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Peace Is Hell: the Marginalization of the Presidency


Washington. -- In 1878, when football was new on campus, Tommy Wilson, a Princeton undergraduate and informal football coach, wrote, "Everything depends upon the character of the captain and president [of the team]." Years later Wilson, then known by his middle name, Woodrow, would think of government the way he had thought of football.

He said that when a president has the confidence of the country, "no other single force can withstand him." He can be "irresistible" in an office that can be "anything he has the sagacity and force to make it." A forthright critic of the separation of powers, Wilson revolutionized the presidential office, treating it not only as the engine of an activist central government, but as the nation's tutor -- "the moral, spiritual leader of the country," as a later Wilsonian, Walter Mondale, was to say.

Today Bill Clinton is reduced to around-the-clock dickering with a House of Representatives his party controls, and the House is less than half of his congressional problem. He is unhappily experiencing the marginalization of the presidency that began under his predecessor. Mr. Clinton is powerless to prevent the end of the Wilsonian tradition he aimed to revitalize.

William Leuchtenburg, an admiring biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, says that FDR, who saw himself as picking up Wilson's fallen torch after 12 fallow Republican years, presented himself "as the father to all the people." So did Lyndon Johnson, whose model was FDR. And when President-elect Clinton met with Bill Moyers, who worked for Johnson, Mr. Clinton said, "He and I talked . . . about the need to revitalize the office as an institution . . . around which the American people can rally."

Mr. Clinton assumes that Americans are, or should be and can be made to be, in a rallying 'round mood. But rallying 'round is what people do in emergencies, particularly wars. That is why contemporary liberals, with their collectivist agendas, seem perpetually nostalgic for wartime -- for Wilson's "war socialism" and FDR's domestic mobilization during the Second World War. That nostalgia surfaces in metaphors, as in LBJ's "war on poverty."

The end of the Cold War is one reason America now has its second consecutive president who is notably mismatched to his moment in office. George Bush prepared all his life to conduct the Cold War, only to have it end, leaving him (almost literally) speechless. Mr. Clinton, too, is a casualty of peace. He urgently needs the aura that surrounded presidents when the nation was in a permanent state of siege in a hair-trigger world.

Mr. Clinton, who has a breathtaking agenda for expanding federal supervision of American life, has reached the White House just as a prerequisite for such an ambitious presidential program is fast draining away. That prerequisite is a national fixation on the presidency, and a predisposition to think there should be a national "agenda" and that the president should write it.

Mr. Clinton may seem to be a miniaturized president, but that is because 60 years of emergencies -- from the stock-market crash of 1929 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 -- made most presidents seem larger than life-sized. Yet the office that Wilson thought potentially irresistible has always been much less powerful than it is prominent.

Much of LBJ's domestic agenda failed because he was mistaken in believing that he personally could generate popular support for the sort of government activism that a huge event -- the Depression -- generated for FDR's activism. President Clinton is floundering because his ideology tells him three false things.

It tells him that 12 years of Republican "neglect" must constitute a crisis comparable to depression or war. It tells him that nothing is difficult for the truly moral -- that, for example, the reason there are millions of people without health insurance is that until now no one has really cared. And it tells him that the Wilson, FDR and LBJ presidencies are models to be emulated today.

However, a lesson of the first one-twelfth of Clinton's term is that "gridlock" (that overheated description of a normal, healthy outcome of our Constitution -- presidents not getting all they want) results not just from "divided government," the legislative and executive branches controlled by different parties. It also results from both branches being controlled by a divided party, which the Democratic Party is. Not only do many members of Mr. Clinton's party reject his agenda, they feel no particular need, moral or prudential, to defer to him.

Peace is going to be hell for presidents, at least for those not reconciled to the restoration of what is, when viewed against the sweep of American history, normal: congressional supremacy. The players on the other side of the constitutional line from the president -- in the legislative branch, which is not supposed to be part of the president's team -- dispute Tommy Wilson's notion that everything depends on the president.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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