Reedy, The Twilight of the Presidency: From Johnson To Reagan

former Nixon and Reagan aide has just told his Miller Center oral history interviewers a long story about the Nixon administration:

Young
So, what is the moral of that story?

Anderson
The moral of the story, I think, is in the White House people don’t realize the extent to which the President of the United States is forced to delegate enormous authority. You know how busy you can get during the day, try multiplying that by 100 times, 500 times. The pressures that come in are incomprehensible. So when he says, Do something, he usually thinks, Well, maybe it will get done. Most of the time, it doesn’t get done, but he says, Maybe it will get done. And he doesn’t have time to follow up.

He doesn’t have time to sit down and say, Ehrlichman, what happened with Anderson? And whatever Ehrlichman tells him, he may say, Well, Anderson wasn’t interested, which is probably what he told them. Now, he’s not going to pick up the phone and call me and say, What happened? and follow through on all this. You can talk to Dick Allen. Similar things happened to Dick Allen, in terms of he gave instructions to have Dick do certain things, and Dick was never told and then the President was told that Dick hadn’t done it.

There’s a wonderful book called The Twilight of the Presidency by Reedy. You ever read that?

Young
George Reedy.

Anderson
In which he says, If you try to understand the White House—most people make the mistake, they try to understand the White House like a corporation or the military and how does it look, with the hierarchy. He said, The only way to understand it, it’s like a palace court. And if you can understand a palace court, then you understand the White House. I think that’s probably pretty accurate. But those are the things that happen. So anyway, I didn’t go back. So I missed Watergate.

Asher
Darn.

Reedy’s book is fascinating, Reedy was himself Press Secretary and a special assistant to LBJ.

This is the bitter lesson we should have learned from Vietnam. In the early days of that conflict, it might have been possible to pull out. My most vivid memories are the meetings early in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in which his advisers (virtually all holdovers from the Kennedy administration) were looking to him for guidance on how to proceed. He, on the other hand, felt an obligation to continue the Kennedy policies and he was looking to them for indications of what steps could carry out such a course. I will always believe that someone misread a signal from the other side with the resultant commitment to full-scale fighting.

Reedy argues that the presidency is such a powerful and weird job that in effect it always creates something of a monarchy, dependent on the personality of the (so far!) man.

When stories leaked out that Richard Nixon was “talking to the pictures” in the White House, it was taken by many as evidence that he was cracking up. To anyone who has had the opportunity to observe a president at close range, it is perfectly normal conduct.

The tone of Reedy’s book is pretty scholarly, but he’s also a skilled, entertaining presenter:

For many years, a corporation sold a popular mouthwash to the American people on the basis that it would inhibit bad breath. The slogan under which the product was merchandised – “Even your best friends won’t tell you” – meant that the subject was too delicate to mention and that a person could exclude the foulest odors without being aware of the fact. As far as the mouthwash was concerned, the slogan was somewhat misleading: not only your best friends but your worst enemies will tell you if you have bad breath. But the concept that “even your best friends won’t tell you” about unpleasant things applies with tremendous force to the president.

Reedy argues that, even in his boyhood, the President wasn’t really that important, or at least not a constant topic in national life:

For those who have lived long enough to have some political consciousness from the pre-Franklin Delano Roosevelt ere, there will be memories of local politicians who had far greater name identification than the president, even among educated people… the press spent very little time covering presidents.

What changed that? The radio, and TV cameras, and national level communication. Reedy mentions how the TV crews in the Johnson White House started keeping the cameras “warmed up,” a huge advantage that gave LBJ the power to give a TV briefing whenever he wanted. What would Reedy make of Twitter?

On the rise of Henry Kissinger:

When a crisis would break out anywhere in the world, Nixon would call his Secretary of State, who would promise to get “my people” together and report back. The president would then call Kissinger, who would give him at least ten answers before hanging up the phone. Presidents like answers.

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