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Essay/Term paper: Richard nixon and the notion of presidential power

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History Essays

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Richard Nixon and the Notion of Presidential Power

"Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful
if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation."
The idea that certain actions are not illegal if used to preserve the best
interests of a nation has drawn sharp criticism from the time of Lincoln through
today. Presidents of the United States do take a solemn oath in which they
promise to " . . . preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United
States", but the means which they have employed to accomplish these ends have
greatly differed and have occasionally sparked great controversy. The
unjustified means which Richard Nixon used to defend this nation and its
Constitution have drawn a great deal of attack not only on his methods but also
on the greater notion of Presidential power.
Many Presidents have faced many different tumultuous challenges and
obstacles which have posed potential threats to American societal stability and
security. Yet very few have used such controversial means to overcome these
threats. For example, after the birth of the nation, Executives faced the
threats of political division and the ideas of the many dangerous paths
prescribed for the Union. As the debate over slavery escalated, the future of
the states and of the Union seemed uncertain. Furthermore, as the nation moved
rapidly through the Industrial Revolution, the future of the nation's labor
force and of its general welfare seemed uncertain. As time passed, the nation
would encounter the greatest economic depression of all time, and the challenges
would continue. Our nation would still battle the divisive issues of racism and
discrimination. Yet none of the Presidents who governed during these daring
times exploited the authority of their position in unwarranted manners. The
Nixon Administration would however, exploit its authority and attempt to justify
its actions based on the "similar' actions of Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, this nation's greatest test of will and spirit,
President Lincoln felt it incumbent upon the President to assume certain
authority and responsibility not specifically granted to the Executive by the
Constitution. His rationale stemmed from his desire and oath to preserve the
Constitution and the Union as a whole. On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln,
fearing a strong Confederate threat, initiated a blockade of all Southern ports;
ordering no vessels in or out of the South. Clearly an act of war, Lincoln
faced immediate challenge from Congress and Confederate leaders. His reasoning,
though, for carrying out such a dangerous and controversial act was his belief
that it would tame the South and prevent massive bloodshed in the future. His
concerns would later prove to be warranted.
Although public resentment and dissatisfaction can be used to provoke
government action at any leader's discretion, Lincoln truly believed that the
future of the nation was in jeopardy. He saw the issue of slavery as one which
threatened both the economic and social balances between the North and South and
one that could ultimately destroy the young nation. Lincoln sought to blockade
the Southern states and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (a power originally
granted to Congress) in order to foster stability and security in the confused
nation. He would continually be challenged by Congress, but the Supreme Court
would ultimately uphold his actions as necessary to the security and interests
of the nation, its people, and its future.
While Lincoln was extremely concerned with public opinion, he was not
convinced that the Presidential elections would be the ultimate check. Rather,
Lincoln asserted that the success of the actions taken by a government to
preserve its interest and peace cannot be measured by the electorate but rather
by the final outcome of the actions. Nixon's opinion, however, differed.
Richard Nixon saw the ultimate check not in the result or consequences of his
actions, but rather in the response of the electorate / popular opinion. This,
in my opinion, is the dangerous flaw which lead to Richard Nixon's decline.
Great danger lies in placing too much value on popular opinion. The
opinion of the electorate, while important for electing a President, should not
have a great deal to do with the process of day to day government decision
making. Because people can be too easily convinced and persuaded into believing
dangerous popular opinion, too much value should not be place on the opinion of
the masses. This nation has seen a great deal of popular support for issues
like discrimination, segregation and a refusal to grant women the right to vote,
yet now these issues are seen as wrong; morally wrong. The public has been
wrong on such issues all too often and public opinion has been swayed all too
easily over the years. A dependence on public opinion can prove dangerous for a
policy maker and divisive for a nation. Nixon would sadly discover this.
For Nixon to rely upon an election as the ultimate check for the
electorate is in my opinion irrational. A great deal of decision making takes
place between every election and a great deal of information regarding the
actions of an Administration remains confidential. Nixon would then have us
believe that the electorate should make a decision based on only some of the
facts. An idea strongly frowned upon by the founding fathers.
Yet, the matter which I have the greatest disagreement with is Nixon's
attempt to present the political activity of a select few Americans as being on
a considerable par with the events leading up to the Civil War. Furthermore,
Nixon's attempt at portraying himself as being remotely comparable to Lincoln is
not well taken. The challenges that the two men faced were entirely different.
The problems plaguing the nation under the two leaders were extremely different.
And the tactics used by one leader were bold and courageous while the other's
were deceitful and deliberate. Nixon's actions were clearly not essential to
national security.
Nixon attempts to validate his argument by stating that the nation was
torn apart during his term of office by the tumultuous times of the Vietnam War
era. He attempts to compare the Civil War, the most difficult time in the
history of this country, to the social protests and challenges of the Vietnam
era. The differences are immense. Lincoln witnessed the very nation that he
governed dissolve before him. He witnessed the issue of slavery eat away at the
moral fabric of this nation as it shouldered the economy of the South and he
questioned the future of this nation. Richard Nixon, however, faced no such
threats. He encountered opposition to the Vietnam War and to the American
government shortly after becoming President and he attempts to convince us that
the nation was ideologically "torn apart".
Also, Nixon's attempt to portray the President as somehow being above
the law is in complete contradiction to the principles of the Constitution.
Article II, Section 4 to the Constitution clearly states that " The President . .
. shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason,
Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."; illustrating that the
President is required to abide by a standard of law and jurisprudence. However,
in his interview with David Frost, Nixon states, "well, when the President does
it, that means it is not illegal." This idea that any man or any elected
official is somehow above the reach of the law not only disgraces the electorate
and our Constitution, it also disgraces the office of the Presidency.
Also, later in the same interview, Nixon stated, "I wanted to discredit
that kind of activity which was despicable and damaging to the national
interest." While his intention to discredit actions which may pose a threat to
nation security is appreciated, one has to closely examine the actions
themselves and the means by which Nixon chose to combat them. Nixon no doubt
faced a great deal of opposition and potential political threats during the
controversial Vietnam War era, but his use of intelligence agencies to
investigate and infiltrate these protest political operations lowers his actions
to a level equally clandestine and erroneous as that of the protesters and
opposition movements. His doings are no doubt comparable to that of a
totalitarian government, not a democracy.
Additionally, Nixon also mentions in the same interview that although he
has not read the entire Constitution, a disgrace for any United States President,
he knows of no law that places the President above the law of the land; somewhat
of a contradiction to his original statement that if the "President does it,
that means its not illegal." Also, Nixon does say that in times of emergency /
war, the President has assumed greater responsibilities and authority, a
practice upheld by the Supreme Court during the Civil War and the Great
Depression. However, unlike the Civil War, the Great Depression or any other
major challenge this nation has faced, Nixon's challenges were not comparable.
They did not warrant illegal investigation and they did not constitute a threat
to this nation's security.
Finally, the notion of Presidential power has been one of responsibility,
of morality, and of Constitutional supremacy. The Constitution grants a great
deal of responsibility to the Executive but it also sets clear requirements and
legal guidelines. It clearly states that no man is above the law, and although
a President must face an electorate every four years, it states that the law is
the ultimate check, not the people. Over the years, the meaning of the
Constitution and the interpretation of the Constitution have changed, yet the
responsibility and respect associated with this office have remained similar.
Richard Nixon's practice of investigating individuals, who have never been
suspected of violating the law, whom he believes to be a threat to national
security is a violation of our nation's trust in democracy. Their "
questionable' practices cannot be compared to the deadly threat of the Civil War
and his means of response cannot be compared to that of Lincoln. His actions
are, in essence, a violation of his solemn oath to faithfully execute the office
of President of the United States.


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