The Great James Rowe Memo

By James Fallows
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There is enough self-referential content to this post to justify the apposite Escher illustration. But not enough to keep me from doing it at all!

My friend Timothy Noah has an excellent item at TNR today, about the options ahead for Barack Obama. The self-referential part is that he is responding to my own cover story about Obama. The payoff is how far he advances the argument about Obama's political choices, past and future -- and extra insight he provides on an item I mentioned in my story, a fascinating memo written by James H. Rowe Jr.

You don't often see the phrase "a must-read 66-year old memo," but it applies in this case. As I said in my article, I learned about the memo from Samuel Popkin of UCSD, who discusses it in his forthcoming book The Candidate. Tim Noah has a link to the text of this long memorandum, from the Truman Library's site, and he explains both why Rowe deserves more attention in general and why his advice for a president confronting an opposition-held Congress is so surprisingly up-to-date. Rowe told Truman that the Republicans who had taken control of the Congress in 1946 would claim they wanted to cooperate with him. "The purpose of this memorandum is to examine whether such 'cooperation' is feasible." As Noah says about the resulting prescription:

It includes a list of Don'ts. Among these are "The creation of joint or bipartisan policy committees" (can you say "supercommittee"?) and "The increase in Congressional supervision of the President's managerial agencies, or the transfer of their functions to a Congressional agency" (translation: Don't even think about letting Congress get its mitts all over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

Rowe also included a handy list of presidents who had to contend with one or more houses of Congress in the hands of the opposite party. One thing I noticed almost immediately was that of the three presidents most often named as America's greatest (Washington, Lincoln, FDR), only one--Washington--ever had to deal with this problem, and I'm not sure he should even be included because, though he leaned Federalist, our first president never actually belonged to any political party.

Worth reading -- Noah's item, Rowe's memo, Popkin's book. And, what the hell, our current issue, which is full of interesting stuff.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/02/the-great-james-rowe-memo/253022/