When Leaders Don’t Lead, We Are All in for Trouble

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<i> Milton Viorst is a Washington writer specializing in foreign affairs. His latest book, "Sands of Sorrow: Israel's Journey From Independence," will be published next month by Harper & Row. </i>

Article II of the Constitution requires the President to “take Care that the Laws be safely executed.”

In as devastating an indictment of an Administration as an official, nonpartisan American body has ever produced, the Tower Commission has said that President Reagan failed in the most fundamental responsibility of his office: He did not “take Care.”

The domain of this failure was not education or the budget, or some domestic policy in which the President professes no great interest. It was in the area of national security--the issue that elected him to office, the area in which he has repeatedly assured us that we now “stand tall.”


Focusing on the National Security Council, the Tower Commission attributes the Administration’s dilemma to the President’s “personal management style.” In plainer words, it might have charged him with inattention to his duties, intellectual slovenliness, being in over his head in the presidency. None of his acts, the report assures us, constitute an impeachable offense. Its conclusion is that Reagan’s crime was to allow the men around him to substitute off-the-cuff improvisation for orderly process.

Though it is harshest on the President, the report spreads the blame for the Iran arms scandal widely. The President’s nonchalant “management style” was known to those responsible for helping him to establish and execute security policy. They were, the commission said, delinquent in saving him from himself and saving the nation from his shortcomings.

Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, the report says, “asserted personal control over the White House staff and sought to extend this control to the national-security adviser . . . . He, as much as anyone, should have insisted that an orderly process be observed.”

Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who have statutory obligations along with the duties of personal loyalty, “distanced themselves from the march of events . . . . They protected the record as to their own positions on this issue (arms sales to Iran). They were not energetic in attempting to protect the President.”

CIA Director William J. Casey’s acquiescence in the autonomy of the NSC’s Lt. Col. Oliver L. North “increased the risk to the President if the (arms) initiative became public or the operation failed. There is no evidence that Casey explained this risk to the President . . . or made clear that the CIA was not running the operation.”

Though the report places direct blame for the fiasco on former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Col. North, it condemns the silence of others, including Vice President George Bush, a statutory member of the NSC.


“It does not appear,” the report says, “that any of the NSC principals called for more frequent consideration of the Iran initiative . . . . The intelligence questions do not appear to have been raised, and legal considerations, while raised, were not pressed . . . . No one called for a thorough re-examination once the initiative did not meet expectations or the manner of execution changed. While one or another of the NSC principals suspected that something was amiss, none vigorously pursued the issue.”

As Chairman John Tower said Thursday, the commission, in the course of its inquiry, found no heroes in the Administration.

How can we explain the disservice to Ronald Reagan, even the abandonment of him, by all those who for so long professed to love and admire him?

The commission provides some clues: “The NSC system will not work unless the President makes it work . . . . With such a complex, high-risk operation, and so much at stake, the President should have ensured that the NSC system did not fail him . . . . At no time did he insist upon accountability and performance review . . . . It is the President who must take responsibility for the NSC system and deal with the consequences . . . . By his actions, by his leadership, the President determines the quality of its performance.”

Reagan’s “management style” was once known for eliciting the best from subordinates. But without showing “leadership,” by failing to “take Care” to execute the law, he can hardly have expected to evoke much loyalty from those around him. Shocking as it seems, in declining to take seriously his constitutional responsibilities he seemed to send a signal to those around him that they need not be serious, either.

Now in his seventh year in office, the President appears to have neither the capacity nor the will to repair the damage that his negligence has done. The Tower Commission, without quite saying so, leaves a clear implication that, whatever his earlier virtues, he is no longer equal, morally and perhaps physically, to the high demands of the presidency. There is little that is encouraging in the Tower report. It seems to say that we Americans are in for difficult times.