, Newburyport, MA


May 4, 2013

Shribman: The limited power of presidents


Historical legends warp our perspective on the presidency. In the folklore, Johnson was a political magus, wielding irresistible power from the Oval Office over the Congress. Not so, at least in foreign affairs, where presidents have the widest latitude.

It is true that LBJ won wide running room from Congress by virtue of the huge majorities (414-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate) in support of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the president to take all necessary measures to fight North Vietnam.

But Johnson’s closest Capitol Hill mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, expressed reservations about the administration’s Vietnam policy as early as 1964. By 1966, efforts to revoke the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution began.

That same year, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas began holding critical hearings on the war, an undertaking that enraged LBJ and led him to refer to the Arkansas Democrat as “Senator Half-bright,” a name that originated with Harry Truman after Fulbright took issue with the 33rd president’s views on the atomic bomb and the United Nations.

The danger in applying brute force to Capitol Hill is that Congress has weapons of its own.

Franklin Roosevelt in his second term tried to purge the Democratic Party of conservative lawmakers who opposed the New Deal, not knowing of course that those very conservatives would be ardent supporters of his polices. He actually campaigned against a number of Southern Democrats, especially Walter F. George of Georgia and Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, both of whom prevailed -- and neither of whom ever feared the president again.

The president who had earlier campaigned against “fear itself” came to know what all presidents eventually learn: Fear itself is no weapon at all.


North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.

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