A casually expressed suggestion for a two-century rollback in executive-legislative relations sheds a fascinating spotlight on the presidential candidacy of Sen. John Glenn.
In an appearance before the House Democratic Caucus on July 13 and later before the Democratic National Committee, Glenn tossed out the idea that if he were president he would like to set up a system of informal consultation with the lawmakers on the policies of his administration.
"I'd like to come into the well of the House," Glenn said, "and answer questions from the members. I'd like to sit down with them and say, 'Here's an idea we're considering. Let's kick it around.' I'd be willing to bring the members of my Cabinet with me to answer the questions that might be raised, and if they didn't have the answer, to say, 'We'll get back to you in a couple hours.'"
This notion of incorporating into the American system of government, with separate legislative and executive branches, elements of the British parliamentary system was not something that Glenn had discussed with his staff in preparation for these two major appearances, or even reduced to writing.
Glenn told me that it was just an idea--not a proposal or commitment. He said that on visits to London he had watched the prime minister and her Cabinet members dealing directly with other members of the House of Commons during question period. While it sometimes got a bit "raunchy," he remarked, it also had its value. "I'm looking for ways in which we can cooperate more and not be at loggerheads," he said. "I'm aware this might run on thin ice, but I'd hate to think the Constitution prohibits cooperation."
The impulse behind this suggestion reflects the qualities of unstudied simplicity, directness and sincerity that voters see in Glenn--a large part of the appeal that makes him so alluring a prospect to many victory-hungry Democrats.
But it also shows why some of his Senate colleagues describe Glenn as "a hero, but not a politician." Some who heard him in the House caucus found the notion as naive as the promises Jimmy Carter made during his campaign: to conduct Cabinet meetings in public or make the Justice Department independent of presidential control. These proposals were promptly forgotten when he became president.
What Glenn dealt with so casually is, in fact, one of the crucial questions of the American presidency.
George Washington once did what Glenn is suggesting. He went before the Senate, accompanied by his acting secretary of war, to seek the lawmakers' "advice and consent" to the instructions he proposed to give to a commission negotiating a peace treaty with the Creek Indians.
As described by James Thomas Flexner in his book, "George Washington and the New Nation," the scene quickly became a comic shambles. "The reading of the documents began; various members asked to hear others; there was the usual confusion of random discussion; and Washington finally agreed to postponing consideration of the first article. On to the second! A matter came up of crucial interest to Georgia, and a member from that state asked that it be postponed until Monday. . . . (Another member) moved that the papers brought by the President be submitted to a committee for study. Washington started up in what Maclay described as 'a violent fret.' He cried, 'This defeats every purpose of my coming here!'"
"On Monday," Flexner wrote, "Washington reappeared, well in control of himself. . . . Although in the end he achieved his purpose--only minor changes were made in the treaty instructions--Washington had to sit hour after hour, listening to an inconsequential and boring debate. As he finally departed from the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say he would 'be damned if he ever went there again.'"
No other president ever did. Washington's successors were scared off, not only by the demands on their time and patience but by their realization that such informal consultations might limit their authority -- particularly in conducting foreign policy. Yet Glenn said it is precisely "the need for a bipartisan foreign policy that doesn't flip-flop every administration" that got him thinking about sitting down with Congress for the kind of consultation from which Washington fled.
"I know our Constitution is confrontational," he said, "but I think we've gone to extremes the Founding Fathers didn't foresee. Can't we soften it a bit, rather than keep the hard edge?"
Is that the naive question of a man who does not really understand the presidency? Or the simple, direct expression of a man who can bring openness and trust to the White House?
We'll find out.