Donald Rumsfeld, Jack Valenti
A Single Six Year Presidential Term
VTR Date: August 19, 1980
Guests: Rumsfeld, Donald; Valenti, Jack
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Donald Rumsfeld and Jack Valenti
Title: “A Single Six Year Presidential Term”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now our subject today is as old as the Constitutional Convention and a recent as your dissatisfaction or the next fellow’s with the president or the presidency of the United States. It is the proposal that we change our Constitution as we have in other areas in the past to provide for a single, six year term for the highest office in our land. Now my guests today disagree on the merits of this proposal. Both have served close to an American president. Both have enjoyed, if that’s the word, an insider’s view of presidential powers and limitations. Donald Rumsfeld was President Ford’s White House Chief of Staff. Years before that Gerald Ford had suggested to me that I invite young Congressman Rumsfeld to take Ford’s own place at a seminar because this young man was so brilliant and so insightful into the workings of American government. Years afterwards, he became America’s Secretary of Defense. Before Jack Valenti became so well known throughout this nation as President of the Motion Picture Association of America, he was Lyndon Johnson’s extraordinarily close and intimate White House aide. A gracious essayist and an admiring biographer of President Johnson, Jack Valenti has been pressing for a six year presidency for a long time. Now, one further note. We’re videotaping this program on August 19.1980, and what we say, like the presidency, ought to survive the present election campaign. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. Jack Valenti, I think I know better than most people how reluctant you are to effect change when no one is at the barricades clamoring for change. Yet now you are positively eloquent in your insistence upon this fundamental reform that’s likely to reset the whole fabric of our Constitutional system. And I wonder if you’d tell us why.
Valenti: Well, I think that the principal reason why I think the necessity for a single, six year term without reelection eligibility is, is crucial because this country and this world have changed radically. The revisions in the mores and customs and the anxieties and the concerns and the dangers and the possibility of catastrophe have become so tormenting that I think we can no longer exist in the present structure of the presidency. Now I have two basic reasons why I think this change is necessary. One is the rules of the presidential game have changed. Today two, three years before the election a number of candidates are out stalking possible delegates, as I have written, a malignant fidelity. That means the president has to get ready for the campaign much in advance of once what was the norm. number two, the issues, the concerns, the dangers have become so virulent that no longer should it be necessary for a president two years into his first term to begin provisioning the reelection caravan to the detriment of the long-range, best interests of the people he has by solemn oath sworn to serve. And we’ll go into more detail about that, but that’s essentially the reason I think change is required.
Heffner: Secretary Rumsfeld, those of us who watched you at the Republican 1980 Convention know that you’re not pleased with the idea of a six year term. Why? In terms of the suggestions that Jack Valenti has made.
Rumsfeld: Well, I think that the first, basic reason is that if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it…(inaudible)…granted what Jack says is true about the changes that have taken place in the world, there’s no question but that we’re living in a different world today, and a compression of events, and the pace of events. On the other hand, my review of recent history over the last two, three decades simply does not suggest that there is any evidence that having such a provision in the Constitution would have benefited us. And conversely, my review of all of our two hundred years suggests to me that we would be denying the American people an opportunity to replace a man in four years or to keep a man, as we did with President Roosevelt, for three or four terms, if in fact that was in our interest. And it’s simply not clear to me that what you’re gaining by having a Constitutional Amendment for a single six year term has sufficient merit that it is worth giving up what in fact you have to deny yourself, mainly that flexibility. And I really believe that different times require different things. And to the extent we take over the Constitution and pass an amendment that restricts the American people from either changing a man before six years and four or keeping a person beyond, I not only don’t favor a six year term, I favor repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment and the limitation on two terms.
Heffner: Mr. Valenti?
Valenti: My answer to that is as follows. Number one, I don’t think that going back into history has any relevance to what you’re talking about because I think that Roosevelt is ten light years away from what we’re experiencing today. In those days, President Roosevelt could get aboard the cruiser Houston and fish for a month. It can’t be done today. It’s just a…the events crowd so readily upon his mind and concern. Number two, if ever you wanted graphic evidence of the need for a change, Watergate is exhibit number one. Richard Nixon would never have engaged nor would his colleagues have engaged in this vulgar excursion, this squalid business of breaking and entering and then covering up, unless Richard Nixon wasn’t in a presidential reelection campaign. Had they not been in the ’72 campaign this would have never happened. And we wouldn’t have undergone one of the most traumatic events in all of our history. And foregone a president that may have been very good foreign policy president, at least some people indicate that. And as a liberal Democrat, I’m trying to be as compassionate, as open minded as I can about that.
Valenti: Point number two…
Heffner: You’re laughing at that, Mr. Secretary.
Valenti: Point number two, it seems to me, is that the concerns that we are involved in today are so totally different from before. For example, Mr. Sadat and Mr. Begin are postponing one of the most important issues of our time, the settlement of the Middle East crisis. Till when? Til after the election in November. Now, why? Because they know that this president or any president cannot negotiate so fragile an issue in the middle of a campaign. And therefore, they are putting it off. Three or four months. The world could be destroyed in three or four months. . And yet they cannot sit down today and discuss that issue because we’re in the middle of a campaign. And I say that we can no longer really enjoy that kind of luxury of time. It is no longer relevant to what we’re going through today.
Heffner: Mr. Secretary, don’t…don’t let me interfere with this situation.
Rumsfeld: Oh, I’m mesmerized. I…those are persuasive arguments. I just don’t think they are supported by the facts. As I look at Watergate, and I’m not an expert, I happen to have been out of the country when that transpired, but I was interested in an article that Congressman Mo Udall wrote on the subject that pointed out that there are very likely a number of very good things that President Carter, President Ford, President Nixon did because they were in an election period as well as things that one would obviously characterize as bad.
Rumsfeld: Oh, the China initiative or whatever. I think you’ve made the point very persuasively in your writings on this subject that Presidents tend to be motivated principally by their place in history, and by the way the world, and I guess, simply history will look at them and view their tenure, their stewardship. I think that’s true. The presidents I’ve known were very much interested in that. And I think that for the most part Mayor Daley was generally right, good government is good politics. And that there isn’t a giant gap between the two. My impression is that it would be everybody’s (inaudible)…to suggest that a Watergate-type event could have occurred were he not running for election as were running for election. And second, much of the wrong of Watergate, as I understand it, actually transpired after he had been reelected for a second term, was a lame duck, and in fact had just been reelected by one of the biggest margins in history against George McGovern.
Valenti: yes, but Don, isn’t it fair to say that statements had been made about Watergate before the election that made it necessary to keep the cover-up going? I won’t quarrel with you on that except that we have different views. But to me, Watergate is exhibit one. If I may, I have, just happen to have in my inside coat pocket, what I think is exhibit B of Watergate. Because this goes to the very heart and gristle of what you were talking about, of a president’s place in history and of the decisions a president makes before an election. I used to have an old Congressman, Albert Thomas, who you might have known, Don…
Valenti: …great, wonderful man from my home state of Texas who had a famous saying. He said the most inefficient public official that I know about is one who is out of office. Presidents feel the same way. On August the 7th, and I’m reading now because I brought this along to establish what I think are the credentials for the argument that I am making. Kenny O’Donnell, whom I know very well, whom you know very well, now deceased, was then chief aide to President Kennedy when he was in office. And, on august 7, 1970, O’Donnell wrote an article for Look magazine in which he uncandidly unveiled the dilemma of a president wanting to do something but not doing it because of an election. He writes about a meeting between Senator Mike Mansfield and President Kennedy in late 1963 about Vietnam. Quote, I’m quoting O’Donnell, “President Kennedy told Mansfield he’d been having serious second thoughts about Mansfield’s argument to get out of Vietnam. And he now agreed with the Senator’s thinking on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam”. Still quoting, ;but, said President Kennedy, I can’t do that until 1965 after I’m reelected.’ He told Mansfield. Still quoting, “for the president felt if he announced a total withdrawal of American military personnel from Vietnam before the 1964 election, there would be a wild conservative outcry against returning him to the White House for a second term”. Ponder that just a moment. The trauma, the fungus, the avalanching change that took place in this country as a result of …(inaudible)…six year term that he would have withdrawn those troops so that when Lyndon Johnson became president on November 22, there would not have been 16,500 American fighting men in Vietnam. We would have been cleansed of this awful fungus. I’m…
Rumsfeld: I’m sure there are anecdotes that can be cited like that. On the other hand there unquestionably anecdotes that can be said on the opposite side. I’ll give you one. I was a young Congressman from Illinois back in the early 1960s and mid-60s and I went down to Chile as a member of the House Foreign Operations Sub-Committee and met with President Eduardo Frel. Here’s a man who was serving a single six year term. His last words to us were, if I have any advice to give the United States of America, never go to a single six year term. He felt the difficulties of trying to serve as a political leader when in fact you’re being displaced from the political process in a significant way. Now I know there are arguments on both sides of that, but he…another anecdote is periodically a politician will argue that the Department of Justice should be “depoliticized”. And that we should have some sort of an independent agency, separate from politics. And of course I feel offended when people say that. When they say let’s depoliticize something because basically what they’re saying is let’ stake it away from the people. Because the people, politics is human beings. And it’s that interaction in our society, the system we have of …(inaudible)…by command, but by consent. By leading through persuasion. And it seems to me that we give up a great deal when we seek to…(inaudible)…an individual from having to be a political leader. Or from being an effective participant politically which his clearly what President Eduardo Frel felt. Rightly or wrongly that’s what he felt.
Valenti: First, I agree with you about the depoliticalization of the Department of Justice. I think that is a stupid and absurd kind of remark. You can’t do it because who is so wise and omnipotent among us, so divinely inspired, that he can be divorced from politics?
Heffner: Would you want to depoliticize he president of the United States?
Valenti: No. not at all. Not at all. And that goes to the very heart of what I’m saying. Indeed to be a great president, if you’re going to serve six years without going back to reelection, first you have been elected. You are a political man going in. But you cannot run this country unless you’re in politics. To support a cause, to build a budget, to implement a plan, to negotiate a treaty, to have a China card be played or an opening to China, or a Middle East adventure, or a new jobs program or whatever, Don, you know better than I, he must go to the Congress, he must go to the people, he must sell his plan, he must devote every waking hour to the politics of the moment. What I’m suggesting is you take out the temptation of a man in his zeal to be reelected not to do what ought to be done, but to do what he thinks is expedient to be done.
Heffner: Well, Jack, you say expedient, and you use the example of Mansfield and what President Kennedy said. If Kennedy were right, that he might have lost an election, if he had withdrawn troops then, was that not a simple indication that the people of this country did not want troops withdrawn? And that what the president was doing was sensing what was going to happen to him in or at the ballot box, and why do we want to turn our backs on what the people will say at the polls?
Valenti: …(inaudible)…all I can say to you is that reminds me of the old, great French Revolution story of the leader sitting in a café and a crowd goes by and he says, those are my people, and I must follow them, I’m their leader. Presidents have to take the lead. Presidents must set a vision for this country. They must instruct and persuade and inspire. And if otherwise you could have a committee, and you’d run it by Gallup Poll.
Rumsfeld: Jack, I must say that anecdote about President Kennedy, it seems to me, tells more about President Kennedy than it does about any deficiencies in our Constitution.
Valenti: But I do honestly really believe so. I think that you could say that about almost any president. He has to weigh doing something he thinks might be riotously unpopular but needs to be done, and he has to weigh that alongside in three to four months he goes to the polls to vote.
Rumsfeld: That’s true, but it’s a continuous process.
Valenti: And I don’t find any president insulated from that kind of ambition. I really don’t.
Rumsfeld: I quite agree, but there was a case where a president, assuming that’s correct what Kenny O’Donnell is reputed to have said, there’s a case where you put it on a scale and read it. And it came out short. Now that process is going to go on, it seems to me, and this is basically not an unhealthy process. In that instance, goodness knows, everyone in America wishes it had come out the other way. But, I’m sure there’s many on the other side…
Heffner: Don, to begin with you said, and I’ve heard this said by all of us here at the table that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Jack, I believe, feels if it’s not broken, it’s not working as well as it needs to at this crucial point in our history. Do you feel that it’s working well enough that we don’t need to make some reforms in this whole process?
Rumsfeld: Oh absolutely I do. And I don’t think there’s any evidence to the contrary. The only president that we’ve had who’s been reelected, served out a full second term, has been President Eisenhower in my adult life. And a…
Heffner: That’s good or bad?
Rumsfeld: I mean any suggestion that the American people are reelecting their presidents too often and for too long a period is certainly not valid, so the one term as opposed to the two in terms of the length of time involved, it seems to me, that there is some merit to that argument that when one identifies problems, develops programs to deal with them, takes them, fashions legislation, goes to the Congress, gets it passed, administratively structures it, then implements it, and then allows some time to play out to see if it really worked, which you don’t know until you’ve allowed it to play out, and therefore, is a…(inaudible)…time. So that there’s some merit to that. I don’t think that weighs it as much as what you’re giving up. What you’re giving is an opportunity to have a president …(inaudible)…run only four years, or have the president serve longer.
Valenti: What are you giving up? Let’s think for a moment what you’re giving up. First, you’re not giving up politicizing of the president because as the political animal he must persuade the Congress and the people to follow him to yonder mountaintop if that’s where he wants to take…
(inaudible): …that is weaker…not a political factor.
Valenti: Well now, just a moment. Under our present Twenty-Second Amendment if President Carter is reelected, on the day of January 20th he is a lame duck for his next four years and therefore the weakness you ascribe to a six year president…
Rumsfeld: That’s right.
Valenti: …is now inhabiting this second term president.
Rumsfeld: I agree.
Valenti: Because then everybody is now moving around and shuffling for position in 1984. So the defect is there. But I do not share your abhorrence for the Twenty Second Amendment. I believe power should be kept on a short tether. And I like the idea of eight years or six years then a man goes away and some new man takes his place. I’m merely suggesting that what you have now is, and I know this for a certain fact, and you may speak for yourself in the Ford Administration, but I know that from the day Lyndon Johnson took office he began to prepare himself for the 1964 campaign. And in 1963 he only had a year to go. But I do know that in 1977, that the Jimmy Carter forces were beginning to provision their caravan, and as you get closer to the primaries and the president spends more and more time absorbing his energy and his time not on the cosmic issues of the world or SALT or anything else, but you are dealing with the County Chairman in New Hampshire. And you’re dealing with fat cats so that you can arm yourself and get your war chest filled with money. I find that a fraudulent waste of time.
Heffner: Well, Jack, what about the side effects, which must be with such a fundamental change, absolutely enormous. The impact upon our party system. The impact upon the relationship between the executive and the legislature. You’re not just talking about a funny little pebble in the Constitutional pond.
Valenti: Well, Don may speak to this, but i don’t think we have a party system today. We have…the party is a joke, and we all know this. There is no party. People don’t run o parties anymore. And even though we have these quadrennial assemblies of people and television, there’s no party. There’s very little Congress left in power. The Congress has been vulcanized since the time Don went in, in 1960. It has been so fragmented there are no power centers any more. You can’t deal and negotiate. In truth, what we have now is a government which is concerned with …(inaudible)…concerns, constituency concerns. And when you go to a congressman or a senator and you talk about the national interest, he may look at you blankly because his first interest is his local interest. Which means getting him reelected because there are no centers of power to which he can reach to sustain himself and his battle sin his own home town and his own home district.
Rumsfeld: But, Jack, all of that that you swept aside and characterized in an uncomplimentary
Manner is really not all bad stuff. The idea of a political leader having to deal with the people, having to deal with the political process, having to listen to their, what you might feel or what I might feel are petty matters, but nonetheless they are, that is the process, they are the people. The individual in that office does represent those people. Hearing some of that and interacting on it is in fact what makes this country what it is. It can be aggravating, admittedly, if one is worried about an event that is less understandable in the public sense, but of great magnitude and simultaneously being torn by the pressing details of the political process, but to think we can sever a person from the pressing details of the political process and not lose something terribly important, that i think is a risky idea.
Valenti: Well, I have to say again, I’m not suggesting that at all. Let me go back again.
Rumsfeld: It happens though.
Valenti: I’m not suggesting severing him. As a matter of fact, I want him to get more involved in the political process. And that is to speak to the people. To inspire them. To set a vision before them. To enlist them in his aid. So that when he goes to the Congress, whether it be…(inaudible)…three or four, whether it be Middle East accords, whether it be a jobs program, whether it be a model cities program…
Rumsfeld: that’s perfectly compatible…(inaudible)…
Valenti: …(inaudible)…but he must do that in a six year term. I’m not suggesting for one moment that he be divorced from politics which I think would be catastrophic. I’m saying to you in the six year term he would be devoted to politics without the selfish interest involved in getting reelected. Now he’s thinking about how do I establish my legacy in history so that future historians will regard me not with some amiable neglect, but with something that says Donald Rumsfeld was a great, good president who led this country to a place where they’re safer, healthier, wiser, and more prosperous than they were when he took office.
Heffner: All right. Now you have become a prophet. We have a minute and a half left. In that time, do you think it’s likely to happen? Do you think there will be this kind of change, or Donald Rumsfeld, do you think we’re just going to stand pat? Jack, what do you think?
Valenti: I think this change will come. It will not come quickly. It will not come in the 97th Congress, probably not the 98th Congress. But somewhere around the 99th Congress. I think that the problems now are so hideous that we’re going to look for the change what will keep this presidency more vital.
Rumsfeld: H.L. Mencken once said that for every human problem there’s a solution that’ simple, neat and wrong. I think this is it.
Heffner: You think this is it?
Rumsfeld: It is clearly it. It will not happen, I don’t believe. I think the reason it won’t happen will be because the American people will…(inaudible)…around in their head and ultimately not see any great overriding benefit to be gained from I and some risk in doing it.
Valenti: Don may be right. As a matter of fact I never thought that President Dewey would ever be reelected, ever be elected, and by Jove he was.
Heffner: Do you think…no, no, I won’t ask whether you think. What are the facts? Do the parties stand on this matter one way or the other in the few seconds we have remaining?
Valenti: Well, all of the presidents of the last few presidents I think, President Ford, President Johnson, President Carter, have all expressed their support of the six year presidential term for whatever that means.
Heffner: And you made Don president, and he’s against it.
Rumsfeld: I don’t think either party has taken a position…
Valenti: I don’t…(inaudible)…no party platform, but then I think we all agree that party platforms are made of papier-mâché anyway.
Heffner: That’s the point at which we end the program. Thank you so much Donald Rumsfeld, Jack Valenti, for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”