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Presidential Lightning Rods: The Politics of Blame Avoidance
     

Presidential Lightning Rods: The Politics of Blame Avoidance

by Richard J. Ellis
 

H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon's former chief of staff, is said to have boasted: "Every president needs a son of a bitch, and I'm Nixon's. I'm his buffer and I'm his bastard. I get done what he wants done and I take the heat instead of him."

Richard Ellis explores the widely discussed but poorly understood phenomenon of presidential "lightning rods"-cabinet

Overview

H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon's former chief of staff, is said to have boasted: "Every president needs a son of a bitch, and I'm Nixon's. I'm his buffer and I'm his bastard. I get done what he wants done and I take the heat instead of him."

Richard Ellis explores the widely discussed but poorly understood phenomenon of presidential "lightning rods"-cabinet officials who "take the heat" instead of their bosses. Whether by intent or circumstance, these officials divert criticism and blame away from their presidents. The phenomenon is so common that it's assumed to be an essential item in every president's managerial toolbox. But, Ellis argues, such assumptions can oversimplify our understanding of this tool.

Ellis advises against indiscriminate use of the lightning rod metaphor. Such labeling can hide as much as it reveals about presidential administration and policymaking at the cabinet level. The metaphor often misleads by suggesting strategic intent on the president's part while obscuring the calculations and objectives of presidential adversaries and the lightning rods themselves.

Ellis also illuminates the opportunities and difficulties that various presidential posts-especially secretaries of state, chiefs of staff, and vice presidents-have offered for deflecting blame from our presidents. His study offers numerous detailed and instructive examples from the administrations of Truman (Dean Acheson); Eisenhower (Richard Nixon, John Foster Dulles, Herbert Brownell, and Ezra Taft Benson); LBJ (Hubert Humphrey); Ford (Henry Kissinger); and Reagan (James Watt).

These examples, Ellis suggests, should guide our understanding of the relationship between lightning rods and presidential leadership, policymaking, and ratings. Blame avoidance, he warns, does have its limitations and may even backfire at times. Nevertheless, President Clinton and his successors may need to rely on such tools. The presidency, Ellis points out, finds itself the object of increasingly intense partisan debate and microscopic scrutiny by a wary press. Lightning rods can deflect such heat and help the president test policies, gauge public opinion, and protect his political power and public image. Ellis's book is an essential primer for helping us understand this process.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A cabinet member, vice president, White House chief of staff, or other official who deflects criticisms from a president is called a lightning rod. Cultivating lightning rods is a nonempirical, unpredictable art that can easily backfire, making the president appear arrogant or uninformed. Ellis's expanded dissertation owes much to Fred Greenstein's important The Hidden-Hand President (LJ 10/15/82), one of the first positive revisionist accounts of the Eisenhower administration. Ellis attributes Eisenhower's success to his projecting an apolitical image while staying vigorously involved in all the important issues of the 1950s, notably the Cold War, civil rights, and farm price supports. He remained popular by skillfully using Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson, Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., and, to a lesser extent, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to take the heat for his policies. Case studies of how Truman, Johnson, Ford, Reagan, and Bush used their advisers caution against presidential attempts to dominate the government. This deliberative, challenging study is recommended for academic collections specializing in the presidency.-Karl Hellicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.
Booknews
Ellis (political science, Willamette U.) explores the widely discussed but poorly understood phenomenon of presidential lightning rods--administration officials who either through intent or circumstance divert criticism and deflect blame away from the president. Ellis analyzes case studies and comparisons drawn from the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Reagan, and identifies leadership styles that allow presidents to deflect blame onto subordinates. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780700606368
Publisher:
University Press of Kansas
Publication date:
08/01/1994
Series:
Studies in Government and Public Policy Series
Pages:
280
Product dimensions:
5.91(w) x 9.06(h) x (d)

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