The Imperilled Presidency

In his own memoirs, Nixon (1978) stated that he believed that: The ‘imperial presidency’ was a straw man created by defensive congressmen and disillusioned liberals who in the days of FDR and John Kennedy had idolised the ideal of a strong presidency. Now that they had a strong president who was a Republican — and Richard Nixon at that — they were having secondthoughts.

In 1975, President Ford found he was impotent when the North Vietnamese communists finally overran the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, including the US embassy compound in the city. Ford complained of congressional meddling in presidential powers. In an article for Time magazine four years later, Ford wrote:

Some people used to complain about what they called an ‘imperial presidency’.

But now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. We have

not an imperial presidency but an imperilled presidency. Under today’s rules,

which include some misguided ‘reforms’, the presidency does not operate

effectively. That is a very serious development, and it is harmful to our overall

national interests.

According to David Mervin (1993), the imperial presidency ‘was always something of a cliché’ as it ‘summons up images of the president as an emperor, a supreme sovereign authority, a master of all he surveys’, which is clearly not an accurate description of the American presidency. Sam Tannenhaus (2002) put it this way:

The imperial presidency is not a useful idea. It is an epithet, dredged up

whenever a president combines strength with imagination. Presidents are, in

sum, leaders not rulers — which means, of course, they are not imperial at all.

What we can say is that presidential power is limited — the Founding Fathers

intended it to be so. All this makes being a successful and effective president

exceedingly difficult.