Judge Steven Platt: The Political Art of ‘Holding Your Tongue and Thinking Your Piece’

Former vice president Joe Biden on the campaign trail last year. Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

Who has been in the room when important decisions are made by President Trump — or would be in the room for important decisions by President-elect Joseph R. Biden? We, of course, don’t know the answer to the latter question yet. Trump has demonstrated that the only essential persons he needs in the room when he makes important decisions are his principal advisers — Me, Myself and I.

What we do know is that a president’s decision-making style will significantly drive his or her initial selection of advisers and equally importantly which advisers stay in any administration. The president of the United States or for that matter any chief executive at any level of government or private enterprise needs as many counselors and advisers as possible who are not so employed or occupied because they need the job economically or psychologically.

In other words, there is a market and a job for them and their skill-sets which they know about outside the executive’s office. They could find alternative employment in places where they would enjoy their work, use their skills, be professionally and personally fulfilled, as well as support themselves and their families.

Implementation of this “qualification” for at least some advisers and counselors to the executive at every level of government would make it more likely that the president, governor or even local or private executive would have advisers of substance and stature who would speak truth to power when it is called for without fear of losing in their mind the only job in the world which can provide them with professional recognition and fulfillment as well as economic sustenance to support themselves and their families.

The fact that an executive would bring such a person into his or her administration would itself be encouraging particularly if he or she did it knowingly and intentionally because it would mean that the executive is not so insecure or conflict-averse that he or she can’t tolerate even private disagreement or other “bad news.” In turn, this would at least make it more likely if not ensure that executive decisions would be reality-based, always a good thing.

History, some of it very recent, is replete with examples of what happens when the contrary is true. Some of these examples and the people in them are surprising. Michael Powell reported on what he described as the “heartache” of White House staff in 1966 “caught between apprehension of looming disaster in Vietnam and the need for candor with their boss, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

To these aides, says Powell, “Disaster seemed a safer choice.” Powell cites historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s account of then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s selection as the “most logical candidate to speak the truth to his boss,” since he had told Schlesinger and economist John Kenneth Galbraith that he regarded “a military solution as impossible.” Notwithstanding his position, several months later, McNamara was still publicly urging a widening of the war.

Schlesinger then reported that advisers turned to Ambassador W. Averill Harriman to say and do what needed to be done. It was not to be. Alas, Mr. Schlesinger noted in his “Journals: 1952-2000” of his friend Harriman: “Everyone has his weaknesses, and Averill’s is the desire to be near power.”

Next, out of desperation and frustration, reality-based advisers who cared about the country and the president turned to Vice President and soon to be presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, whom Schlesinger reported offered only “unctuous smiles.” Humphrey’s trouble, as analyzed by Schlesinger, was “that he could not say something publicly without deeply believing it privately; and when as now, he had no choice in his public utterances, he whipped up a ‘fervency of private belief.'”

Schlesinger draws some historical lessons from this and other illustrative historical events. His conclusion is, …..”To be a White House Adviser is to occupy a peculiarly circumscribed world. You can be a confidant to the most powerful leader in the world, you can fetch his coffee or write brilliant briefs on nuclear disarmament, ride in limousines, share the corner office and chuckle over martinis with the wife of the French ambassador. Times have changed since Schlesinger wrote this — If you chuckle over martinis with the wife of the French Ambassador, you will probably read about it and then be summarily shown the door)! But the coin of your realm is your relationship to one man — Displease him and your wilderness beckons.”

Another historian, Richard Reeves, further reinforces this historical assessment when he concludes that “The rule of thumb is never tell the President what he doesn’t want to hear.” David Halberstam weighs in as well by illustration when he points out that there was one similarity between Mao Zedong and Douglas MacArthur: “Neither of their staffs ever told them a thing they didn’t want to hear.”

‘Comfortable with discord’

Nevertheless, our best presidents have broken this historical model, which gives this writer, to borrow from Barrack Obama’s phrase, “the audacity to hope” that the next president will do likewise.

Charles B. Strozier, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “Lincoln’s Quest for Union: A Psychological Portrait,” reports that Lincoln was “comfortable with the discord” among Cabinet and staff. Lincoln’s inner circle, he wrote, was “filled with contentious personalities, several of whom considered themselves superior to the President.”

Notwithstanding his selection and retention of these “strong personalities,” Strozier reports that “Lincoln absolutely had control of his cabinet, but not in a way that prevented him from hearing dissenting views.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and presidential scholar, cites yet another of our best presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointing out that although he “inspired intense loyalty,” he was psychologically secure and politically confident enough to invite prominent Republicans into his Cabinet as World War II loomed in 1941.

“Roosevelt was forgiving of disagreement,” says David M. Kennedy, a Stanford University historian. “But once a decision was made it was incumbent to shut up or get out.” In other words, Roosevelt admired and even enforced what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described as “The political art of holding your tongue while thinking your piece.”

John F. Kennedy encouraged and enforced this political art and skill most illustratively in the “Cuban Missile Crisis” when he listened to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom Schlesinger reports “barely blanched at the prospect of a nuclear war.” But Kennedy instead decided to negotiate and in doing so “step back from the breach.”

President Kennedy, wrote his friend John Kenneth Galbraith in Galbraith’s book, “Name Dropping,” made it very clear that “no one could fail his test of loyalty.” When Chester Bowles, an advisor, did so by speaking out about his opposition to the Bay of Pigs invasion after the fact, apparently mistaking President Kennedy’s willingness to listen for a willingness to have his policy questioned publicly after the fact, he found out that the penalty for failing the loyalty test was quick and direct.

President Kennedy crafted an “ingenious gallows.” Mr. Bowles was promoted to “non-employment in the White House – to no function and a general requirement of silence,” reports Galbraith. He characterizes Bowles as “the man, who almost certainly would have been the chief critic of the emerging Vietnam disaster, was safely contained.” But was that in the interest of the President or the country? As to the first part of the question – debatable. As to the second part, clearly not.

President Trump was very big on his advisers holding their tongues but uncomfortable at best with them even thinking their piece, let alone voicing it. Joe Biden repeatedly said, “we could do better.” Whether that turns out to be true will very much depend on who the “We” is.

— STEVEN I. PLATT

The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.