WASHINGTON — Disagreements with President Johnson over the Vietnam War drove Congress to circumscribe the powers of the presidency so much that when Johnson left the White House in 1969, it was said it would take until the end of the century to restore those lost powers. Thanks to a succession of weak presidents, the end of the century arrived without much having been done in this respect.
Richard Nixon, impeached by the House over Watergate, resigned to avoid trial by the Senate. Gerald Ford was unable to deal with the mess Nixon left. Despite the considerable accomplishment of the Camp David accord making peace between Egypt and Israel, Jimmy Carter was weakened by the hostage crisis in Iran and the botched rescue attempt. Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, had the Iran-contra scandal. For Bill Clinton, it was Monica Lewinsky and an impeachment trial (he was acquitted).
With a crucial assist from the Supreme Court, George W. Bush became the first president of the 21st century and promptly set about restoring, even increasing, presidential powers. A hallmark of this effort was his assertion of control over information about what the government is, or has been, up to.
The first case was the work of a task force on energy policy chaired by Vice President Cheney. This was followed in November 2001 by an executive order giving an incumbent president decisionmaking authority over release of past presidents' papers. This overrode a congressional act that requires a president's records be available to the public no later than 12 years after he has left office. The Bush executive order makes this contingent upon the incumbent president's consent.
A further opportunity to assert presidential authority came when Al Qaeda terrorists flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings in New York, another into the Pentagon, and would have flown a fourth into another target in Washington (probably the White House or Capitol) but for heroic passengers who forced a crash in rural Pennsylvania.
Historically, wars lead to increased presidential powers. There is an urge in the public and in Congress to rally round the flag and support the president no matter how foolish his actions.
But it was a Democratic Senate that forced Democrat Johnson into early retirement. In 2001, Senate Democrats were overcome by jelly where their backbones had been in 1968-69. True, their numbers had been reduced to 50 out of 100 senators, but 50 senators can be a powerful bloc. Nevertheless, Democrats acquiesced in the misnamed USA Patriot Act which shredded the Bill of Rights. They acquiesced in scandalous tax cuts. Worse, they supported the invasion of Iraq, on the basis of false justifications.
The question of controlling information has arisen again in connection with the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee reasonably want to know what Judge Roberts did and what views he expressed during his service in the Reagan administration. While Bush professes full cooperation with the Senate Judiciary Committee, including its Democratic members, he has been careful about which documents from these periods of Roberts' career are made available. A great many documents have been supplied, but some have been withheld. Many of those that have been supplied have large sections blacked out. The Bush executive order says these redactions should be made on the basis of national security considerations, but in the end they come down to subjective judgments by the incumbent president or his White House staff.
In the name of protecting national security, President Bush has arrogated to himself and to all his successors (unless one of them should be sufficiently public-spirited to change it) the power to control which presidential papers going back to George Washington can be made public. One must ask: Why would Bush be moved to do this?
A cynical, but possibly true, explanation is to protect Reagan and his vice president - the current president's father - from disclosure of the full truth about the Iran-contra scandal, which possibly contained grounds for another impeachment.
• Pat M. Holt is a former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.