League of Women Voters of the U.S.
San Francisco, California
Henry Steele Commager Banquet Address
31st National Convention
One of the most ominous developments of our time--ominous especially to an organization such as ours, based on the assumption of the validity of the democratic processes -- is the widespread loss of confidence in our system of government. That loss of confidence is not confined to the United States, not is it inspired merely by a reaction to the sins and follies of this administration. It is rooted in skepticism about the continued viability of the American constitutional system: how illuminating that of the sixty some new nations which have come into being since World War II, only a handful -- and what a handful!-S. Korea, the Philippines, S. Vietnam--have chosen to adopt the American form of government at least formally.
It is strengthened by reaction against that imperialism and militarism which the American system -- for all its checks and balances -- appears to permit. It is intensified by the conclusion that the United States is today the bastion of reaction -- a bastion of reaction throughout
the globe, the friend and supporter of military regimes in Greece
and Brazil, in Spain, Korea, Rhodesia, Vietnam and Cambodia; it is aggravated by what appears -- quite logically -- to be the palpable racism of so much of American foreign and military policy especially in the Far East; it is sobered and saddened by the disappearance of
-- even the repudiation of -- that sense of idealism and of mission which inspired Thomas Jefferson's sympathy with "infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter their long lost liberties" and which held out the hand of fellowship to revolutionaries throughout Europe and Latin America
Ours is then an occasion not only for soul searching but for fact searching and for policy searching. Though our attention is riveted on the spectacle which unfolds itself in Washington, our interest and our objective is not primarily in that. We are not concerned, or should not be, to punish Mr. Nixon and his piratical crew: history will take care of that. We are concerned to vindicate our political system and our constitutional principles. The great question which confronts us so implacably is whether the American Constitution which has weathered so many crises, American political principles and practices which have worked so effectively over the years, can continue to function in the modern world.
The American system -- if I may use that evasive word to describe what we all recognize but cannot easily define -- is both difficult and complex. It was the first contrived constitutional system in history -- the first to be made anew. Almost everything about it was an experiment: federalism, the separation of powers, the presidential office, the independent judiciary, the principle that all authority derived from below and not from above, the new techniques of change through amendment -- all of these things were revolution institutionalized: the separation of church and state,
the modern political party which we invented ... only a mature and sophisticated people could have made it work. That the American people did first construct it and then make it work is a tribute to that maturity and sophistication.
Does it still work; can it continue to work? Is a constitutional mechanism rooted in 17th century ideas of the relations of men to government and admirably adapted to the simple needs of the 18th and early 19th centuries, adequate to the importunate exigencies of the 20th -- and of the 21st ? Or are the American people perhaps less mature politically than they were in the 18th century -- less mature and less sophisticated and less resourceful?
There is some evidence to support these fears. There is e.g., the ostentatious decline in political leadership -- a decline so spectacular that it is superfluous to rehearse it: suffice it to ask how it happens that a nation with a white population less than that of the Greater Bay Area today managed to produce in one long generation Franklin and Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Madison and Marshall. And those two foreign-born Americans, Tom Paine and Albert Gallatin, while a nation of over two hundred and ten million produces in comparable positions a Nixon, an Agnew, a Gerald Ford and a Berger. And how sobering to recall that every one of the great political and constitutional institutions of the American governmental system was invented before the year 1800 and that not one has been invented or emerged since that time.
We have had constitutional crises before -- crises more dangerous than any which threaten us now (for our present crises are in large part artificial and contrived). In the past we have managed to cope with these crises by familiar and legal methods. We used the constitutional amendment and of judicial interpretations which grew logically out of the original document. He displayed -- in the creation and development of the political party and e.g., of judicial review -- an astonishing resourcefulness in adapting and modernizing the 18th century document to the needs of later times.
Clearly the Nixon Administration has not been prepared to follow these precedents. It does not resort to formal amendment, or rely on judicial interpretation or seek to enlist the Congress in essential adaptations of constitution and tradition to the needs of the present. It prefers -- as by some instinct -- to rely on revolutionary methods to achieve what it wishes to accomplish. Nixon has amended the Constitution -- but by personal fiat. He has challenged the principle of the separation of powers. He has propounded the principle that the chief executive is above the law and has arrogated to himself a body of privileges and immunities unknown to the Constitution or to law. He has merged -- or tried to merge -the office and the man. He has dismissed as anachronistic the protections of the Bill of rights. He has confessed that he has no confidence in the virtue or the intelligence of the American people, or, for that matter, of their representatives in Congress, and chooses to conceal his own activities, foreign and domestic alike in a fog of secrecy.
I do not propose to spell out these convulsive departures from constitutional structure and orthodoxy. and political morality tonight. Fortunately we have -- indeed Mr. Nixon has provided -- a convenient symbol in Watergate. I emphasize what Watergate symbolizes rather than what has happened because this is precisely what threatens the integrity of our constitutional, political and moral system and because it must be resolved if we are to solve the problems which confront us.
Watergate symbolizes the corruption of the presidential office. We have had corrupt presidents before -- Grant and Harding come to mind -- but never before corruption in which the president himself was inextricably involved: never before a vice president disgraced and driven from office (unless we can say this of poor Colfax); an Attorney General disgraced and two others forced out of office; some thirty of the closest presidential associates on trial for criminal misconduct: nor have we had, in the past, a president convicted of chicanery in the payment of taxes, under grave suspicion for misuse of government funds, for connivance with overt violation of election laws, for concealment of evidence of criminal conduct, for intimidation of witnesses before Congressional committees: never before anything remotely like the Department of Dirty Tricks, which has become a euphemism for the Committee to Re-elect the President.
Watergate symbolizes, second, the corruption of the democratic processes which have come to be an integral part of our constitutional system. The purpose of Watergate and its related activities -- eliciting illegal contributions from airlines and oil companies and the dairy industry for example -- was to assure the re-election of Mr. Nixon. That undertaking extended to the subversion of the party processes (e.g. the democratic processes) through the fabrication of news reports about opposition candidates, hiring people to pose as Democrats indulging in immoral or illegal activities, bugging Democratic headquarters, placing spies in the opposition camp, intimidating newspapers and the television, compiling 'enemy" lists for purposes of future retaliation, wiretapping even the homes of potential enemies, punishing civil servants who exposed corruption or inefficiency. And so forth. All of this was designed to bring the opposition party into disrepute: what it did was to bring democracy itself into disrepute.
Watergate symbolized, third, the ever growing reliance on secrecy. It was itself conceived in secrecy, as were the raising of slush funds, the break-in on Dr. Fielding's office, the illegal _Ice of the FBI and the CIA and the Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes. Those who resort to secrecy do so for one of three reasons: because what is done cannot stand the light of day, or because those in charge do not trust the intelligence or judgment of the people. We can dismiss the first category, for so far the Administration has been wholly un
able to produce the slightest connection between what it sought to destroy or prevent, and national security. But we cannot dismiss
so easily the habit of resort to "national security" -- it is not just a rhetorical device, it is a political and even a constitutional device. For it is designed to open up an avenue which can by -pass the Constitution. Once grant that the president may do whatever he thinks necessary in the name of national security all limitations on presidential power are thus irrelevant and futile.
The other two considerations have proved equally persuasive in justifying secrecy. Mr. Nixon knows full well -- as his desperate resistance to supplying the tapes of his conversations on Watergate and other matters makes clear -- that his conduct cannot indeed stand the light of day -- neither his conduct nor his manner of justifying that conduct. As for the third consideration, Mr. Nixon though elected by the largest majority in our history has made clear that he has no confidence in the judgment or the intelligence of the people. ‘The average American' he said in his inaugural address, "is just like a child in the family" and you do not, of course, tell a child what he cannot understand or should
not know. Thus Mr. Nixon did not tell the American people the truth about the Cambodian war, but lied to the people and the Congress about this fateful crime: he does not tell them the truth about the use and abuse of Congressional appropriations, but plays games with these: he does not tell the truth about Watergate. This is the first administration in the whole of our history which lies to the American people not only systematically but automatically.
Watergate symbolizes, fourth, the dangers of the doctrine of executive privilege and immunity -- or should we say the non-doctrine? Nixon's almost monarchial claims of executive privilege (in England, the King can do no wrong, so whatever wrong is done is done by his ministers); Nixon's claims are part of his imperial pretentions. The record is familiar enough: the usurpation of war-making powers displayed in the illegal war against Cambodia: the claim of an independent right to bomb 'enemy' country even in the face of Congressional prohibitions and -- a year after the ceasefire agreement in Vietnam, the persistence in participating in the war and in the internal affairs of Vietnam, so too, in another arena, is the continued reliance on executive agreements rather than on treaties in matters of serious foreign relations, thus effectively nullifying the constitutional provision for "advice and consent" to treaties. The imperial challenge is not less familiar on the domestic scene: the challenge to the separation of powers in the impounding of some 15 billions of dollars of appropriations: a persistence in secrecy which denies to the Congress information about men and measures which it needs to fulfill its constitutional obligation to legislate; the violation of laws prohibiting intimidation of witnesses before Congressional committees in the Rule and the Fitzgerald cases: and the refusal to respond to the demands of the Congress and the courts in the dismissal of Special Prosecutor Cox.
Watergate symbolizes, fifth, the contempt for the guarantees of the Dill of Rights which has characterized this Administration from the very beginning: the resort to electronic surveillance in the face of Supreme Court prohibitions; the denial of the right of assembly and petition in the mass arrest of some 12,000 Americans gathered in their national capitol to protest Cambodian war; the eager use of that most hateful device of the police state -provocative agents -- to instigate law breaking: the malicious prosecution of dissidents not with the objective of gaining convictions -- clearly unlikely -- but of harassment and intimidation; the crusade against freedom of speech implicit in the prosecution
of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe over the Pentagon Papers: -- the first instance of prior censorship in the whole of our history; the connivance of attorneys general in
the denial of due process of laws to the victims of Kent State, Orangeburg,. and Jackson State Universities. Ho other president in our history has shown himself so consistently hostile to civil liberties or so contemptuous of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights as Mr. Nixon. This contempt was dramatized by his acceptance of the Huston Plan for the creation of a Police state in America. that plan was never put into effect but there is no evidence that it has ever been formally cancelled.
Indirectly, Watergate symbolizes an ominous development: the growing power of the military in our government and the tendency to reverse the two century long principle of the 'exact subordination of the military to the civil power' -- the phrase is from the Massachusetts Bill of Rights written by John Adams ... no other president except for a time, L.B.J. has so exalted the military as has Mr. Nixon. None has yielded so readily to its every demand. It is significant that Mr. Nixon's most serious violation of the Constitution should be precisely in the realm of the war power -- the undeclared and secret war against Cambodia -- that Mr. Nixon should be prepared to violate the law protecting Congressional witnesses precisely when their testimony challenged the honesty of the military and it is notorious that Mr. Nixon is prepared to accept almost any program if he can find any remote connection between it and his concept of the national security.
Turn now to a larger consideration of the relation of these deeds and misdeeds to our political and constitutional -- and moral -- system.
There is no reason to suppose that the problems which confront the United States today cannot be resolved by traditional constitutional and political processes. Recent experience certainly does not demonstrate that we should jettison the Constitution, ignore the law and change the political mechanisms to meet unforeseen exigencies, but rather that the president should abide by all of these. In the past decade -- for this issue goes back before the Nixon Administration -- it is not the law or the Constitution that have been found wanting, but those who have flouted them.
The crises of the presidency is something else again. The American presidency is what the Constitution prescribes, what history contributes and what presidents add or subtract. The role of the presidents themselves has been crucial. Washington gave the presidency its original contours: Jackson assured it a special relationship with the people. Lincoln exploited to the full the potentialities of its powers in time of war, and its potentialities for legend. Wilson identified it with party government -- or responsibility. Franklin Roosevelt made it a powerful instrument of social revolution: Eisenhower and Kennedy, each in his own way, cultivated its symbolical and almost metaphorical qualities. All of these managed to operate within the framework of the Constitution and of American political traditions. Alone of our presidents, Mr. Nixon has found the restrictions of the Constitution too constricting, and has substituted usurpation for aggrandizement.
When we compare what a Washington, a Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt was able to accomplish within the confines of the law and the Constitution, and what Mr. Nixon has achieved by circumventing both, we cannot be deeply impressed with the arguments for the necessity of Constitutional change.
But it is short-sighted to lodge the whole responsibility for Watergate and all that it symbolizes in the breakdown of our constitutional system, with Mr. Nixon and his associates. The breakdown was in the political maturity of the American people. After all, the people had ample opportunity to know Mr. Nixon's record when they elected him by a majority of seventeen million. Watergate is a natural, perhaps an inevitable, result of what Mr. Nixon has always stood for, but is it equally an example of what the American people are prepared to stand for If Watergate
symbolizes corruption in the presidency, does it not equally symbolize corruption in the American people?
be must ask rather whether there has come, in the generation since the Great War, changes in the American mind and temper
with respect to politics. Must we not conclude that, over the past century and a half, there has come a decline in political awareness and political thought:imagine the response to the eloquence of a Woodrow Wilson; imagine hundreds of current newspapers printing all 55 of the Federalist papers in toto: imagine thousands of Americans standing for three hours in the hot sun of an Illinois prairie to listen to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. When Stevenson -tried it he was not even nominated)
There is a readiness in our people to accept statements at face value -- statements such as those Senator Joseph McCarthy spouted when he warned the American people of thousands of card carrying Communists infiltrating the government: statements such as those explaining "our commitment in Vietnam" -- which was of course non-existent -- or asserting the claim of limitless executive privilege. There is a decline of alertness to what Walt Whitman called "the never-ending audacity of elected persons". There is a toleration of official violence and lawlessness -- the violence of the Vietnam and Cambodian wars, or of the CIA or of Kent State and Jackson State and the Chicago police riots: the use of provocative agents, the violations of laws regulating campaign expenditures: the flouting of the constitutional requirement. (Art. 1 Sec. 9) requiring public accounting for all receipts and expenditures by the CIA. There is a widespread acquiescence in corruption in politics as in business -- the corruption of the ITT scandals, of the deals with airlines and oil companies, of the almost open purchase of ambassadorships. There is an assumption that both government and business will manipulate the people and a masochistic readiness to be manipulated. There is a growing indifference to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and an unawareness of the relation of civil rights and liberties to the functioning of our constitutional system: witness the endorsement of the police state by President Nixon, or the readiness of two attorneys general to suspend the Bill of Rights when they found its restrictions embarrassing. There is a general acquiescence in the necessity of secrecy as a legitimate technique of government and business: most Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew, that we managed to somehow get along without the CIA or the FBI or security clearances for 150 years and were none the worse for it. Indeed we did rather better without them than we have done with them, even in the arena of security!
Finally, there is ignorance of and indifference to lessons as the past may have for us. One might suppose that we had no past, no experience with the pretentions of the military or with the dangers of imperialism or with the threat of secrecy or with the corruptions of power.
If Mr. Nixon succeeds in his usurpations of war power, his challenge to Congressional authority in the realm of foreign affairs and the power of the purse, his claims of executive privilege, his violations of civil liberties, he will create precedents which it will be difficult to overthrow. In that case, the presidency would have been profoundly altered, and with it the whole balance of power in our constitutional system. Happily, it is increasingly improbable that he will succeed.
For there is everywhere -- it is an exhilarating spectacle -- a re-alliance to the Constitution. There is a resurgence of interest in politics. There is a growing realization of what is at stake and a growing determination in the people to save the constitutional system of democratic enterprise. More than the American experiment is at stake -- the fate of what the founding fathers used to call the empire of reason. What is at stake is the ability of America to lead the way to the salvation of mankind itself. lie must set our house in order, in order that we may help set the globe in order and this, all the more, because it is we who have contributed so much to its disorder. We must quiet the distractions of our own political anarchy so that we may address ourselves to the more dangerous threats of economic and social anarchy on a world wide scale. We must rid ourselves of an administration which confines our views to the vulgar misdeeds of ward politics -- the chicaneries and mendacities and duplicities of a kind of political mafia -- so that we may extend our views to the challenges of global politics, global economics, global morality. The solution of these problems will require from us an intelligence, a resourcefulness, a magnanimity comparable to that displayed by the generation of the founding fathers two centuries ago.
I need not elaborate upon these problems -- the worldwide shortage of energy, the pollution of water and air and soil, the galloping and eventually suicidal increase in population: the insane competition in nuclear armaments -- we have already spent since 1945 fifteen billion on that and are less secure than when we started -- the ever growing gap between the standards of living of the developed and the underdeveloped countries: the threat that ideological rivalries -- just rivalries and those which enlisted the United States on the side of Israel and the Soviets on the side of the Arab nations, the United States on the side of Pakistan and the Soviets on the side of India, the United States on the side of South Vietnam and China on the side of North Vietnam -- that such rivalries will in the end lead to a holocaust.
What concerns us is the failure of creative imagination and of statesmanship to see the nature of the problems and to contribute to their solutions.
The record so far -- I refer to the past twenty years -- is one of a failure. A failure so spectacular that it staggers the imagination. It can be put succinctly that we who were ourselves the first born of revolution, have failed to understand the greatest revolution of modern history, the greatest revolution since the discovery of America, the determination of two thirds of the peoples of the globe to emerge out of centuries of poverty and oppression and ignorance and want and to catch up, by a great convulsive leap, with the nations of the West. We who were in our youth the beacon light and the leader of revolutions throughout the Western world have set ourselves stubbornly against the revolution in our own time. We are what the Hooy Alliance was in the early years of the 19th century, what Britain was in the latter years -- the champion of the status quo, the enemy of all those peoples who want to break away from oppression and poverty and come out into the sunlight of greater freedom and prosperity.
History may record that the greatest charge against President Nixon was not the corruption of politics, the subversion of the Constitution, the prostitution of democracy, but the dedication
of American resources to the support of the status quo throughout the globe, the distraction of the American mind from the great tasks which clamor implacably for attention and resolution, the paralysis of those sentiments and emotions and principles of generosity and magnanimity which are essential if we are to devote our immense resources once again to the 'rescue and liberation' of much
of the globe.
Happily, there is more strength in the people than in the government. We mistake our history if we suppose that leadership must always come from the top. It did not in the great wave of revolutionary fervor that carried us to independence and to the creation of a new nation. It did not in the sweeping reform movement that did so much to win freedom for the Negro, freedom for working men, freedom for women and for children in the second quarter of the last century. It did not in the era of the populist and progressive revolt -- a grass roots revolt -- which ushered
in a new day which was a day of greater democracy and greater justice than we had known in the past. It did not even in the era of the New Deal, for Franklin Roosevelt was the product of a generation of experimentation and revolt, without the groundswell of reforms
in communities and in states and in the private sector too, he could not have rallied the country to the New Deal. In all of these chapters of our history, the ideas, the inspiration, the agitation, and eventually the resolution came from below -- which is where democracy comes from: something Mr. Nixon and his manipulators forgot.
The basic American institution is the voluntary association. In the United States -- and almost alone here -- the church, the political party, the labor union, the college, the great professional organizations, the philanthropic institutions are voluntary associations. It is these who -- from the time of the Committees of Correspondence in the 1770's to the Abolitionist societies of the 1830's, from the Woman's Rights organizations of 1840 and on, to the labor unions, from the granger and populist parties to the civil service reform and the conservation societies and the parent teachers associations, have been in the vanguard of reform. It is in fact, organizations such as ours which have, over the years and the centuries -- we have two now -- molded American thought and directed American politics. This is the way democracy works. This is the way it must work now to rescue us from the dangers that beset us, to restore confidence in government, to dramatize the problems that glare upon us, to educate not only the people but the government itself in the nature of those problems, and to bring about their resolution.
Much is at stake. Democracies everywhere in the world from India to Chile appear to be in disarray, from Denmark to Italy to Britain to the United States. I do not want to be melodramatic and suggest that the crisis we now face is of the same dimensions as that which inspired Thomas Paine's The Crisis, or that which Lincoln confronted with the bombardment of Ft. Sumpter, or even that which confronted Franklin Roosevelt in the dark spring of 1933. True enough, but then neither do we have a Washington, a Lincoln or a Roosevelt to deal with our present crisis. We do not have the political leadership, or the capacity in the parties to bring about a resolution and a solution. That history which so fascinated the Founding Fathers -- the history of the rise and decline of empires -- reminds as that a nation can lose by erosion what it does not surrender to overt attack. What we do have is a people, aroused at last to the dangers which glare upon them, alert at last to the threats to that constitutional and republican system which has served them and the world well for three quarters of a century.
I trust it is not too sharp a departure from historical objectivity to conclude with a quotation from Thomas Paine:
To Betty Nicholson, Few: Lond. Jan 6, 1789
A thousand years hence, perhaps in less, America may be what England is now ! The innocence of her character that won the hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which thousands bled for or suffered to obtain may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day shall deride the principle or deny the fact.
When we contemplate the fall of empires and the extinction of nations of the ancient world we see but little to excite our regret than the moldering ruins of pompous palaces, magnificent monuments, lofty pyramids and walls and towers of the most costly workmanship but when the empire of America shall fall the subject for contemplative worry will be infinitely greater... it will not then be said, here stood a temple of vast antiquity, here rose a Babel of invisible height or there a palace of sumptuous extravagance, but here the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of freedom rose and fell.
Henry Steele Commager