Yesterday the New York Times reported on the latest dispatch from Autocracy Central:
President Bush has signed a directive that gives the White House much greater control over the rules and policy statements that the government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment, civil rights and privacy.
In an executive order ... Mr. Bush said that each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president’s priorities.
This strengthens the hand of the White House in shaping rules that have, in the past, often been generated by civil servants and scientific experts. It suggests that the administration still has ways to exert its power after the takeover of Congress by the Democrats.
For being news, however, all of this sounded eerily familiar. Something less like news than history -- bad history, the kind of dark-chapter stuff that alarms at the time, but soon recedes into almost forgotten territory once, in the public's mind, the danger passes.
The reason it sounded so familiar -- thematically verbatim, if you will -- is that just a few weeks ago, I finally remembered, I had read this:
What was planned was surgery on the government of the United States ... an attempted change in the nature of the Presidency, almost, but not quite, amounting to a Constitutional change.
The President was about to streamline by fiat the entire Executive Branch of government, install within every department a personal agent of the White House staff to supervise it ... and purge the bureaucracy until it became the unquestioning subordinate instrument of the White House policy center which [the president] alone would direct.
That was written by journalist Theodore H. White in Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. It is striking how yesterday's news parallels something written 32 years ago about a scheme hatched three years before that.
Our 37th president's obsession with absolute power was a pathology with many parents, but chief among them was a deep-seated insecurity stemming from the paranoia that others might want to play in his sandbox. That, too, sounds quite familiar.
Nixon's grand reordering never came to fruition. He was soon preoccupied with other matters of his sinking ship of state, like Watergate. But it should also be recalled that Dick Cheney began his political career in the Nixon White House, whereupon he nurtured his own unitary-executive pathologies. And in that sense, Nixon's ghost is still with us and Nixonianism is still playing out.
Mr. Bush may have signed the executive order, but Mr. Cheney's historical fingerprints are all over it.
Presumably with a straight face, the Office of Management and Budget's general counsel applied Ron Ziegler-like spin to the updated, new-and-improved Nixonian document: “This is a classic good-government measure that will make federal agencies more open and accountable.”
But accountable to whom? The people? Congress? The courts? That's so ... founding fatherish.
Let's just cut out the bothersome fuss of checks and balances. Let us eliminate all that "messy democracy" stuff. Better to leave matters to one man -- or, rather, for the time being, leave them to one man's small but efficient, plutocratic circle.
As Rep. Henry Waxman said, this may be "a terrible way to govern, but [it's] great news for special interests." And it is special interests, of course, that oil the machine of autocracy.
Somewhere, Dick Nixon is smiling.