Richard Nixon's first inauguration in 1969.

Watergate and the White House Echo Chamber

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The second big lesson of Watergate for future presidents is quite timely. It's what Dan Drezner blogged about yesterday: the hazards of centralizing policy making within the presidential branch. That's true, as Dan says, about using the National Security Council staff to run foreign policy, and it's true for domestic policy, too.

There are many reasons presidents are tempted to make policy from the White House, avoiding executive branch departments and agencies. Agencies have many bosses, most notably Congress; the White House reports only to the president. Agencies are bound by bureaucratic politics, and by bureaucratic procedures. Presidents want change; bureaucracies resist change.

And yet, Watergate tells us that running policy from the White House can be a recipe for disaster.

The first reason is straightforward: It takes specialized knowledge to implement policy, and that expertise is found in the agencies, not the White House. My favorite example of this comes from perhaps the most famous White House tape, in which White House counsel John Dean can be heard telling the president (who already knows, but doesn't let on) that the original Watergate defendants are basically blackmailing the White House, demanding additional hush money and assurances for their continued silence:

Dean: Now, where, where are the soft spots on this? Well, first of all, there's the, there's the problem of the continued blackmail ... which will not only go on now, it'll go on when these people are in prison, and it will compound the obstruction-of-justice situation. It'll cost money. It's dangerous. Nobody, nothing -- people around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money, and things like that uh, -- we're -- we just don't know about those things, because we're not use to, you know -- we are not criminals.
Nixon: That's right ... How much money do you need?
Dean: I would say these people are going to cost, uh, a million dollars over the next, oh, two years.
[Pause]
Nixon: We could get that ... if you need the money ... you could get the money ... What I mean is, you could, you could get a million dollars. And you could get in in cash. I, I know where it could be gotten.

"People around here are not pros at this sort of thing." Again and again, the flat-out incompetence of many of the central Watergate players is astonishing.

It isn't an accident, however. Dean wasn't trained in ways to pay hush money that can't be traced because he wasn't a specialist, and because there's no White House counsel standard operating procedure for how to do it. That's where all those bureaucratic rules and procedures come in handy; the people at the agencies in charge of enacting policy often know what they're doing, because it's their job.

I know what you're thinking: if Nixon had asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launder money for the payoffs, it would have refused, and the whole conspiracy would have been revealed.

But that only gets to the second reason why using the White House is dangerous.

It has to do with the way presidents know things. They might know things because they've learned them over the course of their careers. President Barack Obama, for example, might know about nuclear proliferation from work he did in the Senate. But presidents generally don't grasp much of the huge amount of information relevant to all the policy areas the government is involved in.

What presidents do have is the best seat for learning. They learn not by just asking questions and believing the answers, because people lie -- or, at least, they report what they see from where they are. But that "where they are" can produce something helpful. Most people that presidents deal with have some sort of constituency. That means presidents learn from the reactions of their representatives (whether in Congress, or in the executive branch, or in interest groups or the parties) what all of the many constituencies of this enormous democracy know, what they favor and what they care about. Presidents, as Richard Neustadt says, are ideally positioned to hear clues about what will work and what won't; what will be acceptable, and what will create strong resistance. Skilled presidents will adjust course as they hear those clues.

In particular, because executive branch agencies report to Congress, they care about interests that Congress cares about. And because they are specialists, they tend to care about what communities of experts care about. So a president who works with those agencies and listens to their concerns can learn a lot about whether a policy can succeed.

The one group in Washington without important constituencies is the White House staff. Their main constituent is the president, and they're far more prone than officials from executive branch agencies to just tell the boss what they think he wants to hear. And it's also probably true that the people who end up on the White House staff are likely to be those who are least able to be clear-headed about the politician many of them worked for years to put in the Oval Office. They aren't well-positioned to tell him whether his ideas can work.

That's not to say that presidents should never use the presidential branch The staff is invaluable in helping coordinate policy that falls (as much of it does) between agencies, and for helping the president with many important tasks, including speech-writing, liaison with Congress, and managing the "political" side of the presidency. It's understandable that presidents are tempted to use the White House for more tasks.

But so many of the presidency disasters of the last 60 years (since the presidential branch was born) have been caused by attempts to use the White House to conduct policy: Watergate, Iran-Contra, perhaps some of the national security fiascos of the George W. Bush administration. As frustrating as it can be to work with executive branch departments and agencies, that's where the best payoff is in the long run.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net