AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump has surrounded himself with generals. General John Kelly is his new chief of staff. He also has generals in charge of the Defense Department and National Security. And another general has been nominated to run the Bureau of Prisons. The role of the military in policymaking has been hotly debated since the beginning of the republic. President Harry Truman effectively ended his political career after firing the hugely popular General Douglas MacArthur over his handling of the Korean War. Here's General MacArthur in his 1951 farewell speech to Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR: Efforts have been made to distort my position. It has been said in effect that I was a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth.
CHANG: So let's ask Cokie about the relationship between the military and the White House. Cokie Roberts regularly answers your questions about how Washington works. Hey, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. Good to be with you.
CHANG: Thanks for joining us. Well, our first question comes from Twitter from Kate Massey (ph). And it gets to the fundamental constitutional issue raised by having members of the military in high office. Now, we know that national security adviser General H.R. McMaster is still active duty. But Kate asks about the other generals in the cabinet. She asks, does this go against the intentions of the founding fathers who established a civilian executive branch and civilian oversight of the military?
ROBERTS: Well, it would if these people were still in the military. But they're all retired. And, in fact, a congressional waiver had to be passed for General Mattis to lead the Defense Department because he hadn't been retired long enough. But, you know, Ailsa, the most important grand painting in the Capitol Rotunda is not one of the battles that are depicted there (laughter) and certainly not the baptism of Pocahontas. But it's that of George Washington surrendering his military commission.
General Washington wanted to make it clear even before the Constitution was written that the new nation would be ruled by civilians chosen by the consent of the governed.
CHANG: Is the number of retired generals working in this current White House a historical high?
ROBERTS: No, there have been a lot of generals working in a lot of White Houses, including President Obama's, who had quite a few.
CHANG: All right, well, our next question gets us to a slightly more modern time. Let's take a listen.
MICHAEL HINKO: My name is Michael Hinko. And I live in Albuquerque, N.M. Are there parallels between the current White House military staffing and the staffing found in the Nixon White House prior to his resignation?
ROBERTS: Well, the closest parallel is John Kelly as chief of staff as Alexander Haig was chief of staff under Nixon at the end. But, you know, one fascinating thing that was really lost in the drama of Watergate is that Nixon learned toward the end of his first term that the Pentagon was spying on him.
His White House kept all of the policy decisions so closely held that the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt out of the loop. And they ordered a young Navy yeoman who took notes at White House meetings to give them the notes and to rifle through burn bags...
ROBERTS: ...Go through Kissinger and Haig's briefcases to bring them information. And when Nixon learned it, he confronted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Moore. But then he kept it quiet so he could exert even more control. He had something on them.
CHANG: Whatever happened to that young Navy man?
ROBERTS: He was fired.
CHANG: Of course. Now we have a question about the present and the future. It's from Twitter from Orion Archibald (ph). How has or how will a member of the military in the White House be instrumental in influencing the betterment of domestic affairs - for example, taxes or education?
ROBERTS: Well, it's always hard to gauge how much influence someone has in an administration. But we've certainly seen former members of the military have a broad range of influence. Think General Barry McCaffrey as drug czar, General Shinseki as head of the VA.
And of course we've had former military men as presidents over the centuries. One, General Eisenhower, used much of his time in the White House to rein in the military and left office saying, God help this nation when it has a president who doesn't know as much about the military as I do. A case in point, he refused to send American troops to Vietnam.
CHANG: All right, thank you so much, Cokie.
ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Ailsa.
CHANG: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by tweeting us with the hashtag #askCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.