THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Donald Rumsfeld and Jack Valenti
Title: “A Single Six Year Term President?”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And it seems to me that no responsible, realistic, politically sophisticated American would ever answer the question that we discuss today – should there be a single six-year term for the President of the United States – without thinking on it long and hard, without conceding that there is much to be said both in favor of and in opposition to the proposal, or without recognizing that no one of us is wise enough to foresee all the consequences (for good and for bad) that would result from such a fundamental change in the structure of our governmental and political processes. The proposal itself is as old as the Constitutional Convention – two hundred years now – and as current as your dissatisfaction (or the next fellow’s) with the present President…or the Presidency…of the United States.
Now today’s Open Mind guests differed on the merits of a single, six-year Presidential term when they joined me here quite some years ago. Each had served close to an American president. Both knew intimately the powers and the frustrations of the American Presidency.
Donald Rumsfeld was President Ford’s White House Chief of Staff. Years before, Gerry Ford, as the newly elected Minority Leader of the House of Representatives had suggested that I invite young Republican Congressman Don Rumsfeld to take Ford’s own place at a seminar because he was so brilliant and so insightful into the workings of American government. Years later, Donald Rumsfeld became America’s Secretary of Defense. And now some see him as the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1988.
Before Jack Valenti became so extraordinarily well known as President of the Motion Picture Association of America, he was Lyndon Johnson’s intimately close White House aide, serving his fellow Texas Democrat with great skill and unabashed loyalty. A gracious essayist and an admiring biographer of President Johnson, he has long pressed hard for a six-year Presidency.
Now, Democrat Jimmy Carter’s one-term Presidency has ended. Ronald Reagan’s two terms have begun to wind down since last we met at this table. And I want to ask first, I want to ask Don Rumsfeld first, if anything has changed his mind on the subject at hand? Mr. Rumsfeld?
Heffner: Nothing at all, you stand pat?
Rumsfeld: I do, I have thought about this a great deal and it seems to me that, that the appropriate way to think of it is as you introduced the subject. That there are arguments on both sides. But that the arguments, it seems to me, in favor are, are not based on any evidence that suggest you’d be gaining more than you’d be giving up. And it, it seems to me that there isn’t anything in our two hundred years that persuades me that we would have been better off. And as I look out into the future, I again can’t be persuaded. While I will admit there have been presidents that one would have wished hadn’t served two terms and instead had served only six years, on the other hand there have are presidents who have served four years and six years would have been a long time. So it seems to me what’s best left with the people.
Heffner: Jack, I know you haven’t changed your mind, cause I read what you write about this question. Do you think there is anything that has happened though that’s strengthened your own point of view?
Valenti: Yes I do, Dick. These are tangled time we live in and they have begun to make visible some of the remarks that have been made in favor of the six year term. I think the Presidencies of Carter and Reagan are vivid examples of why a six year term would have been much better, for both men. The reason, the overwhelming, all-consuming reason, in my judgment, why the six year term is, is…persuades me, is that it allows the President to do what has to be done in the long term interests of the people that he has, by solemn oath sworn to serve, without trying to provision his re-election caravan, for whatever reason, or to become lax a little bit as one goes in to a second term and with a big mandate and believing that you are divinely inspired. That’s why I think the single term allowing the President to devote all of his concentrated energy on serving the public and making hard decisions without worrying about whether or not he’s going to be re-elected. Or, having been re-elected, is so enthused by these large margins, i.e. Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Ronald Reagan in his last election, I think there is a consumptive disease there that affects all Presidents.
Heffner: Don, I mentioned that you are in the minds of a number of people, a prime candidate for the Republican nomination in 1988. Jack talks about this disease that sets in when one enters the White House and the group that is pushing, in particular, for a single six year term has a pamphlet…has a telling slogan on the outside of it, “When the President Runs for President, our Country Runs into Trouble”. Couldn’t you foresee that being the case, in a Rumsfeld Presidency?
Rumsfeld: Well, no I can’t. It seems to me that we have a political system that’s considered good to have that kind of a system, as opposed to a non-political system, a dictatorship or a philosopher king or something. And that the yearning on the part of people to try to de-politicize the system in some way, to immunize a President from the realities of the political system that he presides over and is the leader of, is counter to the whole approach of our government. A President in the United States leads by consent, not command. Regardless of whether a President is preparing to run for election in the first instance or in the second term or, if we didn’t have the Constitutional Amendment, in the third term, he has to deal with the country as he finds it. He has to deal with the body politic, as it exists. And it, it is not clear to me that there is any advantage that accrues to a president, he can’t suddenly not take into account the realities of the views and hopes and aspirations of the people of the country. He still has to persuade the Congress. And that means you have to persuade the people who then persuade the Congress.
Valenti: Well, MR. President, (Laughter) One of the things you learn in debating is that you throw out something so the other fellow has to deny it. What Don is saying about de-politicizing the Presidency in a six-year term is, of course, totally untrue. As a matter of fact, I think you make him more political, political in the sense that you must go to the people and that’s what politics is about. If you were a President in a six-year term and you want to build a budget or pass a bill or construct a plan or implement an action or negotiate a treaty or go in to a negotiation, you have to be able to armor yourself first with facts and then you’ve got to persuade the Congress and the people to your point of view. Can’t do anything in this country without consensus, or at least a majority of the people saying , “Yes I’ll follow him, I think he’s right”. You can’t do that just by saying “I’m going to do it”. You have to make some really, I think some elegant and eloquent persuasions that cause people to say, “That’s the path I want to follow”. If you look at Carter and his last, his first term, would he have acted differently in a six year term with hostages in Iran? Would he have handled the economy differently if it had been a six year term? We all know from, as we mentioned the last time I was with Don and you, Dick, is that President Kennedy three months before he was murdered, told Senator Mansfield, according to one of his aides, Kenny O’Donnell, that he was going to remove all the American troops from Vietnam, but he had to wait until the election was over. Consider what a six year term would have done to this country if Kennedy had been serving that term. We would have expunged from our inner being this trauma, this horror, this generational nightmare that was Vietnam. But we wanted to wait until the election. I think the six year term let’s a President be President in the full political sense of the word and in the full agenda sense of the word without despoiling all the things he has to do by trying to get reelected, wherein you waste maybe eighteen months of your Presidency.
Rumsfeld: It seems to me that, that there are several problems with that line of argument. One is the suggestion that the process of running for President somehow despoils all the things you want to do or that are good for the country. And it seems tom e that’s a contradiction. In fact, that process is a reasonably healthy process. Second, I wouldn’t concede for a moment that, that there aren’t every bit as many arguments on the opposite side as the anecdote about President Kennedy. It seems to me that it is an interesting anecdote. On the other hand, there are certain Presidents who would have decided the opposite side of that, were they in President Kennedy’s circumstance. And conversely, there would be people who, regardless of whether they were running for reelection, would make a judgment based on what they believed was in the best interests of the country.
Rumsfeld: And we know numerous Presidents who’ve done that to their detriment.
Heffner: Don, did Gerald Ford, to your knowledge, ever not do something, delay something in terms of the potential for political consequence, in terms of running again for office, in terms of another nomination?
Rumsfeld: I can’t say because I, I couldn’t climb in his mind and I don’t recall him ever saying that the wanted to do or not do something specifically because of its impact on the election which was coming up in 1976. I do know that others have speculated that had, had he decided to go forward with the SALT agreement, that it might have…I personally felt he should not because he was not at that point able to get something that was in our, what i believed to be in our national security interest. Although Presidents can differ with the Secretaries of Defense and their Secretaries of State. But he made a judgment not to go forward on the basis that seemed feasible at that time and outside observers have suggested that had he done that, had he gone forward with the deal as it was possible to achieve, that it might have been very helpful to his election.
Heffner: You know…
Rumsfeld: Or reelection. Actually, his election because h hadn’t run the first time.
Heffner: Jack, I guess the thing that I’ve thought about since you two were of this table last time discussing this, had to do…I know you well enough to know that you always quote Lyndon Johnson, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and we’ve exchanged that many times when I’ve wanted something fixed and you’ve said, ‘It ain’t broke”. Is it that broke? Is the Presidency of the United States that broke that you want to make that kind of fundamental change?
Valenti: No, I don’t think the Presidency is “broke”. I don’t think the Presidency will ever be “broke” and I think the light in the White House may flicker, but the light in the White House never goes out.
Heffner: But why such a fundamental change?
Valenti: Actually, it’s not that fundamental a change. You’re really rearranging the Constitutional furniture, but you’re not buying a new house. What you’re doing is saying to a President, “If you run for office and you persuade a majority of the people to your point of view, you are not the Chief Executive of this nation and you have six years now in which to make your mark, good or bad, deep or loose-fibered, or on history”. And I think that is not so fundamental a change, but it is required because of the complexity and the compression of the times we live in. as a result of instant communication, as a result of the balkanization of our Congress, as a result of the complication of issues that we now deal with where there are no readily identifiable demons that we can certify. That things like interest rates and monetary fluctuations and snakes and floats and special drawing rights and dizzy spins the mind when you try to contemplate it…so I’m saying because of that compression of time, you give the President six years, that’s two years beyond the four-year term, so he can at least, Don, build four budgets. Now he only makes two. When he comes into office his first budget in this predecessors, when he leaves office his last budget he passes along to his successor. You get him a chance to lay in place long-term plans and a chance to implement them in the interests of the people. That’s why I think it is not so radical a change, but it is a necessary revision.
Rumsfeld: I could theorize that, that it would not only not be helpful, but it would be harmful. And I don’t disagree with anything Jack said in terms of things that are happening in our country and in the world. Obviously it’s, it’s a different era than when I first went to Washington in 1957 when Eisenhower was President. But it seems to me it could actually be harmful in this sense. Political leadership is put in office by the voters. And that is important. To the extent we allow the system where a President did not run for six years and was not able to run after that and you continued your House refreshed and, and renewed and strengthened by having to go back to the people and being closer to the people than say the President, it seems to me you run the risk of even a higher degree of certainty in the Congress that they’re right. And the ability to, to argue that they, they had to go back and run for reelection more intransigent with respect to a difference with the President.
Hefner: What about that point, Jack?
Valenti: The truth is that this is a Congress of incumbents. Would you believe in the last election of the four hundred and thirty-five seats in the Congress those that were actually contested, a lot of people retired, only one incumbent lost reelection. Only one.
Rumsfeld: Ninety-eight percent reelected of incumbents, the highest ever in the history of the country.
Valenti: Well of course. Now my point is this going back and refresh…where you go back is on recess periods, if you go home…there’s a tax bill before the Congress, you go home and you listen to the people. And they’re, either they’re outraged or they’re rejoicing and then you go back armed with more information that you have. But if you’re incumbent in the Congress of the United States, the chances are that you have a safe seat. Very few incumbents are ever beaten. Now I’m not saying that’s, that’s significant or insignificant. I’m just pointing out that this going back to the public each time…in the world we live in now, a lot depends on how much money you have to buy how much television time and we are rapidly approaching a time in our electioneering where it will all be done by remote control. There are a number of states where Senators who ran for election will tell you that they never really visited the people, no rallies, no coffee klatches, no going to the local shopping mall, it’s all on television. It is that compression of time, it is that, I think, the brittle nature of politics today, that makes it all the more imperative that you have some sturdy hand, some monitoring, supervising leadership hand, that is tending to, I think, the long-range business of the public.
Heffner: But, of course, that does raise the argument as to whether, at the end of that one election and at the time of the inauguration whether tat hand isn’t weakened by the fact that never again can it run, never again will its coat tails, shirt tails work. And this old notion of lame duck beginning at the very beginning of that one and only term, you haven’t responded to.
Valenti: Well, but you have a lame duck when, when Ronald Reagan got reelected. In 1984 he became a lame duck. So…
Rumsfeld: That’s why we ought to change that Constitutional Amendment that limits him to two terms.
Valenti: I am even more passionate…
Valenti: …if that’s possible, against more than two terms. Or more than one term. I think that power is seldom fatal to the people if it’s kept on a short tether. If you have a President who is in there for eight or twelve years, you so infect the bureaucracy of this country, that you’d never root them out. I think that kind of power is, is too long-reached, it’s too full-bodied and there’s a taint to it.
Heffner: But Jack it comes only from the people…
Heffner: That power doesn’t come from anywhere other than the polling booths.
Valenti: But I’m just saying though, Don, incumbency, if you’re in office the chances are you’ve got a better chance of being reelected. Now, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford would probably say, “Well, that’s not so”. But I think there are extenuating circumstances in both of those instances. But the point is, that is Jimmy Carter coming in after Richard Nixon, which I think, I think gave a kind of squalid taste to the people. And Gerry Ford, unhappily, was the legatee of that. I think he was one of the most decent and wonderful men ever to be President. But he was in the wake of that Nixon virulence and couldn’t escape it. And Jimmy Carter was reigning over a country that had, what nineteen percent interest rates and thirteen percent inflation and hostages mocking us, with the Ayatollah in Iran and all of that. The only point I’m making is, you don’t want anybody to stay in office too long because Lord Acton’s truism may be the only thing that confirmable. Power corrupts, absolutely power corrupts absolutely.
Rumsfeld: I mean I don’t disagree with what Jack says, but it seems to me that the American people have throughout our history without the Constitutional amendment limiting Presidents to two terms, made repeated judgments that he was right. On the other hand, the drafters of the Constitution, it seems to me, provided that release valve, so that in a single instance, when it might be in the interests of the country to retain a President longer than two terms, they were able to.
Heffner: You know…
Rumsfeld: That it seems to me, argues in favor of the essence of our system which is that the people make that decision. And to, to say that you’re going to deny them the ability to make that decision, strikes me as, as if not anti-democratic, although there are a lot of anti-democratic things in our Constitution, limiting things to be sure, at least limiting without sufficient advantage in exchange for that limitation. I, I always favor flexibility to a certain extent. I just think it’s…
Valenti: May I just comment though, Don? I think though, keep in mind, when I was talking about radical change, revisionary upheavals that have taken place in the, in the political arena. If you had television in FDR’s time, he would have been named emperor king. He would have been so unbelievable on that tube. Television has so changed the shape and form of how you win people’s admiration. Abraham Lincoln never had a media consultant. He never had a David Garth or a Robert Squire or anybody working out his campaign. You don’t know more go into a campaign now without having a media consultant, who really takes over your campaign. It’s changed. And if we forget this avalanching revision in the way we nominate and elect people then we’re overlooking a very, very important fact.
Heffner: Jack, I wonder whether Valenti’s rule, which you’ve just stated, whether it isn’t in Don’s terms and then very real terms, almost anti-democratic. You’re saying, look we have these new devices, the people have provided for themselves this wonderful new thing – television—and as a result, we have to set about putting some more stops, putting some more limitations upon what the people will do. Where do we end? Where does that end?
Valenti: Well we have a limitation mow
Which, I think, is laudable. Mr. President Rumsfeld doesn’t believe that, but after he’s reelected for his second term, I think he’ll be even more staunchly in favor of a third term. But we have that limitation now. As a matter of fact as Don points out, the Constitution has limitations of what you can do and what you cannot do.
Heffner: Were you for that amendment when it was offered, Jack?
Valenti: The twenty-second amendment?
Heffner: Yes, sir.
Valenti: I really don’t remember. At the time I was such a Roosevelt partisan that I was probably so mesmerized and beguiled by that fellow as a young boy that I would have, would have wanted King Franklin the First, I would have voted for the dynasty right on. But now that I’ve gotten older, I hope a little wiser, I know that’s wrong. And I’m a great believer in the limitation of power . And that is why I believe the six year term does two things. It limits power but it allows a span of time worthy of the plans and programs and vision that a President would inhabit his Presidency.
Heffner: Don, I,…we just have four minutes left, but if you forgive me, there’s another question I want to put to my friend, Jack Valenti. I, over the past seven years since we sat at this table, there’ve been so many times when you’ve taught me a lesson, in the work we do together in the motion picture industry, that I’ve rebelled against and that is, everything has an effect that you don’t foresee. What mischief will be done by this change or that. Do you not see mischief done by this change? I won’t call it a fundamental change because then you’ll go off on that it isn’t fundamental.
Valenti: No. I, I think you’re right. There would be some unseen mischief. Von Clausewitz the great military strategist says, there’s no such thing as war plans because nobody ever puts in the war plan, friction, which are the things that develop because nobody ever puts in the war plan, friction, which are the things that develop that cause the plan to veer right or left. Yes, there’ll be some…probably some things that we don’t know about. But I think that all politics is a series of alternatives and trade-offs. And while we might have some mischief that we won’t like, it would probably supplant some mischief that we know about now. But I cannot tell you what the future will hold. No one knows. But I believe that given the kind of world we’re going to live in for the rest of this century, and maybe into the next, compressed, fragile, reeking of all kinds of complexities, that i think this minor adjustment in the Constitutional apparatus is a worthy one.
Heffner: Don? When the President runs for President, our country runs into trouble. Don’t you find something there that leads you to nod your head in approval?
Rumsfeld: No, I don’t. I don’t tie those things to elections.
Heffner: Raising money?
Rumsfeld: Well, you know everyone argues against it and they do have federal financing now in, in Presidential elections which I happen not to favor. But the raising money for a President is not a problem. There are practically…Presidents don’t get primaries, incumbents.
Heffner: Not a problem in terms of what one does as the Chief Executive. Or does not do.
Rumsfeld: No. no, I don’t believe so. You know the…I think it’s, it’s a much bigger problem for a person running in the first instance. Which is totally unrelated to the issue of a single six-year term, than it is for an incumbent President.
Heffner: How did President Ford feel about it when he left office? In favor or against?
Rumsfeld: I don’t know.
Heffner: Jack, is…
Valenti: I am told that President Ford was in favor of the3 six year term. I have to say in all honesty that a group of us did meet with President Reagan, maybe a year ago, and he had favored the six year term but was coming to the conclusion that, that he would be against it. I have to say that in all, in all honesty. Most Presidents in office, starting with Jefferson on, were in favor of the six year term. Jackson and so forth, all the way through. But that’s not important because that’s another era, that’s like comparing the Enfield rifle to the TOW missile. I think this is a new world and we have to attend it with new thought. I happen to believe, and this is a subject for another seminar, that the money in politics is a powder keg with a very short fuse. It’s something that must be attended to, it must be renovated, else we’re going to be in deep, sorry trouble.
Rumsfeld: It doesn’t relate to a second term…
Valenti: No, no.
Rumsfeld: It relates more to the first term.
Valenti: it does not relate to the six year term at all. That’s a subject for seminar 102, which we’ll do at a later time.
Rumsfeld: One thing. President Eduardo Frey of Chile looked me in the eye in the 1960s, living in a single, one six year term and said, “Don’t ever let your country do it”.
Heffner: The trouble is that there are some Presidents of the United States who say, “Do it”. Don Rumsfeld, thank you. Jack Valenti, thank you so much for joining me today.
Rumsfeld: Thank you.
Valenti: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.