The Presidency: Then and Now. . – book review
Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
The Presidency: Then and Now. Edited by Phillip G. Henderson. Lanham, Maryland: rowman & littlefield publishers, Inc., 2000, 300 pages, $24.95 paper; $80.00 Cloth.
When a reviewer assess an edited work, it is almost mandatory for them to mention that the various contributions are uneven. In fact, such a comment is so obvious it is almost a waste of paper and ink. A work that is the product of multiple contributors is going to have contributions of varying quality. No, the ultimate test of an edited work is its importance on an overall basis. In the introduction, Phillip G. Henderson claims, “The Presidency: Then and Now is written with the intent of bridging the growing breach between history and political science by fostering a greater appreciation for the historical development of the American presidency from its inception at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to its contemporary complexion more than two centuries later.” Taken together, as a whole, Henderson and his band of contributors are quite successful in this endeavor. Collectively, these chapters show where significant shifts in Presidential conduct have taken place, sometimes with chief executives that might not seem all that important at first glance when compared to their predecessors and successors. The authors also show how some practices are radically different from those of the past, while other habits are about equal to those of yesterday.
The book starts and ends with chapters that focus on the two of the first men and two of the most recent ones to serve as chief executive, providing some nice symmetry. In a previously published article on presidential character, historian Forrest McDonald does a good job of presenting George Washington as a real human being. McDonald argues that Washington was conscious about the fates of previous republics and, as a result, determined to provide virtuous leadership. “The office of president of the United States could scarcely have been created had George Washing not been available to become its first occupant.” McDonald’s portrait of the man helps present Washington’s character as something real and genuine that played an important role in his success as well as that of the new form of government.
David N. Mayer examines Thomas Jefferson’s views on separation of powers and finds that he took the concept more seriously than almost any other man to occupy the White House. Jefferson thought the president was prevented from being a threat to the liberties of the people “by the chains of the Constitution.” As a result, even though Jefferson was politically stronger than presidents of the twentieth century — his party gained seats in Congress during the midterm elections — he had less power in legislative and policy matters than more recent occupants of the White House. Keith E. Whittington’s examination of Bill Clinton’s presidential rhetoric and Henderson’s look at the technocratic leadership of Clinton and Jimmy Carter close out the book. Whittington argues that Clinton has brought what has been called the rhetorical presidency to fruition.
Starting with the first Roosevelt, presidents have tried to use their public talks to rally public opinion to their side and overwhelm the opposition. Such an approach belittles and undermines deliberation between the executive and legislative branches. The net result is political coercion rather than persuasion. Henderson’s study looks at the efforts of Carter and Clinton to master the technical details of the various issues which came across their desks. The idea that both men had was that an understanding of the minutia would bring about a positive outcome. As Henderson notes, while this approach “may hold true for high school debate teams, it does not ring true for American presidents.” The tendency to focus on minor details resulted in an inability to set priorities and attempts to remove politics from the policy process in both administrations. There was a reason neither man is known for their vision or strategy. The eight chapters that fall in between show the changes and continuities in American socie ty and U.S. politics over the last two hundred years with examinations of several different factors. Shirley Anne Warshaw examines the role of the cabinet in presidential administrations. She shows that while merit has always been a consistent criteria in selection of its members, many other factors have influenced the process. The role of the cabinet in policy formulation has changed over time and is due more to the personal leadership styles of individual presidents than changing cultural values. Graham G. Dodds and Mark J. Rozell in their chapter on the press show that practices considered fairly recent developments such as a tendency to focus on scandal over policy matters, the questioning of motives, and attacks on character is nothing new. Anyone interested in studying the presidency and the media or planning to become a participant in this endeavor should read this essay.
One area in which practices have changed dramatically is speechmaking. According to Stephen J. McKenna, presidents in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made fewer public remarks than those of the twentieth. When they did take to giving an address, they often employed the use of historical narrative to explain their way of thinking. When Theodore Roosevelt made popular leadership a major component of presidential power, the emphasis on narrative ended. McKenna is on solid ground when argues that this lack of narrative in public speech makes the past more distant What he does not note is that history no longer serves the same social function. As the nation has aged, the elements that bind society together have multiplied and grown strong. The nation has less need of history to act as a sociological glue. Richard J. Ellis and Mark Derrick show that another way in which rhetoric has changed is its role in presidential campaigns. In previous centuries, the expectation was that a candidate would stand for off ice rather than run for it. This attitude began to change in the 1 840s. The people wanted to hear where candidates stood on the issues directly from the man himself. While the public might be willing to tolerate electioneering from a candidate, the incumbent was a different matter. What might be an acceptable from lessor mortals, would have been unseemly if it had come from the chief executive. It was only with the elections of 1928, 1932, and 1936 that the public came to expect and get active campaigning from the incumbent.
Mark J. Rozell examines executive privilege. Even though the concept is closely associated with efforts of Richard Nixon and Clinton to block investigations into their misdeeds, Rozell provides a useful reminder that the concept is valid. “Executive privilege — then and now — is a legitimate presidential power, but one that is limited and subject, like other presidential powers.” Joseph R. Avella examines war powers in his chapter. He notes that war is a state of affairs that Congress gets to declare, but that the framers recognized that force might need to be used in situations short of this legal condition. In those cases, Avella argues that it should be up to the chief executive to decide these cases. Congress can always refuse funds if it disagrees. Gary L. Gregg’s study of American attitudes towards executive power suggests that Avella’s reading of the war making powers is one the founders did not intend. Gregg argues that the American people have bad a love-hate relationship towards the extremes of pr esidential authority. An understanding of this attitude, Gregg argues, shows the “fundamental limits and possibilities of our political institutions.” Raymond Tatalovich, Travis Cook, and Scott Yenor in a study of conservative scholarship on the presidency show that many writers who faulted the Democrats for concentrating power in the executive branch changed their views when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House.
In the introduction, Henderson states that the book is intended for a student audience. Indeed, this book can be profitably used in the classroom for courses studying the presidency and the workings of the U.S. government. Most of the authors are political scientists and have written their accounts using primarily secondary sources that historians would consider inadequate. These contributors, however, have done a wonderful job of doing the work of historians in evaluating long term developments and the importance of recent events. Even those who have written on the chief executive can learn something from reading this work. The reviewer certainly did.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group