Presidential Ambition

Presidential Ambition

by Richard Shenkman

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In this timely, illuminating, and often shocking book, Richard Shenkman reveals that it is not just recent presidents but all presidents who have been ambitious—and at times frighteningly so, willing to sacrifice their health, family, loyalty, and values. Presidential Ambition is a book that will permanently alter the way we think about past, present,

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In this timely, illuminating, and often shocking book, Richard Shenkman reveals that it is not just recent presidents but all presidents who have been ambitious—and at times frighteningly so, willing to sacrifice their health, family, loyalty, and values. Presidential Ambition is a book that will permanently alter the way we think about past, present, and future American presidents.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Shenkman practices the breed of historical revisionism that some call anti-American history. This is a genre prone to suggesting that most traditional American heroes--especially heroic white males--were made of tin. Training his fire on the world's largest collection of prominent white males, Shenkman discounts Lincoln's soaring rhetoric, Washington's shrewd pragmatism and FDR's grand strategies for combating economic catastrophe. According to Shenkman's analysis, what counts most in the success of presidents is "luck--plain, ordinary, dumb luck." (In one instance, Shenkman points to the luck of being born rich and socially advantaged, despite such exceptions to the rule as Lincoln, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Clinton.) It comes as a revelation for Shenkman that our presidents have been ambitious; ambition, he implies, is not an altogether good thing. In portraits designed to shock and disillusion, Shenkman puts each chief executive in his place. Psychoanalyzing Theodore Roosevelt, for example, Shenkman finds that Teddy was nothing more than a "skinny, asthmatic rich kid," anxious to overcompensate for his self-perceived shortcomings by bullying smaller powers with the Great White Fleet. Many readers may prefer their presidents as painted by Stephen Ambrose, Arthur Schlesinger and other chroniclers. Shenkman shows no nuanced understanding (as exemplified by Robert Caro in his two-volume biography of LBJ) of how ambition and genuine idealism can coexist in one person. (Feb.)
Library Journal
From the author of the best-selling Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths.
Kirkus Reviews
A timely look at the seamy side of presidential power. Many believe the morals of American presidents have recently plunged to all-time lows, reflecting path-breaking abilities to lie and manipulate in the craven pursuit of power. Investigative journalist Shenkman ("I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not," 1991) reassures us that, while there has been a gradual decline over time, in fact presidents have behaved this way all along. Our misperception is based on a relative lack of knowledge about earlier presidents, and he sets out to correct the record. The fundamental issue is that ascending to the presidency requires overwhelming ambition, an ambition that calls for setting aside moral niceties to achieve desired ends. As the country and government became larger and more complex, so did the need for amoral ambition to become president. This is not all bad: an effective president must act forcefully and be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve public goals. Unfortunately, history is not filled with such men who are careful to distinguish between public and personal goals. Consider the records of presidents who have sent Americans to die in wars: to acquire a great expanse of territory, Polk repeatedly lied to provoke the Mexican-American War; Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War" despite knowing the US would soon be engaged in WWI; Franklin Roosevelt copied Wilson in 1940 by flirting with isolationism rather than honestly admitting that entry into WWII was inevitable; from the very beginning, Vietnam turned Johnson into "the greatest liar in American history." Shenkman's scanning of a list of common political sins-election fraud,manipulation of the media, dirty tricks in political campaigns, toleration of corruption, lying to the public-reveals no recent innovations. Not a pretty picture, but a realistic one. (Author tour) (For another look at presidential ethics, see Marvin Olasky, God, Sex, and Statesmanship, p. 1779) .

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the Garden of Eden

How George Washington, alone among the presidents, was able to gain power and get things done without compromising himself or his principles

There was a touching scene at the outset of his presidency that was almost too good to be true. When Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Congress, arrived at Mount Vernon to tell Washington he had been elected president, the two men withdrew to the main room of the house and delivered little speeches to each other. Thomson told Washington that the Congress was delighted he had agreed "to sacrifice domestic ease and private enjoyments to preserve the happiness of your country." Washington responded that he had accepted in deference to the public's desires. He couldn't promise to be a great president, he added, but "I can promise . . . to accomplish that which can be done by honest zeal." It was almost comically stilted, like one of those scenes out of a 1930s Frank Capra movie in which Jimmy Stewart stands up and delivers a sincere and selfless sermon on patriotism. But it happened. And Washington came off looking exceptionally decent.

He hadn't always seemed so decent.

As a young man there was a certain crassness about him that was almost palpable. Though he was a born aristocrat he was very much a man on the make. Land was everything in Washington's youth, the symbol of wealth and prestige, and he had set out to acquire as much of it as he could. Through inheritance he had received Mount Vernon and about two thousand acres. But that hadn't come nearly close to satisfying his appetite. He didn't want just a lot of land. He wanted more land thananybody else. Which was, apparently, the prime factor in his decision to court Martha. She was, even though youthful, neither particularly pretty nor particularly socially adept. And Washington didn't love her (not at first anyway); as he admitted in a letter at the time of his engagement, he was actually in love with Sally Fairfax, his best friend's wife. "You have drawn me," he wrote Sally, "into an honest confession of a simple Fact." But keep it a secret: "The world has no business to know the object of my Love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it."

But Martha was not without her attractions. One of the richest widows in North America, she possessed thousands of acres of land. Under the laws then in effect, her land became his upon marriage, instantly turning Washington into one of the richest men in America. Through Martha he received a hundred slaves, another six thousand acres, and enough money to buy thousands and thousands of acres more.

Not even all that was enough to satisfy him. In 1767, eight years after his marriage, he made a grab for land expressly set aside for the Indians. It happened to be illegal under laws promulgated by the Crown. Washington didn't care. He told his surveyor "to keep this whole matter a profound secret." If anybody asked the surveyor what he was up to, Washington instructed, the surveyor was to lie. Over the next few years he was to acquire another twenty thousand acres from the British government in return for his service as a colonel in the Virginia militia. He wasn't really entitled to the land; in fact when he had signed up the government had made it clear that the property was supposed to go to soldiers, not officers. But Washington had dextrously arranged for the officers to receive land, too. As the leader of his regiment, Washington had the responsibility of deciding who received which parcels (two hundred thousand acres of land were to be handed out). Washington saw to it that he received the best, "the cream of the Country," as he subsequently boasted.

But then the Revolution had come. It changed Washington as it did many of the leading figures in the colonies. Suddenly Washington, the "inveterate land grabber," as historian John Clark called him, became Washington, the enlightened revolutionary. Acquiring land was no longer enough. Being rich was no longer enough. Believing himself to be in a position to affect history, Washington lifted his sights and became something no one had any right to expect he would. Now, instead of acquiring land, he would seek to acquire what people in the eighteenth century called fame.

In our time fame has taken on a pejorative meaning. But in his day fame was far more sublime. To be famous was to be immortal. It was believed at the time that there were many ways to gain fame. But the most honorable way of all, it was felt, was to found a commonwealth. Thus did Washington, as fired by ambition as ever, decide to dedicate himself to the patriot cause, inspiring his fellow Americans as no one else did.

He didn't prove to be a brilliant general. In fact, he never won any major battles. But he kept the army together during awful times, and by strength of character was able to command the people's respect. At the end of the war he was held in such high esteem that he might very well have been able to crown himself king--as a lot of people wanted. But Washington refused, wouldn't even consider the subject. All he wanted to do was return to Mount Vernon. When friends in the army demanded that he make himself dictator after Congress refused to pay the soldiers their back wages, he looked upon the proposal with sheer horror.

When the war finally ended and the British evacuated the country Washington, like Cincinnatus, his Roman hero, laid down his sword and went back to his plow. It was his intention to remain at his plow for the remainder of his life. But events intervened: The Confederation collapsed, the Constitution was adopted, and Washington was drafted for president.

Presidential Ambition. Copyright © by Richard Shenkman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

W. J. Rorabaugh
A fresh, frank and entertaining study of presidential character, warts and all.
—(W.J. Rorabaugh, Professor of History, University of Washington)
Bernard A. Weisberger
"You'll never breathe the phrase `good old days' again after following Shenkman's lively excursion through two centuries of the conniving and dealing that every President except Washington had to undertake to win or hold the Grand Prize. Tough, fair-minded and a wonderful story."
Robert V. Remini
"This provocative book, written in Richard Shenkman's usual breezy and journalistic style, explores the ways Presidents obtained, kept and exercised political power during periods of profound change within thecountry, including the most devious and underhanded acts imaginable. Readers who enjoyed his previous works on the legends, lies and myths of American and world history will find this latest book both stimulating and entertaining.
Stephen B. Oates
"A knowledgeable, witty, charming, and provocative appraisal of the human foibles of our past presidents."
Professor Leonard Steinhorn
"Presidential Ambition is essential reading for anyone interested in the presidency. Author Richard Shenkman has identified what may be the mostimportant character trait of our presidents -- their driving ambition --and he shows how that single trait has influenced the key moments anddecisions in our nation's history. This is not a dry history text butrather a lively, enjoyable journey through the minds of the people whohave led our nation and changed our lives."
Stephen B. Oates
A knowledgeable, witty, charming, and provocative appraisal of the human foibles of our past president.
—(Stephen B. Oates, author of The Wind of War and Abraham Lincoln)
W. J. Rorabaugh
"Here is a fresh, frank, and entertaining study of presidential character,warts and all. No one who reads this book will ever again be surprised by what any president might do. At a deeper level, this work raisesdisturbing questions about the linkage of ambition, power, and corruption in the American system." Professor of

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Meet the Author

Richard Shenkman is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the New York Times bestselling author of six history books, including Presidential Ambition; Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of World History; and Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. The editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network website, he can be seen regularly on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

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