Presidency under a microscope. Series of troubled administrations tied to persons, not system

How did the Reagan presidency get into this fix? As the Iran-contra affair continues to unravel, and as President Reagan struggles to regain his political authority and credibility, there is heightened debate over whether there is something structurally wrong in the nstitution of the presidency. Many Americans find themselves bewildered by what seems to be a pattern of failed presidencies.

Before Mr. Reagan came to power, three Presidents went down in defeat or humiliation. Lyndon Johnson was overcome by his obsession with the Vietnam war. Richard Nixon got caught in an obstruction of justice, following the Watergate burglary. Jimmy Carter fell victim to the Iran hostage crisis and a perceived sense that he was overwhelmed by the job.

After this string of failures, Mr. Reagan for six years seemed to belie the pessimists who saw flaws in the institution. Wrapping himself in the symbols of patriotism and exuding optimism, he struck a responsive chord in the public and rode a tidal wave of support. While his policies came into sharp question, he proved to be a morale builder, conveying a sense of strong leadership and restoring public confidence in the presidency.

Trying to assess what went wrong, presidential analysts see various factors at work: from institutional weaknesses and a poor presidential nominating system to flaws of character.

In the final analysis, thoughtful observers agree, the problem lies with the ``people not the process.'' Nothing can substitute for a president's intelligence and character, above all his standards of integrity and regard for the law. On this score, both the Nixon and Reagan presidencies are seen to have fallen short.

``In both cases there was a cavalier attitude toward the system of normal checks and balances,'' says John Gardner, a civic reformer and former Cabinet secretary. ``Nixon set out more deliberately to undercut them, but at the bottom of the Reagan thing is a deep contempt for the way the system works.''

Also, analysts say, the adulation that built up around Reagan, with the American people applauding everything he did, was bound to feed his ego and give him an exaggerated sense that he could do no wrong. It is often after massive popular mandates that presidents begin to run into trouble.

But the problem in the White House stems also from the enormous growth in the responsibilities of the presidency and the enhanced power of the president arising from the influence of the electronic media.

``You have to look beyond the personality to the change in the institution,'' says former Sen. Charles Mathias Jr. ``And you have to look at people whose preparation for the job was not complete. Carter and Reagan had no foreign policy or national experience.''

Hugh Heclo, a Harvard government scholar, sees a certain rhythm in presidential crises. Presidents are continually being frustrated by the expectations of what they should do, he says, and, when thwarted by the checks and balances of the system, circle the wagons and try to operate from the White House.

``That has been the tendency since Johnson,'' Dr. Heclo says. ``The frustration leads to `Watergates' and `Irangates,' and these in turn lead to more checks and balances.''

Mitch Daniels, outgoing White House political director, confirms that frustration over Congress's growing role in the field of foreign policy may have led to the Iran-contra fiasco. ``Where I think the problem has come in is ... in the constant intrusion of Congress in foreign policy, which was a main executive-branch function,'' he says. This ``may have driven that special sphere of policy into the White House.''

Heclo further observes that the Executive Office of the President, which comprises the White House, National Security Council (NSC), and a number of other units, has been weakened over the years because of ``personalization'' of the presidency.

``The president no longer meets with career persons as advisers,'' he comments. ``It's dismaying what happens in terms of institutional memory and the capacity of the place to work for the president.''

If a president has savvy political advisers like those in Reagan's first term, who sought to protect the President, it is widely agreed, he can save himself for a while. But he cannot count on the Cabinet officers, because they are looking after their own agencies. And those inside the White House sometimes give him what he wants instead of what he should have, i.e., sound advice.

The presidency, Heclo says, should not be the ``personal artifact'' of the person in the office but rather the place where ``a person and an institution come together to sustain political leadership. ... The problem is that there is no system of managing political manpower in the government.''

Other knowledgeable observers also focus on the need for a solid civil service that is loyal to whoever is in the White House. Clark Clifford, a Democratic elder statesman who has served four Presidents, suggested to the Tower Commission that the NSC itself develop a permanent staff that would be career workers and that the assistant director of the NSC also be a career officer. ``The president might ignore them, but they would be quite useful, because they would develop such a knowledge of history,'' Mr. Clifford says.

In the view of some analysts, the heart of the problem lies in the presidential nominating system, in which direct primaries have supplanted the political parties and candidates do not undergo rigorous scrutiny. ``You have to be able to hold an administration responsible for what it has done, and this requires a more responsible party system,'' says political scientist James MacGregor Burns. ``Both parties have to have the ability to say `the other guy did it.'''

The point is that nominating conventions today are controlled not by professionals, i.e., state and local party leaders who have political experience and judgment, but by delegates committed to the winners of primaries - candidates who relied not on the party but on their own organizations to win. The party nominating convention thus becomes a coronation rather than a selection process.

``We screen our presidents badly,'' says University of California scholar Nelson Polsby, ``and we educate badly so people are not obliged to know what they must do to be president, namely, build coalitions and know something about the job. We simply do not have a good nominating process.''

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