Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Wisdom of Barbara Tuchman

I recently acquired the wonderful book, "Practicing History", by Barbara Tuchman.  The book consists of selected essays from her past writings and speeches, all of which are highly informative, but what I want to discuss today, at the end of Trump's first month in the presidency, is her 1973 essay, "Should We Abolish the Presidency".

While this essay was written during the Watergate era, Tuchman sees the issue of the increasing power of the president as a problem with has developed during the entire 20th century. She claims that "the office has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of any one individual".

She gives two primary reasons for why the problem has become so acute. First, Congress has failed utterly to perform its role as a co-equal branch of government. And second, there is a :growing tendency of the Chief Executive to form policy as a reflection of his personality and ego needs". This latter problem, she says, has been exacerbated by the use of television, which allows a president to talk to millions of citizens at once, and "becomes an obsession". Trump represents a rather extreme example of this phenomenon.

Tuchman proposes a "Cabinet government" of six persons, who would run as a slate and be elected by the voters for a six-year term. Chairmanship would rotate, each serving a year of the six-year total. The chairman's vote would be used to break any 3-3 ties (i.e., the chairman would have two votes).

The six-year term has been discussed before, and would have the advantage of a president not having to worry about re-election. There are numerous examples from history of presidents refraining from doing the right thing because of worry over adverse political fallout in the next election; the one-term idea would avoid those problems. And the problem of a president whose ego or personality defects cause him or her to pursue unwise courses of action would be avoided by the Cabinet system. In this current Trump era, this seems to be a significant benefit.

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