The American Presidency

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Overview

The most up-to-date, incisive, and accessible reference on the American presidency, with essays by the nation's leading historians.

An indispensable resource for the curious reader and the serious historian alike, The American Presidency showcases some of the most provocative interpretive history being written today. This rich narrative history sheds light on the hubris, struggles, and brilliance of our nation's leaders.
Coupling vivid writing with unparalleled scholarship, these insightful essays from well-known historians cover every presidency from the first through the forty-third.

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Editorial Reviews

KLIATT
Through a series of essays, historians from around the US present an overview of the American presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. The editors state in the introduction that the essays are not a collection of presidential biographies but rather the focus is on how the presidents "perceived and used the office and how the office has changed as a result." As a reference source, the essays provide a panoramic view of American political history from the beginnings of the US Constitution with its brief description of the duties of the executive branch to the present day's growth and development of power as well as constraints and layers of federal bureaucracy. The changing and expanding economic, social, and political culture of the US over the years also has affected the ability of those who have held the office. These aspects play an important role in the development of each essay as the 43 presidents have dealt with the myriad of forces that impinge on the presidential office. The essays are fascinating reading, providing an appreciation of the trials and triumphs of executives, popular and unpopular, noted or obscure, as well as icons who lived in the White House. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Houghton Mifflin, 572p. illus. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Mary T. Gerrity
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618382736
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/21/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 786,439
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Brinkley has been a professor of American history at Columbia University since 1991. During the past academic year, he has held the position of Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. He is the author of, among other books, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and The Great Depression, which won the American Book Award for history. Brinkley currently resides in New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Article II of the United States Constitution provides a spare, even skeletal description of the role of the president of the United States. The president, it says, will be vested with “executive power,” will be commander in chief of the nation’s military forces, and will have the power to make treaties and appoint judges and executive officers with the advice and consent of the Senate. “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union” and recommend measures for the legislature’s consideration. The president will receive ambassadors and will “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Otherwise, the Framers had almost nothing to say about what the president would do or what kind of person the president would be.
Through most of American history, however, the presidency has been much more than a simple instrument of executive power. Presidents, far from merely executing laws conceived and passed by others, have been the source of some of the most important shifts in the nation’s public policy and political ideology. They have played not only political, but social and cultural roles in American life. They have experienced tremendous variations in their power and prestige. The presidency has hidden its occupants behind a vast screen of delegated powers and deliberate image-making. And the office has been critically shaped not just by individuals but by powerful social, economic, and cultural forces over which leaders have little or no control. Characterizing the American presidency—the task that this book has set for itself—is, as a result, very challenging.
We start by distinguishing the presidency from the presidents, the office from those who held it. This book is not, then, a collection of presidential biographies, although it provides much biographical information about each of the forty-two men who have served as president. Rather, its focus is how these individuals have perceived and used the office, and how the office has changed as a result.
Since George Washington’s Inauguration in 1789, there have been periods of greater and lesser change, of turbulence and calm, of advance and retreat in the American presidency. Across these many years, however, four broad themes stand out: the symbolic importance of the presidency, which transcends its formal constitutional powers; the wide swings in its fortunes; the influence wielded not only by the president but also by his advisers; and the role of contingency and context in shaping the office and particular presidencies.

Among the salient characteristics of the American presidency is that it has usually played a role in American life that extends well beyond the formal responsibilities of the office. Almost all presidents—whatever they have or have not achieved—have occupied positions of enormous symbolic and cultural importance in American life. They have become the secular icons of the republic—emblems of nationhood and embodiments of the values that Americans have claimed to cherish.
Exaggerated images of the virtues (and occasionally the sins) of American presidents have helped shape the nation’s picture of itself. Stories of presidential childhoods and youths have become staples of popular culture and instructional literature. Parson Weems’s early-nineteenth- century life of Washington, with its invented stories of chopping down a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the river, contributed greatly to the early self- image of the American nation. The popular Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt influenced generations of young Americans and helped form twentieth- century images of the presidency and of the nature of leadership.
Just as Americans have often exaggerated the virtues of their presidents, so they have often exaggerated their flaws. Charges of presidential misconduct and moral turpitude have repeatedly mesmerized the nation for two centuries. The scandals that plagued Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, Richard M. Nixon, and Bill Clinton have molded both scholarly and popular views of those presidencies. But these most famously bedeviled presidencies are hardly alone. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most revered of all Americans, was savagely attacked in his lifetime as a revolutionary, a tyrant, and a miscegenist. John Adams and John Quincy Adams, pillars of personal rectitude, were harried throughout their presidencies by accusations of corruption, fraud, and abuses of power. Rutherford B. Hayes, a paragon of propriety (and sobriety), was known during his unhappy administration as “His Fraudulency” for having allegedly stolen the 1876 election from Samuel Tilden. Harry Truman, a folk hero today for what Americans likke to remember as his plain-speaking honesty, was buffeted for years by charges of “cronyism” and “corruption”—for creating what Richaaaaard Nixon and many others in 1952 liked to call the “mess in Washington.” Almost everything a president does, in the end, seems to much of the nation to be larger than life, even that least dignified of political activities: running for office. During the first century of the American republic, most Americans considered the presidency so august a position that candidates for the office were expected not only to refrain from campaigning, but to display no desire at all for the office. In reality, of course, most of those seeking the presidency did a great deal to advance their own candidacies. In public, however, they accepted their nominations and, if successful, their elections as if they were gifts from the people. In the twentieth century, campaigning for president became almost a full-time job, both before and after election, and no one could hope to be elected in our time by pretending to have no interest in the White House. But the perpetual campaigning has given the presidency a different kind of symbolic importance; for presidents, and presidential candidates, are now ubiquitous figures in our media culture, their presumed personalities and their projected, carefully crafted images a focus of almost obsessive attention and fascination.
The gap between the image and reality of the president and his office has been enormous at some moments, relatively narrow at others, but always there. The reality of George Washington’s life was for many years almost completely replaced by the hagiographic myths created by Weems. Abraham Lincoln, widely and justly regarded as America’s greatest president, became soon after his death a kind of national saint, his actual character as an intensely and brilliantly political man obscured behind generations of paeans to his humility and strength—by his law partner William Herndon, by his White House aides John G. Nicolay and John Hay (whose account occupied ten volumes), by the poet Carl Sandburg (who limited his to three). Franklin Roosevelt, a wily figure whose evasiveness and inconsistency infuriated even his closest allies, became and for generations remained “Our Friend,” the heroic battler against depression and tyranny. But even less exalted figures have inspired their myths—the aristocratic William Henry Harrison portrayed as the simple product of a log cabin who liked hard cider from a jug; the gruff, stubborn, and ultimately rather ineffectual Ulysses S. Grant considered, for a time, a great and noble conciliator; the cool, detached, intensely pragmatic John Kennedy, who became a symbol of passionate idealism and commitment.

Another distinctive characteristic of the American presidency is the tremendous variation in the fortunes of the office. At times it has been a position of great power and enormous prestige—an almost majestic office whose occupant dominated and helped shape the public life of the age. At other times it has been weak and relatively ineffectual. The number of issues with which presidents must deal has, of course, continuously expanded as the nation has grown larger, wealthier, more powerful, and more interconnected with other nations and international institutions. But the ability of presidents to deal effectively with those issues has ebbed and flowed. In the early years of the republic, presidents had great influence over the behavior of the relatively small federal government and were usually able to win support for their goals from Congress. The three presidents who served during the turbulent 1850s found themselves—because of their own limitations and the character of their time—almost powerless in the face of an increasingly assertive and fractious Congress. Lincoln seized wartime authority that gave him unprecedented, many believed almost dictatorial, power. Only a few years later, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant found themselves almost entirely subordinated to the will of Congress—a situation that continued through most of the rest of the nineteenth century.
The twentieth century witnessed a dramatic expansion of the presidency’s importance and power, and also a significant growth in the constraints facing individual presidents. In their relations with Congress, twentieth-century presidents—like their nineteenth-century counterparts—included men who have been both commanding and disastrously weak. Social crises strengthened some presidents and weakened or destroyed others. War and cold war exalted some presidents and brought others to ruin. Some modern presidents—Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon—experienced moments of towering achievement, only to suffer painful defeats and humiliations soon after. Others, most notably Harry Truman, rose from what seemed the ruins of their presidencies to political success and historical regard. A few, like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, enjoyed cordial relations with the growing press corps in Washington, but most of their fellow presidents found those relations contentious and difficult to manage.
The president, the political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote exuberantly in 1956, is “a kind of magnificent lion, who can roam freely and do great deeds so long as he does not try to break loose from his broad reservation. . . . There is virtually no limit to what the president can do if he does it for democratic ends and through democratic means.” Rossiter’s view fit comfortably into the exalted image of the presidency at the height of the cold war. But a generation later, in 1980, Godfrey Hodgson, an astute British observer of American life, offered a starkly different evaluation in a book whose subtitle, The False Promise of the American Presidency, summarized the prevailing assumptions of his time. “Never has one office had so much power as the president of the United States possesses,” he wrote. “Never has so powerful a leader been so impotent to do what he wants to do, what he is pledged to do, what he is expected to do, and what he knows he must do.” And yet, a year after Hodgson wrote, Ronald Reagan entered the White House, reasserted the centrality and authority of the office, and changed the image of the presidency once again.

It is not just the gap between image and reality that makes American presidents elusive and intriguing figures. It is also the problem that both contemporaries and historians experience in trying to separate the president as a person from the things done in his name. Even in the nineteenth century, when presidents worked with tiny staffs, wrote their own speeches, and lived relatively openly, the president was never wholly master of his own fate. His cabinet, his party, the party’s newspapers, and many others acted at times under the authority of the presidency and created a haze over the president’s own intentions and motives. Historians have often struggled to separate George Washington’s own actions, desires, and achievements from those of his powerful ally Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson’s towering image, during his lifetime and since, is the product not only of his own imposing personality but of the actions of such powerful associates as John Eaton, Roger Taney, Amos Kendall, and Martin Van Buren.
In the twentieth century, the president came to be served by a vast and sprawling staff, presided over an even vaster and more sprawling bureaucracy, and became subject to increasingly sophisticated methods for shaping his image. And the biographers of modern presidents often find it difficult to chronicle a subject’s life in the White House because the man himself seems often to disappear into the sheer enormity of his office. Changes in the once simple process of housing a president’s papers is one indication of how the office has grown. The papers of every president until Herbert Hoover are housed in relatively confined spaces in the Library of Congress. The papers of every president beginning with Hoover are housed in large presidential libraries, which are not just testimonies to the eagerness of presidents to memorialize themselves, but also to the enormity of the records of modern administrations. The paper trail of modern presidents is not a result of presidents themselves writing more; in fact, most of them probably write less than their nineteenth- century predecessors did. It is a result of the steady increases in presidential staffs and the dispersion of presidential power into many corners of government.
How can we separate those parts of the New Deal or wartime leadership for which Franklin Roosevelt is himself responsible from those that are the work of the large assemblage of talented, energetic, and ambitious men and women who acted in his name? Did John Foster Dulles shape the foreign policy of the Eisenhower years, as many people believed in the 1950s, or was Eisenhower himself at the center of the process, as some historians have argued since? Was Ronald Reagan the bold and decisive leader his admirers describe, or the passive, uninformed, detached president that his critics—and some of his closest associates—have portrayed? There are no simple answers to any of these questions because the modern presidency is the creation of a single man and of many people whose actions the president may never see.

Assessing the presidency is, finally, complicated by the difficulty of evaluating the importance of political leadership in relation to other forces in shaping historical events. This is a long-standing subject of debate among historians and other scholars, but it is also a concrete historical problem. Most historians would agree that events are seldom inevitable, that the specific actions of individuals can affect, sometimes even fundamentally shape, the course of history. But most historians today would also agree that the decisions of individual leaders are not the only, and often far from the most important, factors in explaining the past. Sometimes tiny contingencies exert enormous effects, as did the butterfly ballots and hanging chads in the 2000 election. But time and again, large social, economic, cultural, and demographic changes limit the options and overwhelm the assumptions of leaders. American presidents are not only figures of power, therefore, but also products—sometimes as beneficiaries, sometimes as victims—of the character of their times, as they themselves have often noted. “If during the lifetime of a generation,” Theodore Roosevelt once observed ruefully, “no crisis occurs sufficient to call out in marked manner the energies of the strongest leader, then of course the world does not and cannot know of the existence of such a leader; and in consequence there are long periods in the history of every nation during which no man appears who leaves an indelible mark in history. . . . If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not the great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.” Might we remember the talented and intelligent James Garfield as among our greatest presidents if he, rather than Lincoln, had presided over the Civil War? Would Franklin Roosevelt be the enormous historical figure he has become if he had not had a depression and a war to fight? Would Richard Nixon have fallen so ignominiously if he had not been president during a time of great turbulence and social division, a time he described in his memoirs, self-servingly and extravagantly but not entirely falsely, as a “season of mindless terror,” an “epidemic of unprecedented domestic terrorism” driven by “highly organized and highly skilled revolutionaries dedicated to the violent destruction of our democratic system”? Would Ronald Reagan have enjoyed such extraordinary political success if he had not entered office on the heels of an era of intense economic anxiety and international humiliation? Would George W. Bush have become a towering international leader, at least for a while, without the events of September 11, 2001? Understanding the presidency requires, of course, taking seriously the role that individuals play in history, and there are many occasions in which one could imagine a very different history if a different leader had been in place. At the same time, however, the fates of the various presidencies are inexplicable without attention to the character of their times.

The essays collected in this book, the work of a distinguished group of scholars, present concise and thorough accounts of the important events of each of the forty-three presidencies. But they also attempt to do more than that. They are deliberately and frankly interpretive, offering assessments of individual men and of both great and small events. They are also, in varying degrees, contextual, situating presidents in their time and suggesting how the character of American society and culture shaped the character of presidential performance. Each of the scholars contributing to this volume has had to contend with a large, at times overwhelmingly vast, literature on almost every American president. But we believe that these essays have something fresh and new to say about all of them and about that most awesome and frustrating of offices: the presidency of the United States.
THE EDITORS

Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Contents Contributors vii Introduction ix George Washington 1 John Adams 20 Thomas Jefferson 33 James Madison 48 James Monroe 59 John Quincy Adams 73 Andrew Jackson 82 Martin Van Buren 103 William Henry Harrison 115 John Tyler 121 James K. Polk 129 Zachary Taylor 139 Millard Fillmore 145 Franklin Pierce 152 James Buchanan 163 Abraham Lincoln 173 Andrew Johnson 189 Ulysses S. Grant 200 Rutherford B. Hayes 215 James A. Garfield 224 Chester Arthur 233 Grover Cleveland 240 Benjamin Harrison 250 William McKinley 257 Theodore Roosevelt 268 William Howard Taft 285 Woodrow Wilson 297 Warren G. Harding 314 Calvin Coolidge 323 Herbert Hoover 332 Franklin D. Roosevelt 344 Harry S. Truman 365 Dwight D. Eisenhower 381 John F. Kennedy 397 Lyndon B. Johnson 409 Richard Nixon 425 Gerald Ford 443 Jimmy Carter 455 Ronald Reagan 467 George H. W. Bush 487 Bill Clinton 499 George W. Bush 530 Acknowledgments 545 For Further Reading 547 Illustration Credits 554 Index 555

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First Chapter

Introduction

Article II of the United States Constitution provides a spare, even skeletal
description of the role of the president of the United States. The president, it
says, will be vested with 'executive power,' will be commander in chief of the
nation's military forces, and will have the power to make treaties and appoint
judges and executive officers with the advice and consent of the Senate. 'He
shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the
Union' and recommend measures for the legislature's consideration. The
president will receive ambassadors and will 'take care that the Laws be
faithfully executed.' Otherwise, the Framers had almost nothing to say about
what the president would do or what kind of person the president would be.
Through most of American history, however, the presidency has
been much more than a simple instrument of executive power. Presidents, far
from merely executing laws conceived and passed by others, have been the
source of some of the most important shifts in the nation's public policy and
political ideology. They have played not only political, but social and cultural
roles in American life. They have experienced tremendous variations in their
power and prestige. The presidency has hidden its occupants behind a vast
screen of delegated powers and deliberate image-making. And the office has
been critically shaped not just by individuals but by powerful social,
economic, and cultural forces over which leaders have little or no control.
Characterizing the American presidency—the task that this book has set for
itself—is, asa result, very challenging.
We start by distinguishing the presidency from the presidents, the
office from those who held it. This book is not, then, a collection of
presidential biographies, although it provides much biographical information
about each of the forty-two men who have served as president. Rather, its
focus is how these individuals have perceived and used the office, and how
the office has changed as a result.
Since George Washington's Inauguration in 1789, there have been
periods of greater and lesser change, of turbulence and calm, of advance and
retreat in the American presidency. Across these many years, however, four
broad themes stand out: the symbolic importance of the presidency, which
transcends its formal constitutional powers; the wide swings in its fortunes;
the influence wielded not only by the president but also by his advisers; and
the role of contingency and context in shaping the office and particular
presidencies.

Among the salient characteristics of the American presidency is that it has
usually played a role in American life that extends well beyond the formal
responsibilities of the office. Almost all presidents—whatever they have or
have not achieved—have occupied positions of enormous symbolic and
cultural importance in American life. They have become the secular icons of
the republic—emblems of nationhood and embodiments of the values that
Americans have claimed to cherish.
Exaggerated images of the virtues (and occasionally the sins) of
American presidents have helped shape the nation's picture of itself. Stories
of presidential childhoods and youths have become staples of popular culture
and instructional literature. Parson Weems's early-nineteenth- century life of
Washington, with its invented stories of chopping down a cherry tree and
throwing a silver dollar across the river, contributed greatly to the early self-
image of the American nation. The popular Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt
influenced generations of young Americans and helped form twentieth-
century images of the presidency and of the nature of leadership.
Just as Americans have often exaggerated the virtues of their
presidents, so they have often exaggerated their flaws. Charges of
presidential misconduct and moral turpitude have repeatedly mesmerized the
nation for two centuries. The scandals that plagued Ulysses S. Grant,
Warren G. Harding, Richard M. Nixon, and Bill Clinton have molded both
scholarly and popular views of those presidencies. But these most famously
bedeviled presidencies are hardly alone. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most
revered of all Americans, was savagely attacked in his lifetime as a
revolutionary, a tyrant, and a miscegenist. John Adams and John Quincy
Adams, pillars of personal rectitude, were harried throughout their
presidencies by accusations of corruption, fraud, and abuses of power.
Rutherford B. Hayes, a paragon of propriety (and sobriety), was known during
his unhappy administration as 'His Fraudulency' for having allegedly stolen
the 1876 election from Samuel Tilden. Harry Truman, a folk hero today for
what Americans like to remember as his plain-speaking honesty, was
buffeted for years by charges of 'cronyism' and 'corruption' —for creating
what Richard Nixon and many others in 1952 liked to call the 'mess in
Washington.'
Almost everything a president does, in the end, seems to much of
the nation to be larger than life, even that least dignified of political activities:
running for office. During the first century of the American republic, most
Americans considered the presidency so august a position that candidates
for the office were expected not only to refrain from campaigning, but to
display no desire at all for the office. In reality, of course, most of those
seeking the presidency did a great deal to advance their own candidacies. In
public, however, they accepted their nominations and, if successful, their
elections as if they were gifts from the people. In the twentieth century,
campaigning for president became almost a full-time job, both before and
after election, and no one could hope to be elected in our time by pretending
to have no interest in the White House. But the perpetual campaigning has
given the presidency a different kind of symbolic importance; for presidents,
and presidential candidates, are now ubiquitous figures in our media culture,
their presumed personalities and their projected, carefully crafted images a
focus of almost obsessive attention and fascination.
The gap between the image and reality of the president and his
office has been enormous at some moments, relatively narrow at others, but
always there. The reality of George Washington's life was for many years
almost completely replaced by the hagiographic myths created by Weems.
Abraham Lincoln, widely and justly regarded as America's greatest
presiden became soon after his death a kind of national saint, his actual
character as an intensely and brilliantly political man obscured behind
generations of paeans to his humility and strength—by his law partner
William Herndon, by his White House aides John G. Nicolay and John Hay
(whose account occupied ten volumes), by the poet Carl Sandburg (who
limited his to three). Franklin Roosevelt, a wily figure whose evasiveness and
inconsistency infuriated even his closest allies, became and for generations
remained 'Our Friend,' the heroic battler against depression and tyranny. But
even less exalted figures have inspired their myths—the aristocratic William
Henry Harrison portrayed as the simple product of a log cabin who liked hard
cider from a jug; the gruff, stubborn, and ultimately rather ineffectual Ulysses
S. Grant considered, for a time, a great and noble conciliator; the cool,
detached, intensely pragmatic John Kennedy, who became a symbol of
passionate idealism and commitment.

Another distinctive characteristic of the American presidency is the
tremendous variation in the fortunes of the office. At times it has been a
position of great power and enormous prestige—an almost majestic office
whose occupant dominated and helped shape the public life of the age. At
other times it has been weak and relatively ineffectual. The number of issues
with which presidents must deal has, of course, continuously expanded as
the nation has grown larger, wealthier, more powerful, and more
interconnected with other nations and international institutions. But the ability
of presidents to deal effectively with those issues has ebbed and flowed. In
the early years of the republic, presidents had great influence over the
behavior of the relatively small federal government and were usually able to
win support for their goals from Congress. The three presidents who served
during the turbulent 1850s found themselves—because of their own
limitations and the character of their time—almost powerless in the face of an
increasingly assertive and fractious Congress. Lincoln seized wartime
authority that gave him unprecedented, many believed almost dictatorial,
power. Only a few years later, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant found
themselves almost entirely subordinated to the will of Congress—a situation
that continued through most of the rest of the nineteenth century.
The twentieth century witnessed a dramatic expansion of the
presidency's importance and power, and also a significant growth in the
constraints facing individual presidents. In their relations with Congress,
twentieth-century presidents—like their nineteenth-century counterparts —
included men who have been both commanding and disastrously weak.
Social crises strengthened some presidents and weakened or destroyed
others. War and cold war exalted some presidents and brought others to
ruin. Some modern presidents—Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard
Nixon—experienced moments of towering achievement, only to suffer painful
defeats and humiliations soon after. Others, most notably Harry Truman, rose
from what seemed the ruins of their presidencies to political success and
historical regard. A few, like Franklin Rooseve John F. Kennedy,
enjoyed cordial relations with the growing press corps in Washington, but
most of their fellow presidents found those relations contentious and difficult
to manage.
The president, the political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote
exuberantly in 1956, is 'a kind of magnificent lion, who can roam freely and
do great deeds so long as he does not try to break loose from his broad
reservation. . . . There is virtually no limit to what the president can do if he
does it for democratic ends and through democratic means.' Rossiter's view
fit comfortably into the exalted image of the presidency at the height of the
cold war. But a generation later, in 1980, Godfrey Hodgson, an astute British
observer of American life, offered a starkly different evaluation in a book
whose subtitle, The False Promise of the American Presidency, summarized
the prevailing assumptions of his time. 'Never has one office had so much
power as the president of the United States possesses,' he wrote. 'Never
has so powerful a leader been so impotent to do what he wants to do, what
he is pledged to do, what he is expected to do, and what he knows he must
do.' And yet, a year after Hodgson wrote, Ronald Reagan entered the White
House, reasserted the centrality and authority of the office, and changed the
image of the presidency once again.

It is not just the gap between image and reality that makes American
presidents elusive and intriguing figures. It is also the problem that both
contemporaries and historians experience in trying to separate the president
as a person from the things done in his name. Even in the nineteenth
century, when presidents worked with tiny staffs, wrote their own speeches,
and lived relatively openly, the president was never wholly master of his own
fate. His cabinet, his party, the party's newspapers, and many others acted
at times under the authority of the presidency and created a haze over the
president's own intentions and motives. Historians have often struggled to
separate George Washington's own actions, desires, and achievements from
those of his powerful ally Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson's towering
image, during his lifetime and since, is the product not only of his own
imposing personality but of the actions of such powerful associates as John
Eaton, Roger Taney, Amos Kendall, and Martin Van Buren.
In the twentieth century, the president came to be served by a
vast and sprawling staff, presided over an even vaster and more sprawling
bureaucracy, and became subject to increasingly sophisticated methods for
shaping his image. And the biographers of modern presidents often find it
difficult to chronicle a subject's life in the White House because the man
himself seems often to disappear into the sheer enormity of his office.
Changes in the once simple process of housing a president's papers is one
indication of how the office has grown. The papers of every president until
Herbert Hoover are housed in relatively confined spaces in the Library of
Congress. The papers of every president beginning with Hoover are housed in
large presidential libraries, which are not just testimonies to the eagerness of
presidents to memorialize themselves, but also to the enormity of the records
of modern administrations. The paper trail of modern presidents is not a
result of presidents themselves writing more; in fact, most of them probably
write less than their nineteenth- century predecessors did. It is a result of the
steady increases in presidential staffs and the dispersion of presidential
power into many corners of government.
How can we separate those parts of the New Deal or wartime
leadership for which Franklin Roosevelt is himself responsible from those that
are the work of the large assemblage of talented, energetic, and ambitious
men and women who acted in his name? Did John Foster Dulles shape the
foreign policy of the Eisenhower years, as many people believed in the
1950s, or was Eisenhower himself at the center of the process, as some
historians have argued since? Was Ronald Reagan the bold and decisive
leader his admirers describe, or the passive, uninformed, detached president
that his critics—and some of his closest associates —have portrayed? There
are no simple answers to any of these questions because the modern
presidency is the creation of a single man and of many people whose actions
the president may never see.

Assessing the presidency is, finally, complicated by the difficulty of
evaluating the importance of political leadership in relation to other forces in
shaping historical events. This is a long-standing subject of debate among
historians and other scholars, but it is also a concrete historical problem.
Most historians would agree that events are seldom inevitable, that the
specific actions of individuals can affect, sometimes even fundamentally
shape, the course of history. But most historians today would also agree that
the decisions of individual leaders are not the only, and often far from the
most important, factors in explaining the past. Sometimes tiny contingencies
exert enormous effects, as did the butterfly ballots and hanging chads in the
2000 election. But time and again, large social, economic, cultural, and
demographic changes limit the options and overwhelm the assumptions of
leaders. American presidents are not only figures of power, therefore, but
also products—sometimes as beneficiaries, sometimes as victims—of the
character of their times, as they themselves have often noted. 'If during the
lifetime of a generation,' Theodore Roosevelt once observed ruefully, 'no
crisis occurs sufficient to call out in marked manner the energies of the
strongest leader, then of course the world does not and cannot know of the
existence of such a leader; and in consequence there are long periods in the
history of every nation during which no man appears who leaves an indelible
mark in history. . . . If there is not the war, you don't get the great general; if
there is not the great occasion, you don't get the great statesman; if Lincoln
had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.'
Might we remember the talented and intelligent James Garfield as
among our greatest presidents if he, rather than Lincoln, had presided over
the Civil War? Would Franklin Roosevelt be the enormous historical figure he
has become if he had not had a depression and a war to fight? Would
Richard Nixon have fallen so ignominiously if he had not been president
during a time of great turbulence and social division, a time he described in
his memoirs, self-servingly and extravagantly but not entirely falsely, as
a 'season of mindless terror,' an 'epidemic of unprecedented domestic
terrorism' driven by 'highly organized and highly skilled revolutionaries
dedicated to the violent destruction of our democratic system'? Would
Ronald Reagan have enjoyed such extraordinary political success if he had
not entered office on the heels of an era of intense economic anxiety and
international humiliation? Would George W. Bush have become a towering
international leader, at least for a while, without the events of September 11,
2001? Understanding the presidency requires, of course, taking seriously the
role that individuals play in history, and there are many occasions in which
one could imagine a very different history if a different leader had been in
place. At the same time, however, the fates of the various presidencies are
inexplicable without attention to the character of their times.

The essays collected in this book, the work of a distinguished group of
scholars, present concise and thorough accounts of the important events of
each of the forty-three presidencies. But they also attempt to do more than
that. They are deliberately and frankly interpretive, offering assessments of
individual men and of both great and small events. They are also, in varying
degrees, contextual, situating presidents in their time and suggesting how
the character of American society and culture shaped the character of
presidential performance. Each of the scholars contributing to this volume
has had to contend with a large, at times overwhelmingly vast, literature on
almost every American president. But we believe that these essays have
something fresh and new to say about all of them and about that most
awesome and frustrating of offices: the presidency of the United States.
THE EDITORS

Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2005

    A Civics Class Must

    'The American Presidency' gives an inside peek at every administration, from the major legislation to scadals. It is a great tool for the classroom and for anyone interested in American politics.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2010

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