Podcast: John Marini on President Nixon and the Administrative State
President Nixon in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
John Marini is author of “Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century.”
This edition of the Nixon Now Podcast explores President Nixon’s view on the role and machinery of government, and the administrative state.
Our guest is Dr. John Marini, professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is co-editor of “The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers,” and author of “The Politics of Budget Control,” and “Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now” podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. The topic on this edition of the “Nixon Now” podcast is President Nixon’s view on the role and machinery of government, and the administrative state. Joining us is Dr. John Marini, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is co-editor of the “The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers” and author of “The Politics Of Budget Control” and “Unmasking The Administrative State.” Dr. Marini, thank you so much for joining us.
John Marini: Thank you for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, could you give us an overview of what does it mean? What does the administrative state mean in American politics?
John Marini: I think what it means is that more of the activity of government is put into the hands of those who have specialized knowledge to solve the various policy issues, and it ends up minimizing the authority and the power of those who are elected to office. Who are supposed to hold the reins of power really over the apparatus, the bureaucratic apparatus. When we think of the administrative state, we usually think of bureaucracy which is, of course, an important part of it. But it also has a kind of specialized knowledge that gives it authority that in many ways is intimidating to politicians.
They think that those who have specialized knowledge can answer questions better than they can and in some technical areas that’s true. But when it comes to politics that’s not necessarily true. There’s probably is no really good specialized knowledge that derives from say, social science in terms of answering questions that are not scientific questions or technical questions. And yet, more and more all questions are being put into the hands of those who have this rational authority is what I call it. And this is what it was intended to be earlier, rational or scientific authority. And so, it’s really a threat to political rule. I mean, it makes it impossible for the people who elect those to office to be able to have any real control over those who actually govern or who actually make the decisions because they’re given safety in terms of having not to go up for election. They’re given safety because they’re supposed to be valued advisors to the politicians. But when they become paramount, in other words, when they establish the agenda, when they determine the most important questions, then, of course, it becomes a crisis of constitutionalism, crisis of political rule. In my recent book, I just came out with one this year called “Unmasking The Administrative State,” it’s a book of essays over a long period of time.
I have come to the conclusion, after 40 years of studying this stuff, I’ve been doing it a long time. That rational rule, this rule that is established through the authority of bureaucracy that’s dependent upon science and social science is incompatible with political or constitutional rule. And so, you have a crisis of constitutionalism that arises whenever the authority of the political is imposed in an important way on the administrative state. And the first person who tried to do that was Richard Nixon in his second term when he won reelection in 1972. Nixon was very clear about what he was going to do. And that transformation in his presidency between ‘68 and ‘72 was so fundamental that even the New York Times at the time in 1972 said, Nixon’s reelection was like a different party to control.
You remember, you’re probably too young, but what he did in ’72 is he made everyone who was in his administration turn in their resignation, everyone, including Henry Kissinger and all of them, because he said he was tired of having appointed people to office who then go native, in other words, actually become part of the administrative structure and ignore what it is that the President wants done. So, after ’72, he was embarked on a real collision course with what Washington had become in the 1960s. And that is, it had become a centralized administrative state and both parties had participated in doing that in both branches up to that point. Both presidency and Congress had participated in centralizing authority in Washington.
What Nixon saw, I think, was, you can’t have this kind of rule and consent of the governed. It’s not going to be possible for people to consent to government if more and more of the activity of government is placed into the hands of the administrative or of the administrative structures, the administrative state. So, so much of the activity in modern organizations, not just in politics, are structured around these rational administrative organizations.
And those organizations take on a life of their own and they establish a defense of their own. So, what was originally established as a nonpartisan mechanism, in other words, the apparatus that is established and given civil service protection was thought to be nonpartisan. So, both parties could work with, because it supposedly was not partisan. But once it became a defender of the administrative state, anybody who opposed what the administrative state was doing became really an enemy of it. And certainly, in our time, the greatest, the most outspoken, those who publicly wanted to make an issue of this was, first, Nixon, and Nixon, of course, we saw what happened there.
And then Reagan did it, but he didn’t do it in the way Nixon did by trying to directly confront the administrative state. He saw that’s very difficult maybe impossible to do because Congress is too much tied into it. So, Reagan did through executive orders and through various things that gave people bills like the reconciliation bill, the reconciliation aspect of the budget and empowerment Control Act. He tried to rein in the bureaucracy through executive control, the OIRA, the attempt to go after administrative rulemaking by regulating it from the White House.
Those were indirect attempts. And Reagan’s attempt was then to try to delegitimize the bureaucratic apparatus. And he did that in his first inaugural when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And that resonated publicly, it resonated so well that even liberals began to have to backtrack on, make a defense of big government. So, you have in our lifetime you had Reagan that saw the problem. And I think Trump sees the problem in the same way, not politically quite the same way because he doesn’t come out of the political world. But what he’s trying to do is to address the same problem.
How do you make the people become a force in politics again because what you have is just organized interests that run Washington. Specialized interests that have been built up over 50 years and more. So, all of this now has…And this is not merely a problem of America because all governments have become bureaucratic in a certain way. I mean, you can see it in the way the European Union has established kind of rational rule over all of Europe which undermines political rule of the nation-state. And now you’re seeing a little pushback in things like Brexit. But this has been a fundamental problem now for 50 years in America, the administrative state, and it undermines the separation of powers in the Constitution.
It’s made it very difficult for the two branches to get along particularly if there’s a disagreement over how powerful the administrative state, how much activity must be done there. And how hard it is to, even Reagan tried to put more back into the private sector, into civil society institutions, just as Nixon intended to do. Even as early as 1969, Nixon was talking about decentralization, but he saw that centralization had really posed a problem for the American government. He had been in Congress in the ’40s, and he saw that Congress did different things, they made decisions in different ways than when he was a congressman, when he could make a lot of those decisions himself, he saw these people had staff, they had all kinds of ways in which it made it harder for a congressman even to do his job as a representative.
Jonathan Movroydis: Where do you trace the origins of the administrative state to? I mean, do you trace it at the new deal? Do you trace it at the advent of the National Security Act of 1947? What are the origins?
Dr. Marini: I am a political theorist. So, I trace it further back, I trace it back to the political thought that established the legitimacy of the rational state, and that was in German thought, Hegel’s thought in the 19th century. And the political movement that was mobilized by this conception of the rational state, what we would call the modern rational state, or the administrative state, whatever you wanna call the state as a concept now, was established by Hegel theoretically to establish the rule of organized knowledge rather than politics as the criterion for advancing progress in human history, in human time. So, progressivism was the political movement of a Hegelianism or Philosophy of History. It was a rejection of the natural right arguments of the American founding was the rejection of the understanding of nature and reason that still remains as an important way of thinking about politics at the time of the American’s founding.
The American founding was established by a philosophic tradition going all the way back to the Greeks. Hegelianism, the modern thought is established on the foundation of what is called Philosophy of History. It’s a rejection of the view that human nature even exists or is intelligible, that it’s human history that establishes the meaning for human life. And it’s a complicated doctrine, but let’s just put it this way, the progressive as political theory was established in the modern University at the end of the American Civil War. The first American university that was established on the basis of German thinking was Johns Hopkins University. It was the first freestanding graduate school in America. And it was the place where Hegelianism established its intellectual authority, all of the social sciences in the period at the end of the last quarter of the American, that was in 19th century. The intellectual world was fundamentally transformed by that. And so, all of the progressives, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, all of those progressives, either attended Johns Hopkins or the other American universities adopted the method of Johns Hopkins in terms of establishing graduate education.
And this leads to the foundation of the social sciences. You see, the authority for politics for thousands of years had been philosophy. So, when the American founders were looking for guides they looked at John Locke, they looked at Montesquieu or as Jefferson said, in terms of the Declaration, “We look to the elementary books of political right, Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sydney.” Political philosophy animated the American founding. What animates Hegelian thought is social science which was just developing at the end of the 19th century. All of these social science disciplines, the American Political Science Association, American sociological, American historical, all of these derive their authority from a method of science, no longer understood through metaphysics, through philosophy. No longer understood in a certain way, theologically either, because those two were compatible, theology and philosophy in the centuries after the American founding. So, the authority of science replaces, in many ways, both authority of philosophy and religion. And so as it , in a sense, diminishes the other authorities because history doesn’t…ideas don’t change quickly. But by the whole of the 20th century, you could say that the authority, the philosophic authority that established the constitution was undermined in election by the modern universities. And religion, of course…
Jonathan Movroydis: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
John Marini: Yeah, go ahead.
Jonathan Movroydis: No, I was just gonna ask you, how did this affect Richard Nixon’s view of politics? Was Nixon a political theorist that the mindset that animated the founders or was he a social scientist?
John Marini: No. He wasn’t a social scientist. And he read a lot. There’s no question that he read a lot and he read a lot of…but he was, essentially, I would say that Richard Nixon understood politics instinctively through common sense, which is the Aristotelian way of trying to understand political phenomenon which means that what is fundamental in understanding the politics is practical reason. So he was more concerned with practical reason or prudence in trying to understand politics. The way he proceeded in foreign policy, the way he proceeded in domestic policy was to think about it in terms of how it is that one can make sense of the phenomena and its history by the experience of history not by the way in which it comes to be understood by contemporary historians who try to distort the path on behalf of a political stance in the present. So, I don’t think Nixon was ideological in the normal sense of the term. Nor do I think Reagan was. Nor do I think Trump is. I think all of those people understood politics directly, just as a citizen would understand. Not distorted by any of the lens because of the idiots particularly the ideological lens which history imposes and makes genuine philosophy almost impossible.
This is why the American Constitution is so difficult for it to work, because it’s predicated on an understanding of human nature. How human beings act, in terms of ambition counteracting ambition. All of those institutions, the separation of powers were predicated on an understanding of human nature. The denial of human nature, establishing history and its movement, and how it is that we know ourselves, has completely undermined the character of the Constitution in the way in which it was intended although in a certain way they haven’t been able to destroy human nature. That’s why you get a Nix, or you get somebody who doesn’t go along with how history is supposed to unfold. And so, it’s a very complicated problem because it’s both theoretical and it’s practical. The problem with social science is that in trying to understand practical phenomena that is understood only through experience, the actions of those who did those things. They create an abstract method of trying to understand practice. And so in a way, it’s not clear that they create a greater understanding of the reality of politics. It may be that social science distorts the possibility of understanding reality.
The things that Nixon and most politicians before did and tried to learn in order to help is they tried to understand history as it actually happened. They read a lot of history, whether it was Harry Truman or any of these people. The ones who tried to understand politics through experience did not necessarily understand it through the lens of the social sciences. So it’s a very…pardon?
Jonathan Movroydis: Well, I was gonna ask you, what characterized Nixon as vice president shortly after, you know, he’s in Congress for six years before the Reno, right after the war, Eisenhower becomes president. Eisenhower runs a cabinet-style government. He’s considered by many to be a very strong leader both domestically and internationally. What characterizes the Eisenhower administration? Is it Eisenhower’s political will or is it the administrative state at work?
John Marini: Well, I think the administrative state is not yet able to be consolidated even in the Eisenhower administration. But the Eisenhower administration did not do I think what Nixon’s instinct would have been even in the ’50s had he been president say after ’52, because what Eisenhower wanted was a kind of continuity with the New Deal. Nixon was an opponent of the New Deal. You could see that. The two great things that Nixon…the things that energized politics after Nixon, and that he was a catalyst for it, were two things, one, his attitude toward the New Deal and his attitude toward communist. Those are the two most controversial issues of that period. Nixon was on the wrong side in terms of moderate politics of Republicans or Democrats, and the Democrats, of course, were not moderate in a sense. They were the party that was going to consolidate the administrative state, and they did it in a certain way after the election of Lyndon Johnson in ‘64. But Nixon was an opponent, but he could not go against Eisenhower. I mean, remember, Eisenhower…when Roosevelt’s administration entered in ’45 when he died and even say all the way up through Truman. You could say that the administrative state was on hold, that the domestic elements of the administrative state, because the war had consumed the energy of the federal government, and it had consumed the resources of the federal government.
So, if you looked at, say, at the end of the Roosevelt or even probably the end of the Truman presidencies, what the government spent its money on was not much different than it has been throughout much of American history because it was primarily in terms of national defense. I mean, Roosevelt’s aspirations, of course, were to build a much more modernized administrative state, but he didn’t have the opportunity to do it. But when I comes along and doesn’t oppose the expansion in theory of the administrative state, but in fact, help us to initiate it, because he created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. That was a new kind of…what that did is it established the connection between the interest of legislating towards and domestic spending by the federal government. It made it possible for congressmen to be able to get a political benefit from how they use public monies. So, in expanding that element, the domestic element, which of course is much more completely expanded by the time you get to Lyndon Johnson, then you have a different kind of government because you have a government in which subsidies and tax incentives make it necessary for almost every interest, economic social interest to become a player in Washington.
I mean, just as an example, if you went back and look, say 1964, before the Great Society got moving, and you went to Washington, you would find no major corporations had headquarters in Washington. There was no need to lobby Washington because most of the economic companies, they had, wherever their businesses were, if they were in New York, they lobbied Albany. If they were in Pennsylvania they lobbied Harrisburg. So, it was necessary for them, of course, to lobby in the places where the government’s impinging on their interests. But once it went to Washington, once the interests were brought to Washington, that worked for everybody. You’d lobby Washington. Washington after the ’60s, everybody had an office in Washington, including the states and local governments, and associations, and mayors and every other level of government organized itself around Washington. There was only one place that decisions were made, and that was in Washington. Nixon saw that, and he said, when he won in ‘72, and one of the reasons I think he wanted to win very big is because he knew he was gonna be engaged in a big struggle after ’72.
Jonathan Movroydis: I know I want to ask you going back to 1960, and the way forward in the change of power shifting to Washington during the whole 1960 period. Was there a pivotal point at all during the 1960 campaign where there were marked differences between then Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon about the way forward?
John Marini: Yeah, there was. In fact, Nixon himself wrote that when he wrote his autobiography after that, he said, the choice in 1960 between himself and Kennedy was going to be the choice between whether there would be a free society or a bureaucratic society. That’s how he put the stakes of that election. In that kind of clarity, he said, “This is the time when the decision will be made as to whether we will have a free society or a bureaucratic society.” Now, you’ll notice, at that time, right about that time in the late ’50s, early ’60s, it was going to be a question of how big Washington was gonna get. That’s when Reagan started corresponding with Nixon too, because Reagan too understood what was happening with that centralization. If you ever want to look at that, just read his speech that he gave on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was very clear on what this meant too. So, I mean, you know, I think Nixon understood that, but you know, the dynamics of Washington, once Congress transformed itself from what it had been, primarily a representative and lawmaking body in which the political activity of the particularly the house, and even the Senate, was to keep your bases in your state well attended to. Once it became clear that you could better attend to your interest within the state from Washington, all of the incentives from the point of view of Congress began to change. I mean, so, they began to be, rather than resisting centralizing authority in Washington because they knew the only way to centralize administrative authority in Washington was to establish a bigger executive branch bureaucracy.
What that meant is, Congress was always afraid of giving the president great power over the administration, because it knew it would be an imbalance of power if the executive used that administrative power in a way that was incompatible with the way in which the members of the House and the senate wanted to participate. I would say my calculation in studying this is the centralization occurred roughly between ‘64 and ’74. The centralization of administration. And Congress then transformed itself as a body from primarily a lawmaking body to an administrative oversight body. That was the way in which they thought they could participate in an even-handed way to which they would have as much access over the bureaucracy as the president, because their committee structures near the executive branch bureaucracy. They had ongoing and long term ways of overseeing. And so, that meant empowering subcommittee chairs, giving a lot of power to those chairs and enabling them to participate in the way in which the budgets were formulated, and all of those things that were necessary for them to be active in terms of administrative oversight. So, in that period, the congressional Reorganization Act, all of those kinds of things were attempts to make it easier if they completely created big staffs for themselves, committee staff, they became a different kind of body because lawmaking wasn’t going to be the important function.
They were going to give that authority to the agencies and departments that they created. And then the character of government would be established by rulemaking rather than law making. That’s what the administrative state is. It means that the rules are established administratively, but they have the effect of law, of course, the substitute for the law. The problem with them…the difficulty is, whereas laws are established as general laws that are established uniformly. Rulemaking is established in a particular way on behalf of particular interests, and the interests themselves are involved in the way in which the rules are fashioned. And Nixon saw all of that. He understood what was going on.
And even by 1970, he had to reorganize parts of his own government, executively. The Bureau of the budget, which had existed since 1921 was created, Nixon reorganized that as the Office of Management and Budget. There was now an administrative component in managing the executive branch. It was growing so rapidly. And that’s really what you saw then in the ‘70s particularly in the battle with Nixon because, as long as presidents were like Eisenhower and went along with the way things were done in Washington, Congress was able to adapt and was able to be important players. I mean, they did have, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, great oversight power over the executive, both over when Nixon was president, and in those presidencies afterwards, all the way even through Reagan.
Jonathan Movroydis: In that sense though, by creating the Office of Management and Budget, by creating an administrative organization within the White House, and reorganizing the government around New agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency. Was Nixon going along with the wave of the administrative state or was he seeking to implement presidential power on the political process?
John Marini: Well, I think in terms of say the Environmental Protection Agency, the assumption is that Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, well, he participated in the way in which it was structured when it was established in law, but the Environmental Protection Agency was already utilizing its powers in a decentralized way in the committee structures that were created in Congress. What Nixon wanted to do, and he saw that a lot of these people that were involved in the environmental, they were people that were completely in a way they would call them environmental wackos at that time. Their interest was just completely tunnel driven in terms of looking at that. Nixon knew, what Nixon wanted to do, because he knew that it was going to be created. He didn’t have in his presidency ever even close to any numbers that made it possible for him to be able to effectively work with Congress. He had to work with them to get support for the things he wanted like support for the Vietnam War. But what he wanted to do with the Environmental Protection Agency was to at least have a political and executive control over how it was going to be administered. That was going to be created. That was already in existence.
I think Nixon’s great concern was maintaining political control, keeping it from the hands of the interests. However, those interests understood themselves. I mean, not every public service…everyone who purports to get into politics for some public good is disconnected from their private good, and they’re selfish. So, Nixon wanted, I think, to ensure that there would be as much political control as he could have. But then again, remember, just look at foreign affairs. He didn’t have control over the state department either, all of those agencies that he had. Look at how he had to deal, when he did the opening to China. He basically had to bypass the whole state department. What he did is have Kissinger engage in those diplomatic relations with China in the National Security Council. He did not even inform the secretary of state, who was William Rogers, his friend, until about an hour or two before he went to the American people and told them about the opening to China, because he knew that the State Department would sabotage that effort. So, what you’re seeing and what you were seeing here is, both branches were creating their own bureaucracies within the branches. When they couldn’t trust Nixon in terms of controlling the budget, they created their own congressional budget arm.
See, from 1921, all the way up through Nixon’s second, till ’72, Congress could at least say that Presidents spent money the way they wanted them to roughly. They would argue over things. What they saw with Nixon is he’s not spending money the way we want. He was impounding funds, he was doing all kinds of things. That was his direct challenge to the administrative state. And I think both parties in Congress knew it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the new federalism? Was this at all a challenge to the administrative state as well?
John Marini: Yeah, of course. What makes him wanted to do, of course, was to revitalize the character of the states as political entities. The problem with administrative centralization is politics is only in one place, that’s Washington. And administration is established by Washington, and the states then really become ciphers of the federal government. They don’t have. They have the attributes of sovereignty that exists in terms of their state constitutions, and the Federal Constitution, and the various ways in which those distinctions are drawn. But in reality, because all of the money was collected in the center, that of course, it was easy for the federal government to impose its control over the states simply by refusing to give them federal funds in areas of policy disagreements where there was some kind of disagreement that the state wanted to exercise its own prerogatives on behalf of its own constitution or its own political environment. And so, in a way, you could say the states themselves gave up their sovereignty.
I mean, when they started petitioning Washington as any other interest, you know that they don’t have a conception of sovereignty that is established from the point of view of the political order. So, Nixon’s new federalism was a form of, not just decentralizing administrative power, but political power. Political powers is what establishes the character of administrative power. But once administrative power is established and it’s established from the center, then there’s no political choice left in the states. They adapt to that. And so the states have adapted. Now you’re seeing, of course, now that you have very great political disagreements among the state, among the various states, you’re seeing states now trying to exercise some of their sovereignty in the case looking at things like sanctuary cities.
Those are ways in which the states now, because they don’t like what the federal government is doing. So, this structure still exists. I’m saying, and what Nixon knew is, these are still political viable units, but they have to be used politically. And of course, if he could have done that in the ‘70s, it would have spared perhaps, if it had been successful, a lot of grief to the country subsequently because, when you look at the American politics after ’68, when Nixon won and already in ’68 it was clear that Nixon was opposed to the Great Society of what that was doing. And there was a big sentiment out there in the country. And so he could mobilize that constituency. And by ’72, when he wins one of the biggest electoral victories and popular victories in American history.
And so, those are ways in which he could have tried to create a new consensus on which both parties then would have had to adapt themselves. But when he failed, what we’ve had is just a history of divided government. And when you have control, like the various times when a president had control of both houses of Congress, and both houses of Congress and the presidency, those presidencies were very unsuccessful. Carter’s was unsuccessful, Clinton’s in the first two years he had majorities in both houses, he loses both houses in two years, becomes very unsuccessful first two years. It’s very hard to establish a political consensus when there’s not an agreement between the parties on what the purpose and what the common good or the public good of the country is. And so you have further and deeper divisions each time. So, even Obama who won probably the biggest democratic win since LBJ in 2008 has both houses, loses the house in ’10, loses the Senate in ’14. So, you know, there’s no stability in these institutions because what establishes the order of Washington is the administrative state, the political branches of adaptation to it provides the dynamics of politics in America.
So, when you get somebody like a Trump who comes in out of the cold, out of a non-political, non-ideological world, this guy is like completely unintelligible to watch, unpredictable. So, you know, but this is the same problem. You know, that’s the same problem that existed. Once it became clear that it was going to be very difficult to reconcile political rule and bureaucratic rule. Nixon saw…
Jonathan Movroydis: You were talking…I’m sorry. Go ahead.
John Marini: I think Nixon saw the political danger first, as clearly as anyone at that time.
Jonathan Movroydis: You were talking a little bit about the second term, how President Nixon tried to change government even more in the second term through reorganization. We have this concept called Super Secretaries, that after he called on all his cabinet to resign, he also wanted to move some of his white house personnel into cabinet positions so that he could have more influence over the cabinets in various agencies. Could you talk a little bit about that, vis-a-vis the administrative state?
John Marini: Yeah. Part of what he wanted to do was to try to reorganize government around the purposes of both what is a public good that is clearly a national public good. The kinds of offices in the cabinet that had to deal with policy issues from a national perspective and had to deal with them from the perspective of the interest of the country as a whole. So, those super secretaries would be the secretaries that had to deal with the fundamental important political problem. What he wanted to do was to, in a way, isolate the cabinets that we would call pork-barrel position. The subsidies that are given to all the various interests over the years that these departments in Washington were created and had become centralized then in Washington, and had become, in many ways, tools of the interest themselves or at least as much or as important to the interest that they were regulating as they were.
And certainly, to the detriment really of being able to pursue a public interest. So, it was part of Nixon’s reorganization strategy. He had submitted a bill to reorganize Congress early. And congress, he probably knew, they would never pass this thing. And he did this right at the beginning of his…either at the end or the beginning, I’ve forgotten the exact order. But he had a bill that he wanted to do this to make it clear and get Congress to go along with trying to separate those things that are necessary and have to be understood in terms of a public good and and a national good, and those things that are much more oriented toward interests of various kinds, economic, or social, or almost everything in Washington now had a presence by 1972.
When he couldn’t do it…It had to be before he was re-elected, because he couldn’t do it. They wouldn’t do it in his first term. They wouldn’t pass that reorganization there. They basically…Nobody would support it in Congress because they knew it would sever the connection between their committee structures and those pork-barrel kinds of departments and agencies, the things that establish the subsidies and the funnel to the Treasury, that those interests, those departments were very important in managing. And so, Nixon, in his second term, after he won big, said, “Well, can I do this administratively?” What he wanted to do it is through executive power only. Executive authority, executive reorganization, etc, etc. And that’s when Congress knew they had to. If he succeeded, then it would just completely upset the way Congress worked. And so, Nixon didn’t have any support really in his own party on that. So, he wasn’t surprised.
Jonathan Movroydis: You said that if he succeeded, Richard Nathan who worked as an assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget under Nixon, wrote a book about the administrative state called, “The Plot That Failed.”
John Marini: Right, right. The Administrative Presidency. Yeah. “The Plot That Failed.” Yeah, I remember that. It was a good book.
Jonathan Movroydis: Is that an accurate description? You say if it succeeded?
John Marini: I think it was accurate. I read it at the time. I wrote on some of these things, you know, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And I think that was as accurate as any one of the academic world was in terms of seeing what was actually happening. I didn’t even know he was in the OND. So, that makes sense, that he was able to see that better because he actually saw what was going on. But, no, that was one of the ways in which he was hopeful to be able to take on this bureaucratic apparatus that had grown up. And the structure that had tied it really to the committee structures in Congress, and made it hard really for both of them to do their job. I mean, made it hard for the President to oversee the executive branch in a reasonable way, on behalf of a public good, made it hard for Congress to pass laws and to exercise its legislative and Representative authority in any way that was representative of a common or a public good or a national good.
So, it was a corrupting influence on the way both of the branches could perform their functions. So, what you saw subsequently is, of course, presidencies trying to control the things that become important to them, and maybe just a couple of things because the government and the bureaucracy is so far-flung. It’s not possible for a president to be able to try to manage on a very wide scale. So, you know, Reagan picked his battles pretty carefully as to what he was going to fight on. And I think a lot of this even changed the dynamics between the executive and legislature, and how it related to the bureaucracy even changed dramatically in the ‘90s. And we’re dealing with a different kind of understanding of even how Congress oversees the executive branch now. It doesn’t so much. Executive branch, in a sense, sets the course of the whole government and the leaders at the top participate, essentially, in ratifying what the bureaucracy does.
If you look at how budgets are made even typically now since the ‘90s. It’s the House leadership and staff, Senate leadership and staff, and the presidency and staff. Maybe 15, 20, 30 people that decide what’s going to be the continuing resolution that’s going to keep the government going. So, even members of Congress don’t have much control over elements of the budget as they once did. So, it’s even a different world right now. But I think, if I were to say anything about it, I think the bureaucracy is more powerful now than it was at any time leading up to this period. Not that it wasn’t quite powerful, but even when it exercised its power, it had to do it more surreptitiously. And, of course, much of the Animus against Nixon after ‘72, which was really created in the way in which the courts, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies came to view Nix because he was perceived…Nixon I think was perceived as a threat even in his first term by all of those agencies. And so, he, in trying to look at how Watergate plays itself out, and at the time I wrote an article on it saying that the bureaucracy was far more important in what the outcome of Watergate than was commonly understood. Because most of Watergate took place well below the surface of what anybody knew or saw. I don’t if you know, you may know Geoff Shepard?
Jonathan Movroydis: Correct. I do.
John Marini: Geoff Shepard, he was on Nixon’s staff as a lawyer, young lawyer. He wrote a book just in 2015, on the real Watergate. And he then unleashed a lot of stuff on Watergate that shows that it was a far different kind of scandal than what it played itself out to be in the public mind and in the public arena in terms of public opinion. But that is a much more complicated event. And at the time, I thought it was quite complicated and hard to understand, how you could go from winning one of the biggest electoral victories and lose office with no real political quarrel. It was all done legally. Nixon couldn’t defend himself politically. Even his own party made a legal thing of it. Remember Howard Baker saying, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
I mean, they just boxed him in to a legal box. And even Geoff Shepard now I think Nixon would have been better off early going to an impeachment because a lot of the stuff that was private then, that he didn’t know anything about, would have been public in an impeachment hearing in the house, but, I don’t know. Once you establish the legend of what Watergate is, you don’t change people’s minds. Maybe in another 10, 15, 20 years, depending on what happens. Even that Watergate period will be reevaluated I think, because that was almost incomprehensible to most observers who weren’t Americans around the world. Hearing you take a president who had really inherited one of the worst situations that America faced in the whole of the 20th century, stabilized everything in one term. Had a very successful first term, was hated of course, for his successes really. He got us out of Vietnam. The War had ended. You notice, they don’t go after Nixon until the peace agreement is signed in Paris with Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ. And it’s the Monday after that, that the Watergate committee is created. So, there’s a lot about that era that I think his stories with more distance where the passions of…Nixon had created a lot of passion in politics. And I said in the beginning, it’s because of the two issues that were the most controversial, the meaning of communism and what the practical meaning of the New Deal is or was. Nixon was on the wrong side on both of those.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Dr. John Marini, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. Our topic was to present Nixon’s views on the role and machinery of government and the administrative state. Dr. Marini, thank you so much for joining us.
John Marini: Okay, thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis, in Yorba Linda.