Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents


The Presidency of the United States is our nation's most challenging position. It has subjected many men to public vilification, condemned numerous others to historical obscurity, and exalted a few to lofty positions in our nation's history. But what is it that separates the revered from the reviled? Now, in Hail to the Chief, Robert Dallek offers an engaging examination of presidential excellence and failure.

For some of our chief executives, great crisis meant great ...

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The Presidency of the United States is our nation's most challenging position. It has subjected many men to public vilification, condemned numerous others to historical obscurity, and exalted a few to lofty positions in our nation's history. But what is it that separates the revered from the reviled? Now, in Hail to the Chief, Robert Dallek offers an engaging examination of presidential excellence and failure.

For some of our chief executives, great crisis meant great opportunity, as can be seen in the lasting legacies of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. But what of presidents such as Ronald Reagan, who succeeded despite having served during relatively benign times? And what of luck? Isn't it possible that the onset of the Great Depression doomed a competent and intelligent Herbert Hoover to failure? In answer to these questions, Robert Dallek investigates the five qualities -- vision, pragmatism, consensus, charisma, and trust -- that have defined our most effective presidents. The product of meticulous research, the book presents numerous examples of these qualities in action, and also details the failures that accompany their absence.

From Washington's masterful efforts at nation building to Lincoln's leadership through the greatest crisis in the country's history; from the beneficent paternalism of FDR to Lyndon Johnson's tragic miscalculations in Vietnam and his achievements in advancing civil rights, Dallek offers a penetrating analysis of the presidency, the personalities who have defined it, and the strategies that led to their triumphs and defeats.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dallek's roster of great Presidents includes Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and Reagan, all of whom had clear, long-term visions of where they wanted to lead the nation. The most astute chiefs, in this UCLA history professor's assessment, were charismatic because they understood that the President is a privileged actor on the world stage and in our national mythology (Jefferson, Eisenhower, JFK). Effective leaders, he stresses, exploit consensus politics in the service of national renewal: for instance, Wilson's consolidation of the progressive impulse, Roosevelt's leading of a New Deal coalition and LBJ's support for affordable health care for the elderly. Other Presidents lost credibility and public trust through overreaching, deviousness, willful blindness or political crises (Andrew Johnson, Hoover, Ford, Carter, Nixon). Dallek seems intimately familiar with the quirks, strengths and flaws of all those who served in the White House, making this a trenchant, provocative, often surprising portrait gallery. Author tour. (Sept.)
Although Congress invented the concept of political planned obsolescence by imposing a two-term presidential limit, it hardly seemed necessary. Of 41 presidents (except FDR, whose grip on the office spawned the restriction), "only 14 have been elected more than once, and only 11 have served two full terms." Voters tire of these men quickly. According to Dallek, this happens for three reasons. 1. The president, all good intentions noted, just screws up (Carter). 2. While in office, an unfolding biography reveals a congenital moral defect that confirms our worst suspicions (Nixon). 3. Lacking panache, charisma, vision, the president becomes a cipher that simply bores the country to death (Harding). Of course all presidents have suffered the mercurial vicissitudes of public acceptance and rejection. Hail To The Chief covers 36 chief executives, which seems like a lot until Dallek himself dispatches many by lumping them into terse categoric generalizations: "...Grant, Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison, none of whom made much of a mark on the country,...all stood for the ideal of a harmonious, prosperous America." A president's "making" or "unmaking" is entirely dependent on the public's straightforward, if primitive, analysis of personality and policy. We are told of an astonishing majority of presidents "unmade" by artful deception, feckless bumbling or importunate circumstance. Indeed Dallek finds very few "made" presidents. Only Washington, Lincoln and FDR are anointed with unctuous praise, having made "exceptional marks on history." Roosevelt (TR), Wilson and Reagan as "great visionaries" enjoyed moderate success, in contrast to Ford, Carter and Bush Sr., none of whomunderstood what "the vision thing" was all about nor how important it is to a successful presidency. Capsule summaries of some unheralded yet significant presidential administrations (Madison, McKinley will interest students. The bibliography contains a treasure of substantial sources on the history of the American presidency. But a substantial portion of this work is a thudding recitation of facts, long on hindsight and short on insight, with conclusions that too often offer little more than a firm grasp of the obvious. A sample: "Presidents who fared best at keeping the public...on their side [were] those whose policies conformed most closely to what the mass of Americans believed essential to the national well being." Dallek's tightly drawn vignettes of successful and unsuccessful American Presidents does however reinforce the Emersonian truth that "There is no history...only biography." Category: History & Geography. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1996, Oxford Univ. Press, 232p. bibliog. index., $15.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: William Kircher; Washington, D.C. SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Library Journal
Rating and ranking politicians, especially presidents, appeals to the sporting instincts of Americans. The national pastime has generated a subfield in history and political science. UCLA historian Dallek, an award-winning author (Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, LJ 6/15/91), contributes this gem to the genre using five themes (vision, pragmatism, consensus, charisma, trust) to explain why some presidents succeed and others fail. Though the author is modest in his claims, the book is a model of clarity, conciseness, balance, and insight. Dallek demonstrates why "the Mt. Rushmore quartet" and Franklin Roosevelt set the standard for presidential leadership: They were visionary activists with flexible personalities who promoted democratic values. Both scholars and the general public will gain from reading this interesting historical analysis. Essential.William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
Kirkus Reviews
Dallek (History/UCLA; Lone Star Rising, 1991; Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, 1984; etc.) thoughtfully finds some common denominators of effective presidential performance.

Why have some presidents become perennial heroes and others bywords for failure? Dallek delineates five qualities uniquely important to presidential leadership: vision, pragmatism, consensus, charisma (or the appeal of personality), and trust. Dallek then shows how the greatest presidents, like Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, have displayed these traits in responding to national challenges as diverse as establishing the infant United States, waging the Civil War, and ending the Great Depression. Dallek also shows presidents failing by displaying an absence of these virtues: Herbert Hoover, for instance, lacked pragmatic flexibility, and John Quincy Adams failed to achieve consensus for his aim of advancing the prosperity of American society. To some extent, Dallek recognizes, the traits of success are contradictory and temper one another (a visionary whose vision leads him too far ahead of the popular consensus will fail, for instance); effective presidential leadership, he suggests, consists of maintaining a delicate balance. Assessing success or failure is also a matter of balance: The greatest presidents have suffered policy failures, sometimes major ones. Also, Dallek acknowledges that the qualities of presidential greatness are ultimately more elusive than his checklist of virtues would imply: Assessments of presidents while in office, have been notoriously inaccurate (Dallek cites disparaging evaluations by contemporaries of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR). Recognizing the ever-changing nature and complexity of the president's task, Dallek concludes that "the study of how past presidents made large gains and suffered major defeats gives us little more than a useful general guide to executive actions."

A provocative analysis of success and failure in the nation's most difficult job.

From the Publisher

"An acute, engaging, and instructive analysis of what it takes to be an effective president."--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786882656
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 11/1/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek has taught history at several universities, including Columbia, UCLA, Boston University, and Oxford. He is the author of several books, including The New York Times Notable Books Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a nominee for the American Book Award in History.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
Chapter 1 "The Vision Thing" 1
Chapter 2 Chameleons on Plaid 44
Chapter 3 E Pluribus Unum: The Virtues of Consensus 84
Chapter 4 The Power and Limits of Presidential Personality 125
Chapter 5 In Presidents We Trust 166
Afterword 204
Sources 208
Index 219
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