• U.S.

THE PRESIDENCY by HUGH SIDEY: Of Reconciliation and Detachment

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

For the past few days it has seemed like old times in the United States Government. There have been the usual fusillades of idiocy from right and left, but beneath that there have been the first faint stirrings of concerned men ready to sit down together and try to make things work.

There one morning in the family dining room were Speaker of the House Carl Albert and the 260 pounds of Boston’s Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill Jr., Majority Leader, both Democrats once considered unworthy of presidential attention.

Tip O’Neill, back in his dim political beginnings, used to play a lot of poker with Congressman Nixon, and for a few minutes there was some of that youthful congeniality. They compared golf handicaps and chortled about the political effects of being seen together. Tip took Nixon on a fascinating tour of his Boston precincts, explaining that the dock workers knew a hell of a lot more about Nixon’s trade legislation than the businessmen because the dock workers lived off it.

The two Democrats who so rarely have been invited into such sacred premises were offered scrambled or poached eggs, sausage or bacon or both, English muffins or toast. The elegant White House waiters passed those 800 Flamenco No. 1 cigars. All of that didn’t prevent Albert and O’Neill from giving blunt assessments about the prospects for Nixon’s legislative proposals, but they went back to Congress having been part of a dialogue, not schoolchildren summoned for another flipchart show by Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

The next evening about a hundred Congressmen came to the state dining room for no other reason than to try to buck up the President and try to heal the breach between the Hill and the White House. There were the splash of good bourbon over ice and the low, mellow rumble of men talking politics. Now and then the President seemed almost stunned that there was so much affability left in his world. A grateful Nixon thanked the men for coming, noting, “If people run away from politics, we will never have good government.”

Despite all the pressures on politicians now, there was still a kind of unity, Nixon said. It had always been that way, even in the Civil War. And that reminded him of Abraham Lincoln’s problems with favor seekers. “Lincoln was always saying yes when he meant no, and he had to apologize to his Cabinet,” Nixon told the group. “Lincoln said that if he had been a woman he would have been in trouble. Then Lincoln paused and said, ‘My ugliness would have saved me.’ ” Nixon said that as he had walked through the group, four of them had asked about pet projects. “You see I have the same problem that Lincoln had,” Nixon said, “and I’ve got the same kind of face.”

These flurries of reconciliation have occurred before, and then they have come to nothing under onslaughts of arrogance and indifference by the White House wrecking crew. The difference now is that good and reasonable men like Laird and Harlow and Haig are nurturing this rehabilitation. So there is reason to hope.

Of course, manners maketh men, not policies, and it will take more than affability and good intentions to repair the moral ravages of Watergate. The President still maintains a curious attitude of detachment from the White House and the office of the Presidency. He continues to view the Watergate scandal from the wings, implying that it was something done by people he hardly knew and for whom he was not responsible. His new State of the Union message last week left the clear impression that he feels Congress is almost entirely responsible for not producing an adequate legislative program. It is as if he perceives his duty to be to list his wants, then fly off and wait for somebody else to get the job done.

One Nixon view of the national moral crisis is that it is the work of the press that insists on pointing out the problems. The actions of the White House somehow are not considered as consequential as the reports on them.

The history of the Presidency shows not much got done when Presidents spent their time looking for others to blame for the nation’s woes. The men remembered are the ones who shouldered the responsibility, went to work and solved the problems, no matter who created them.

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