Decision-Making in the White House

Theodore Sorensen, Columbia, 94 pp., $3.50

"The President is at liberty both in law and conscience to be as big a man as he can," Woodrow Wilson said in a lecture at Columbia in 1906. "His capacity will set the limit." Few today would agree. In a world complicated by foreign committments, enlarged bureaucracy, and increased technology, it is almost a truism that a clutch of factors restrain the President.

So it is not shocking when Theodore Sorensen takes issue with Wilson in a book drawn from two lectures given at Columbia last spring. Decision-Making in the White House suggests that the chief executive's capacity for decisive action is limited by a constant set of influences. As a comment on Sorensen's loss of innocence this might be noteworthy, but as political science it is not. Yet this conclusion is as profound as any set forth in the disappointing little book by the former Special Counsel to the President.

Sorensen is not concerned with the executive machinery or with Utopian plans for its overhaul. He states his thesis simply: "the fundamental nature of the White House makes it inevitable that vital decisions, either many or few, will be made there, either by the President or with his consent, and that the same basic forces and factors will repeatedly shape these decisions."

This sounds like the language of analysis, but actually Sorensen's words only elevate his day-by-day experience to abstraction. "I have no new theories or concepts or terminology to describe the decision-making process," he explains. Unfortunately, he is dead right.

To establish the context for his discussion of the three major influences on the President, Sorensen describes the "setting and outer limits of decision." Any reader of the Times could do as well. The President's decisions are unique, there are many of them, and none are made under ideal conditions, he writes. And the President is limited by permissibility, available resources, time, previous commitments, and available information.

When he turns to the "important factors which converge to shape decisions," Sorensen is hardly more enlightening. Presidential politics, advisors, and perspective all affect the orders emanating from the White House, he argues. But his description of these influences fails to clarify their meaning, to communicate their potency. Under "politics," Sorensen considers public opinion (in six pages) and pressure groups, Congress, and the press (in five). Space is one limitation, but statements like, "A President must remember that public opinion and public interest do not always agree," only irritate; they don't lluminate.

Also annoying is Sorensen's sparse use of examples--although he does cite the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 seventeen times. (He does not mention the Bay of Pigs.) Despite his personal intimacy with many decisions, Sorensen repeatedly speaks in the generic ("the most formidable debater is not necessarily the most informed; the reticent may sometimes be the wisest,") instead of the specific rendering insights so vage as to be meaningless.

If Sorensen's major points are barren, his prose does little to amplify them and in fact conceals their lack of substance. Politics, he asserts,

Is an ever-present influence ... counter-balancing the unrealistic, checking the unreasonable, sometimes preventing the desirable, but always testing what is acceptable.

And fatuous sentences appear too often: "For only one man under our system is President."

When Sorensen prepared Decision-Making in the White House last July, he was constrained by the length of two lectures and his own role as an advisor. Perhaps this accounts for the preponderance of vague and insipid generalities. In conclusion he writes, "The only way to assure good presidential decisions is to elect and support good presidents;" from his unique experience Sorensen should be able to do a lot better than that. A book that could have been fascinating, succeeds only in tantalizing and frustrating the reader.