Published October 21, 2009
Editor's note: This is an updated version of a speech delivered on the Senate floor on Wednesday , October 21 by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. It includes a correction, made in the Congressional Record, attributing remarks to Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, instead of Charles Colson, on how to “screw our political enemies.”
In 1969 and during the first half of 1970, I was a wet-behind-the-ears, 29-year-old staff aide in the West Wing of the Nixon White House. I was working for the wisest man in that White House whose name was Bryce Harlow. He was a friend of President Johnson, as well as the favorite staff member of President Eisenhower and President Nixon's first appointee.
Based upon that experience and my 40 years since then in and out of public life, I want to make what I hope will be taken as a friendly suggestion to President Obama and his White House, and it is this: Don't create an enemies list.
As I was leaving the White House in 1970, Mr. Harlow was heading out on the campaign plane with Vice President Spiro Agnew, whose job was to vilify Democrats and to help elect Republicans. The Vice President had the help of talented young speechwriters, the late Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan. In Memphis, he called Albert Gore, Sr., the "southern regional chairman of the eastern liberal establishment," and then the Vice President labeled the increasingly negative news media as "nattering nabobs of negativism."
These phrases have become part of our political lore. They began playfully enough, in the back and forth of political election combat. But after I had come home to Tennessee, they escalated into something more. They eventually emerged into the Nixon's enemies list.
In 1971, Chuck Colson, who was then a member of President Nixon's staff and today is admired for his decades of selfless work in prison reform, presented to John Dean, the White House Counsel, a list of what he Dean called "persons known to be active in their opposition to our administration." Mr. Dean said he thought the administration should "maximize our incumbency...[or] to put it more bluntly" -- and I am using his quotes -- "use the available Federal machinery to screw our political enemies."
On Colson’s list of 20 people were CBS correspondent Dan Schorr, Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory, Leonard Woodcock, the head of the United Auto Workers, John Conyers, a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, Edwin Guthman, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and several prominent businessmen, such as Howard Stein of the Dreyfus Corporation, Arnold Picker, vice president of United Artists. The New York Times and the Washington Post were made out to be enemies of the Republic.
Make no mistake, politics was not such a gentlemanly affair in those days either. After Barry Goldwater won the Presidential nomination in 1964, Daniel Schorr had told CBS viewers that Goldwater had "travel[led] to Germany to join up with the right wing there" and "visit[ed] Hitler's old stomping ground." Schorr later corrected that on the air. What was different about Colson and Dean's effort, though, was the open declaration of war upon anyone who seemed to disagree with administration policies. Colson later expanded his list to include hundreds of people, including Joe Namath, John Lennon, Carol Channing, Gregory Peck, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Congressional Black Caucus, Alabama Governor George Wallace. All this came out during the Watergate hearings. You could see an administration spiraling downwards, and, of course, we all know where that led.
The only reason I mention this is because I have an uneasy feeling only 10 months into this new administration that we are beginning to see the symptoms of this same kind of animus developing in the Obama administration.
According to Politico, the White House plans to "neuter the United States Chamber of Commerce," an organization with members in almost every major community in America. The chamber had supported the President's stimulus package and defended some of his early appointments, but has problems with his health care and climate change proposals.
The Department of Health and Human Services imposed a gag order on a large health care company, Humana, that had warned its Medicare Advantage customers that their benefits might be reduced in Democratic health care proposals -- a piece of information that is perfectly true. This gag order was lifted only after the Republican leader, Senator McConnell of Kentucky, said he would block any future nominees to the Department until the matter was righted.
The White House communications director recently announced that the administration would treat a major television network, Fox News, as "part of the opposition." On Sunday, White House officials were all over talk shows urging other news organizations to boycott Fox and not pick up any of its stories. Those stories, for example, would include the video that two amateur filmmakers made of ACORN representatives explaining how to open a brothel. That is a story other media managed to ignore until almost a week after Congress decided to cut ACORN's funding.
The president himself has not stopped blaming banks and investment houses for the financial meltdown, even as it has become clear that Congress played a huge role, too, by encouraging Americans to borrow money for houses they could not afford. The president was "taking names" of bondholders who resisted the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts. Insurance companies, once allies of the Obama health care proposal, have suddenly become the source of all of its problems because they pointed out -- again correctly -- that if Congress taxes insurance premiums and restricts coverage to those who are sicker and older, the cost of premiums for millions of Americans is likely to go up instead of down. Because of that insubordination, the President and his allies have threatened to take away the insurance companies' antitrust exemption.
Even those in Congress have found ourselves in the crosshairs. The assistant Republican leader, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, said to ABC's George Stephanopoulos that the stimulus plan wasn't working. The White House wrote the Governor of Arizona and said: If you don't want the money, we won't send it. Senator McCain said this could be perceived as a threat to the people of Arizona.
Senator Bennett of Utah, Senator Collins, Senator Hutchison and I, as well as Democratic Senators Byrd and Feingold, all have questioned the number and power of 18 new White House czars who are not confirmed by the Senate. We have suggested this is a threat to constitutional checks and balances. The White House refused to send anyone to testify at congressional hearings.
Senator Bennett and I found ourselves "called out," as they say, on the White House blog by the President's communications director.
Even the President, in his address to Congress on health care, threatened to "call out" Members of Congress who disagree with him.
This behavior is typical of street brawls and political campaign consultants. It is a mistake for the President of the United States and for the White House staff. If the President and his top aides treat people with different views as enemies instead of listening to what they have to say, they are likely to end up with a narrow view and a feeling that the whole world is out to get them. And, as those of us who served in the Nixon administration know, that can get you into a lot of trouble.
This administration is only 10 months old. It is not too late to take a different approach, both at the White House and in Congress. And here is one opportunity: At the beginning of the year, shortly after the President's inauguration, the Republican leader, Senator McConnell, addressed the National Press Club. He proposed that he and the President work together to make Social Security solvent.
Senator McConnell said he would make sure the President got more support in that effort from Republicans than President George W. Bush got from Democrats when he tried to solve the same problem.
President Obama held a summit on the dangers of runaway costs of entitlements. I was invited and attended. Every expert there said making Social Security solvent is essential to our country's fiscal stability. There is still time to get that done.
Or on clean energy, Republicans have put forward four ideas -- build 100 nuclear plants in 20 years, electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years, explore offshore for low-carbon natural gas and for oil, and double energy research and development for alternative fuels. The administration agrees with this on electric cars and on research and development. We may not be so far apart on offshore exploration. At his town meeting in New Orleans last week, the President said the United States would be, in his words, "stupid" not to use nuclear power. He is right since nuclear power produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity.
So why don't we work together on this lower cost way to address clean energy and climate change instead of enacting a national energy tax?
On health care, the White House idea of bipartisanship has been akin to that of a marksman at a State fair shooting gallery: hit one target and you win the prize. With such big Democratic majorities, the White House figures all it needs to do is unify the Democrats and pick off one or two Republicans. That strategy may win the prize but lose the country.
Usually on complex issues, the president needs bipartisan support in Congress to reassure and achieve broad and lasting support in the country.
In 1968, I can remember when President Johnson, then with bigger majorities in Congress than President Obama has today, arranged for the civil rights bill to be written in open sessions over several weeks in the office of the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen. Dirksen got some of the credit; Johnson got the legislation he wanted; the country went along with it. Instead of comprehensive health care that raises premiums and increases the debt, why should the White House not work with Republicans step by step to reduce health care costs and then, as we can afford it, reduce the number of Americans who do not have access to health care?
The president and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been courageous -- there is no better word for it -- in advocating paying teachers more for teaching well and expanding the number of charter schools. These ideas are the Holy Grail for school reform. They are also ideas that are anathema to the labor unions who support the President. President Obama's advocacy of master teachers and charter schools could be the domestic equivalent of President Nixon going to China. I, among others, admire that advocacy and have been doing all I can to help him.
Having once been there, I can understand how those in the White House feel oppressed by those with whom they disagree; how they feel besieged by some of the media. I hope the current White House occupants will understand that this is nothing new in American politics -- all the way back to the days when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson exchanged insults. The only thing new is today there are multiple media outlets reporting and encouraging the insults 24 hours a day.
As any veteran of the Nixon White House can attest, we have been down this road before, and it will not end well. An enemies list only denigrates the Presidency and the Republic itself.
Forty years ago, Bryce Harlow would say to me: Now, Lamar, remember that our job here is to push all the merely important issues out of the White House so the President can deal with a handful of issues that are truly Presidential. Then he would slip off for a private meeting in the Capitol with Democratic leaders who controlled the Congress and usually found a way to enact the president's proposals.
Most successful leaders have eventually seen the wisdom of Lord Palmerston, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who said: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies."
The British writer Edward Dicey was once introduced to President Lincoln as "one of his enemies." "I did not know I had any enemies," Lincoln answered. And Dicey later wrote: "I can still feel, as I write, the grip of that great bony hand held out to me in token of friendship."
In conclusion, here is my point. These are unusually difficult times, with plenty of forces encouraging us to disagree. Let's not start calling people out and compiling an enemies list. Let's push the street brawling out of the White House and work together on the truly presidential issues -- creating jobs, reducing health care costs, reducing the debt, creating clean energy.
Lamar Alexander is the senior U.S. Senator from Tennessee. He delivered these remarks in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, October 21, 2009.