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, Bryce Harlow, who was a friend of President Johnson, as well as the favorite staff member of President Eisenhower, and President Nixon’s first appointee.
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 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."
Now make no mistake, politics was not such a gentlemanly affair in those days either. What was different about Colson’s 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, the 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.
I have an uneasy feeling, only ten months into this new administration, that we’re beginning to see 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 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, who had warned its Medicare Advantage customers that their benefits might be reduced in Democratic health care reform proposals — a piece of information that is perfectly true. The White House Communications director recently announced that the administration would treat a major television network, Fox News, as “part of the Opposition.”
The President 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 couldn’t afford. He was “taking names” of bondholders who resisted the GM and Chrysler bailouts.
Insurance companies, once the allies of the Obama health care proposal, have suddenly become the source of all our health care 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. The president himself, in his address to Congress on health care, threatened to “call out” members of congress who disagreed 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 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’re 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.
As any veteran of the Nixon White House can attest, we’ve been down this road before and it won’t end well. An “enemies list” only denigrates the Presidency and the Republic itself.
These are unusually difficult times, with plenty of forces encouraging us to disagree. I offer the Obama administration a gentle suggestion that it not start calling people out and compiling an enemies list. The administration needs to 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 and creating clean energy.