Presidential Sack?

Brass Tacks

THERE is no institution so perfect that it cannot be subjected to calm criticism. The office of the Presidency of the United States, despite its hallowed aura, is in need of such scrutiny because it has become too intensely concentrated a center of power. Worse, the Presidency has come to be viewed by the public as the single power focus in the country--an unhealthy attitude since it leads so easily to frustration.

It may seem strange to advocate a dissolution of power-centers in the U.S. precisely at a moment when many countries all over the world are moving towards a strong executive on the American model. But these other countries are usually in the stage of their development when they are busy building a base of material wealth, and may need strong direction. The United States has established such a base and is now engaged in restructuring her society along more equitable lines, a process that would seem to involve organic change with a priority on co-operation, rather than change induced by abrupt pushes by a strong leader.

America's problems of governing a tightly organized industrial society through the phase of social integration are common to only one other country, the Soviet Union, and in this sense it is possible to make meaningful comparisons between the United States and the Soviet Union. Though the two societies have different conceptions of the role of the individual in the political system there are remarkable similarities in that each government has roughly the same managerial role, engaging the same range of power and activated by a common responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens.

The Soviet Union has always subcribed, in theory, to the concept of rule by committee--Presidiums, Politburos, etc. In the past the theory has broken down and power in the USSR has always seemed to devolve to one man--possibly this happened because the needs of material development were the most pressing ones at the time. Today, however, the Soviet Union is governed in a partnership, an uneasy but still functioning one, between the Party (in Brezhnev) and the government (in Premier Kosygin). This fusion of the legislature (the Communist Party plays the role of a legislature in the Soviet Union) and the executive, is the sort of system that could perhaps be adapted to the United States since the same kinds of domestic problems exist in this country, and require sophisticated collective action for their solution.

UNDER THE American system a man is allowed the means--and the sanction of society--to represent his own interests by himself. This makes it even more important to see to it that the Executive does not become an independent pole of power that is then "assigned" the task of bringing about social change in the country by its own independent action. Social change in the future will only come about if all the branches of government assume responsibility for the change.

As long as there is an autonomous--and glamorous--power center (such as the Presidency today) the temptation for Congress to play mainly a sabotaging role becomes irresistible. Thus members of Congress quite honestly think they are doing a public service when they view their task in the governing process as that of a careful watchdog over a Presidency that continually threatens to get carried away with itself.

And since the mythology of the strong man President has gripped the public mind there is immense frustration if he fails to deliver. All the issues of government tend to come down to the personal failings or achievements of the President. He is extravagantly praised for any successful governmental action and as extravagantly reviled for any failure.

Marcus Cunliffe in the February 1968 issue of Commentary linked the assassination of Presidents to the excessive glorification of the Presidency and the consequent personalization of the whole of the Government. The latest shooting too is directly related to this drowning out of the mechanical, unglamorous aspect of government by the personal element. As the American system stands today individuals in positions of high power do make an immense difference but this tradition may be a failing of the system and not a merit.

The answer thus is to fuse the whole Executive more closely with the Legislative branch. This could be done, for example, by having a President elected as at present and three or four Vice-Presidents--all members of and nominated by the Congress, in a "cabinet" that would assume collective responsibility for actions. The idea is simply to make both activist branches of government work together and assume responsibility instead of having them perpectually working at cross-purposes so that the country drifts vaguely in the direction of the stronger.