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“imperial presidency,” according to the historian Arthur Schlesinger,
Jr.,21 and the Watergate scandal provided a vivid reminder of the ways
in which these broad powers could be misused. In the conventional
view, subsequent investigations into abuses by the CIA and the FBI


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helped to drive the lesson home. This narrative “ centered on the
restraint of a too-powerful President “ was widely, but not univer-
sally, accepted. For many in America™s governing elite, the real story
was actually about the collapse of executive authority in the United
States and other advanced democracies.
This alternative narrative was articulated in a study commis-
sioned by the Trilateral Commission in April 1974. The commission
itself had been formed a year earlier and comprised 200 top policy
makers “ elected of¬cials, businessmen, and academics “ from the
United States, Japan, and Western Europe. Its ¬rst major project was
the Task Force on Governability of Democracies, set up (as the com-
mission™s director, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained) to answer a ques-
tion being posed “with increasing urgency” by leading statesmen in
the West: “Is democracy in crisis?” Three leading scholars “ Samuel
Huntington, Michel Crozier, and Joji Watanuki “ were enlisted for the
study, completed in May 1975.22
Their report presented a gloomy view of the prospects for the
trilateral democracies. Profound changes in the political and social
order, the trio argued, had made “the governability of democ-
racy . . . an urgent issue.” Mass electorates had become more assertive
in their demands on government, and less trustful of public authori-
ties. Political parties had lost their capacity to channel public opinion,
leading to a “disaggregation of interests” and proliferation of lobby
groups. The in¬‚uence of the old print media was being undercut by
the new broadcast media, whose news coverage tended “to arouse
unfavorable attitudes toward established institutions and to promote
a decline in con¬dence in government.” In the United States, Congress
had also increased its role in the political system “ but at the same
time the “strong central leadership” that had focused the energy of
Congress had been toppled, with its power broadly diffused through-
out both chambers.
This broad “democratic surge,” as Samuel Huntington called it,
had led to a proliferation of demands on the executive branch of
government. But here was the predicament: As the demands on gov-
ernment grew, its capacity to respond effectively to those demands
had declined. In large part this was because of the leakage of power
to Congress, to other levels of government, and directly to the pub-
lic itself. Even within the executive branch, however, authority was
eroding, with subordinates more willing “to ignore, to criticize, or

56
Regime Change


to defeat the wishes of their organizational superiors.” In general,
warned Huntington,

The publics in the Trilateral societies have expected much of their
political leaders. . . . In many instances, however, political leaders
have been left de¬cient in the institutional resources and author-
ity necessary to achieve these goals. A pervasive suspicion of the
motives and power of political leaders on the part of the public
has given rise to the imposition of legal and institutional barriers
which serve to prevent them from achieving the goals which the
public expects them to accomplish.23

The “overload thesis,” as it came to be known, gained widespread
popularity among senior of¬cials in many countries. It articulated
their own frustration with the task of governing in societies in which
power was increasingly fragmented, and entropic tendencies “ the
inclination of the whole system toward disorder “ seemed increas-
ingly strong. And the passage of time seemed only to aggravate the
conditions that had been observed in the Trilateral Commission™s 1975
report.
In the United States, the number of policy areas in which the
federal government was involved continued to expand.24 At the same
time, the number of interest groups also grew substantially.25 The
Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 required organizations that spent
more than $20,000 on lobbying in a six-month period to ¬le a public
report of basic information about their activity. In the ¬rst year, over
10,000 reports were ¬led.26 The United States, said Jonathan Rauch
in 1994, had reached a state of “hyper pluralism” “ a world so thickly
populated with special interests that vigorous government action had
become impossible.27
The proliferation of interest groups was accompanied by
“epochal” changes in the organization of national media.28 The major
broadcast networks, which thirty years ago undermined the power
of national newspapers, found their own dominance in news under-
cut by the emergence of cable news networks. And the whole edi-
¬ce of institutionalized news production has itself been challenged
by the advent of the internet and the dramatic reduction in barri-
ers to entry into the news business. Increasingly, citizens receive the
“raw elements of news” in a “jumbled, chaotic” stream without syn-
thesis or interpretation.29 These technological changes produced a

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“never-ending news cycle” in which stories emerged and spread at
“warp speed.”30 “The media is fracturing into more choices and more
diversity,” said Ari Fleisher, President Bush™s ¬rst press secretary,
in 2005:

In the modern media world, marked by the Internet and three
all-news, all-the-time cable networks that compete furiously with
one another, the ability to digest news slowly when facts emerge
and sometimes change is seriously hindered. Gone forever are the
days when news would break, reporters and sources would discuss
ongoing developments throughout the day, and most Americans
would ¬rst hear the news in a carefully digested story hours later
on the evening news. For reporters now, it™s an immediate need
to tell and a rush to air. The need for the public to “know” hasn™t
changed, but the urgency for reporters to “tell” has grown more
intense.31

At the same time, the authority of major government institutions
continued to wane. “By almost any measure,” three scholars observed
in a 2000 retrospective on the Trilateral Commission report, public
alienation from governing institutions had “soared” over the follow-
ing quarter-century. Public con¬dence in the executive and legisla-
tive branches of the federal government remained far below levels
that had been recorded in the mid-1960s.32 Congress itself undertook
internal reforms in the 1970s that increased the power of committees
and weakened the authority of senior legislators, producing “condi-
tions of extreme fragmentation” that could be exploited by dissatis-
¬ed minorities. “The messiness and volatility of the political process
that the reforms helped amplify,” Julian Zelizer argues, “exacerbated
the perception of Washington as a town that seemed incapable of
action.”33
Congress, in turn, ignored the Trilateral Commission™s warning
against the imposition of restrictions on the executive branch. The
commission argued in 1975 that accountability had its limits: There
was a need, it said, “to assure to the government the right and the
ability to withhold information at the source.”34 Congress thought
otherwise. The Freedom of Information Act, amended over Pres-
ident Ford™s objection in 1974, now expanded access to national
security and law enforcement information. The Presidential Records
Act (1978) broke a long tradition and established that the docu-
ments of former Presidents were public property, eventually subject

58
Regime Change


to public scrutiny.35 The Privacy Act (1974) created an obligation
for federal agencies to provide citizens with access to their personal
information. The Ethics in Government Act (1978) required govern-
ment of¬cials to reveal details about their income and assets. The
Government in the Sunshine Act (1976) compelled government
boards and commissions to conduct their business in open meetings,
while the Federal Advisory Committee Act (1972) imposed similar
obligations on committees set up to solicit advice from individuals
outside government.
The veil surrounding the executive branch was lifted through
other laws as well. The Civil Service Reform Act (1978) provided new
remedies for public servants who had been punished for “blowing
the whistle” about misconduct within the federal government. (These
remedies were bolstered in 1989 by the Whistleblower Protection Act,
which was strengthened again in 1994.) The Inspector General Act
(1978) led to the appointment of a cadre of almost sixty indepen-
dent of¬cers with a mandate to investigate and report publicly on
mismanagement inside federal agencies.36 The General Accounting
Of¬ce Act (1980) expanded the power of the Comptroller General to
obtain access to records held by uncooperative federal agencies.37
Meanwhile, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) com-
pelled the federal government to disclose its case for counterintel-
ligence search and surveillance operations to a new body, the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court.
These were the conditions that confronted Donald Rumsfeld in the
1990s, and that may have af¬rmed for him the dire warnings of the
Trilateral Commission a quarter-century earlier. Rumsfeld captured
the predicament of American government in an analogy: the Execu-
tive Branch as Lemuel Gulliver, the protagonist of Jonathan Swift™s
1726 tale Gulliver™s Travels. Gulliver, a ship™s surgeon, joins an expe-
dition to the East Indies that is shipwrecked on an unfamiliar coast.
Believing himself to be the sole survivor, Gulliver struggles to shore,
where he quickly falls asleep. “When I awakened,” says Gulliver,

. . . it was just Day-light. I attempted to rise, but was not able to
stir: For as I happen™d to lye on my Back, I found my Arms and
Legs were strongly fastened on each Side to the Ground; and my
Hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same Manner.
I likewise felt several slender Ligatures across my Body, from my
Armpits to my Thighs. I could only look upwards; the Sun began

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to grow hot, and the Light offended my Eyes. I heard a confused
Noise about me, but in the Posture I lay, could see nothing except
the Sky.38

Gulliver had been captured by the Lilliputians, a race of people “not
six inches high” who had bound the stranger to earth with hundreds
of thin ropes.
In 1995, Rumsfeld “ then in the private sector, the head of a
pharmaceutical company “ visited Capitol Hill to provide advice
on government reform to the new House Republican majority led
by Newt Gingrich. “The federal government is, for all intents and
purposes, an institution in Chapter 11,” Rumsfeld told legislators.
Over three decades, it had become a “complex and overwhelming
behemoth” that had taken on too many functions (“I am convinced
that probably one-half to two-thirds of the federal government™s non-
central departments are no longer needed in their current form”), and
more to the point, lacked autonomy to perform any of these functions
well:

One of the problems in government . . . is legislative microman-
agement of the Executive branch. As I recall from my days
in the Executive branch, Congress imposes so many restric-
tions, requirements, and requests on the Executive branch that,
while no one of them is debilitating, in the aggregate they are
like the threads the Lilliputians used to prevent Gulliver from
moving. . . . What Congress needs to do is tell the Executive branch
generally the direction to go, where the sides of the road are, and
what the speed limit is. Then Congress should stand back, over-
see, and evaluate the administration on how well it does, and if
necessary calibrate the directions or change the drivers. Too many
hands on the steering wheel will put the truck in the ditch.39

Speaking to the National Defense University in 2002, Rumsfeld
again invoked the image of Lemuel Gulliver:

I don™t know quite how it happened, but along the road between
the time I left the government in 1977 and when I came back, last
year, a good deal of distrust has developed between the Congress
and the executive branch. . . . Something happened in the interven-
ing period, where the executive branch has done something that
causes distrust by the Congress, or the Congress has, for whatever
reason, decided that they want to put on literally thousands of
earmarks on the legislation that “You can™t do this, you can™t do

60
Regime Change




This image, ¬rst used in the nineteenth-century advertising of a British thread
manufacturer, was reproduced in the Bush administration™s 2003 budget to illus-
trate its frustration with legislative checks on executive authority.


that, you can™t do this, you can™t do that,” where your ¬‚exibility is
just “ it™s like Gulliver, with a whole bunch of Lilliputian threads
over them. No one thread keeps Gulliver down, but in the aggre-
gate, he can™t get up. And that is where we are.40

Testifying to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees two
weeks later, Rumsfeld reprised the complaint. “We ¬nd the depart-
ment like Gulliver,” Rumsfeld told legislators, calling for an end to
“micromanagement” that had cast “thousands of Lilliputian threads
over the Department.”41
Gulliver is a familiar character in Western literature. However,
he may also have had a special place in the minds of neoconser-
vatives in the Bush administration. The political philosopher Leo
Strauss was said to have invoked Gulliver frequently in his own cri-
tiques of the vulnerabilities of liberal democracies.42 Strauss™s intel-
lectual heirs included Rumsfeld™s deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz,
and Richard Perle, the chair of a key advisory panel within the Defense
Department.43
Soon Rumsfeld™s colleague, Treasury Secretary Paul O™Neill, was
invoking Gulliver as well,44 while President Bush™s budget director,

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