon states, "well, when the President does it, that means it is not illegal." This idea that any man or any elected official is somehow above the reach of the law not only disgraces the electorate and our Constitution, it also disgraces the office of the Presidency.
Also, later in the same interview, Nixon stated, "I wanted to discredit that kind of activity which was despicable and damaging to the national interest." While his intention to discredit actions which may pose a threat to nation security is appreciated, one has to closely examine the actions themselves and the means by which Nixon chose to combat them. Nixon no doubt faced a great deal of opposition and potential political threats during the controversial Vietnam War era, but his use of intelligence agencies to investigate and infiltrate these protest political operations lowers his actions to a level equally clandestine and erroneous as that of the protesters and opposition movements. His doings are no doubt comparable to that of a totalitarian government, not a democracy.
Additionally, Nixon also mentions in the same interview that although he has not read the entire Constitution, a disgrace for any United States President, he knows of no law that places the President above the law of the land; somewhat of a contradiction to his original statement that if the "President does it, that means its not illegal." Also, Nixon does say that in times of emergency / war, the President has assumed greater responsibilities and authority, a practice upheld by the Supreme Court during the Civil War and the Great Depression. However, unlike the Civil War, the Great Depression or any other major challenge this nation has faced, Nixon's challenges were not comparable. They did not warrant illegal investigation and they did not constitute a threat to this nation's security.
Finally, the notion of Presidential power has been one of responsibility, of morality, and of Constitutional supremacy. The Constitution grants a great deal of responsibility to the Executive but it also sets clear requirements and legal guidelines. It clearly states that no man is above the law, and although a President must face an electorate every four years, it states that the law is the ultimate check, not the people. Over the years, the meaning of the Constitution and the interpretation of the Constitution have changed, yet the responsibility and respect associated with this office have remained similar. Richard Nixon's practice of investigating individuals, who have never been suspected of violating the law, whom he believes to be a threat to national security is a violation of our nation's trust in democracy. Their 'questionable' practices cannot be compared to the deadly threat of the Civil War and his means of response cannot be compared to that of Lincoln. His actions are, in essence, a violation of his solemn oath to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.