The 20th century growth of Presidential Power- the “Imperial Presidency” and “Executive Privilege”

Let us explore the expansion of presidential power in the 20th century. Or, perhaps more accurately, let us explore the claims of several 20th century presidents that their power was actually far broader than what had been previously understood.

How did the Vietnam War– especially the quest of LBJ to have the ability to prosecute the war freely as commander in chief– affect the balance of power in regard to the executive branch? How does this fit into historical patterns?

In 1973, in the midst of the unfolding of the Watergate scandal–historian Arthur Schlessinger published a book entitled The Imperial Presidency. Here is a review of that book by another famous American historical writer– Garry Wills– in the New York Times Book Review:

By the time that Nixon became president, this aggregation of presidential power had become noticeable. Besides his beliefs about wartime powers for the president, Nixon, as you know, was also involved in the Watergate scandal. What were Nixon’s beliefs about a president’s power? Go to this website: and use the hyperlinks at the top of the page to skip to part IV, which explains the basics of Nixon’s beliefs. (Of course, you can use the entire webpage for review for your tests as well– it’s very well done.)

After Nixon’s resignation, he agreed to a series of interviews in 1977 with David Frost (this story was told in the movie Frost/Nixon). Frost asked Nixon if there were ANY limits on presidential power? Nixon gave a fascinating response, which you need to read about here:

It is important that you understand these concepts for our later discussion of the Watergate scandal, especially the doctrine of “executive privilege.” In the Watergate scandal, Nixon made the claim that he did not have to turn over the tapes of Oval Office conversations due to this presidential prerogative.

So what were Nixon’s claims regarding executive privilege?

What did the Supreme Court decide?

We live in a post-9/11 world, and our post- 9/11 presidents– both George W. Bush and Barack Obama– have made claims that presidential powers are broader than most people realize. In the wake of 9/11, the executive branch — president and vice president– has claimed an expansion of power to act, and part of the argument is built on war powers–especially under the promotion of Dick Cheney, who began his Washington career as an aide in… the Nixon White House! Here is a timeline of the influence of persons like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the Watergate scandal– and beyond:

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