Policy Review Banner

Presidents, Measured and Mismeasured

Thursday, June 1, 2000

Robert A. Wilson.
Power and the Presidency.
Public Affairs. 162 pages. $20.00

Fred I. Greenstein.
The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton.
Free Press. 282 pages. $25.00

I recently read that nothing has been studied as much as the Koran. I’ve heard the same about the Bible and conclude that it probably depends on whether you’re talking to a Muslim or a Christian. Either way, the American presidency must come in a close third. Aside from countless books, there are entire journals, research organizations, and libraries dedicated to the study of our presidents, not to mention scholars like Harvard’s Richard Neustadt who have focused their careers on the subject.

The first occupant of the physical White House was John Adams, who also happened to be the first vice president, a position he loathed. "I am vice president," he wrote. "In this, I am nothing." He called himself "his superfluous excellency" and lamented, "I can do neither good nor evil." This was unfortunate for a brilliant man once described by Vernon L. Parrington as the young nation’s greatest expert on the U.S. Constitution.

Still, despite his low regard for the second office — not to mention for human nature as a whole — Adams had high hopes for the top spot. In November 1801, along with a single secretary and servant, he journeyed from the executive mansion in Philadelphia to the new quarters in swampy, sticky Washington. The unfinished White House smelled of plaster and paint. Fireplaces struggled to dry the rooms. On his first full day, Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, two lines of which were later carved on the mantel in the state dining room:

I pray Heaven bestow the best blessing on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.

David McCullough says that was a good prayer then and remains a good prayer now. Perhaps now we’d be equally well served to pray that only honest and wise men write about those toiling under that roof — a tall order given prevailing political biases.

As it happens, however, these two books contain an impressive assemblage of wise men — and one wise woman — who endeavor to give honest analysis of presidents from FDR to Clinton. Nearly all of the wise people are of the left, and clearly approve of the policies advocated by the LBJs and FDRs. One might therefore expect them to be hard on the Republicans in their midst. So it is somewhat gratifying to find that Eisenhower is treated quite fairly and approvingly, while Reagan, Ford, and Bush get mixed reviews. As for Nixon — well, some things never change.

The livelier of the two books is Power and the Presidency, a concise, easy-to-read work edited by Robert A. Wilson. This work is the product of a series of 1999 lectures delivered at Dartmouth by distinguished historians, biographers, and journalists. Contributors include Doris Kearns Goodwin on FDR, Michael Beschloss on Eisenhower and JFK, Robert Caro on LBJ, Ben Bradlee on Nixon, the lately notorious Edmund Morris on Reagan, and David Maraniss on Clinton. A piece on the presidency in general is provided by McCullough, the host of PBS’s "The American Experience" and the excellent biographer of the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and currently Adams.

There is nothing riveting or especially new in the sections by Goodwin and Caro, aside from the fact that Caro goes easy on LBJ. Beschloss sees Kennedy as lacking "the grand vision of a Wilson or Reagan," essentially running the presidency in a sort of "crisis management" mode — "hour to hour to hour." He notes that one of Ike’s greatest disappointments was JFK’s defeat of Nixon in 1960, which the general called "a repudiation of everything I’ve stood for for eight years."

The book’s dark spot is the chapter by Ben Bradlee on Nixon, which is characteristically negative. Perhaps the single greatest fault in the book was choosing the Watergate-era editor of the Washington Post to do the chapter on the guy who got Alger Hiss. Bradlee’s piece is representative of the Nixon-hating genre: Nixon had no friends; he was awkward socially and impersonable; his self-destructive, paranoid nature did him in; the press was not unfair to Nixon and preferred Kennedy merely because he was more likeable; Nixon the red-baiter unfairly attacked poor "progressive" Helen Gahagan Douglas; and so on. Bradlee punctuates the chapter by emphasizing Nixon’s "vulgarities," "stunning prejudices," and "jagged cynicism," as allegedly revealed in the tapes.

Nixon was undoubtedly odd. Aside from his wife, Pat, few knew his heart. But it won’t do merely to reiterate the standard deformed version of his presidency that Bradlee offers here. Ironically, of course, Nixon would have expected no less from a journalist he considered an enemy.

Bradlee aside, the best parts of the Wilson book are the chapters by McCullough, Maraniss, and Morris. McCullough has an eye for engaging facts and anecdotes: At 6’4" Lincoln was the tallest president; William Howard Taft was the heaviest; Madison weighed only 100 pounds; TR was the first president born in a big city; Carter was the first born in a hospital; Clinton brought 1,000 people with him to China in 1998 compared to the 300 Nixon brought in 1972; Truman privately referred to the White House as "the great white jail."

McCullough once told an audience in his native Pittsburgh that the key to writing gripping history is to "tell stories, tell stories, tell stories." This credo has served him well. In this chapter, however, it’s his general insights that impress. McCullough argues that the quality most essential to presidential power is an intangible for which there is no measurement — as in his formulation, "What’s essential is invisible." Here he cites the integrity of George Washington, Lincoln’s "depth of soul," Truman’s courage and character, the charm of JFK at a press conference, and Reagan in front of a TV camera.

McCullough observes that although most presidents have professed no liking for the job, "rare was the man who truly wished to let go his hold on the office. Most would have fought to their last breath to stay if they could." TR professed his love for the job, once believably asserting: "Nobody ever enjoyed the presidency as I did. . . . I have been president emphatically." TR was our first president to be a "world leader." When he visited Panama in 1906, it marked the first time a president had ever left the country while in office. Appropriately, he went by battleship.

An added insight of McCullough concerns the power presidents didn’t exercise. We don’t give presidents enough credit for what they don’t do, often in the face of huge pressure. Adams didn’t go to war with France. Truman didn’t use the bomb in Korea. Ike didn’t go into Vietnam. I would add that Reagan didn’t succumb to the nuclear-freeze movement, didn’t give in on SDI, and — in seemingly simpler but nonetheless crucial examples — went ahead with phrases like "evil empire" and "tear down this wall" when most of his staff and the entire State Department repeatedly objected.

Honorable mention in this book goes to David Maraniss, the Washington Post reporter who has developed into one of the best chroniclers of William Jefferson Blythe III. He’s got the president pegged. Just as Nixon scholars know what is meant by their guy’s "peaks and valleys," Maraniss has coined a phrase that may make the lexicon of Clinton historians — "loss and recovery." Clinton’s career is an "endless cycle" of big loss followed by big recovery. Time and again, the man seems finished but bounces back. This has been the pattern ever since he began running for office nearly every two years since 1974. He survived prison riots by Cuban refugees in Arkansas in 1980, the 1994 Republican landslide repudiation of Clinton’s first two years, Monica Lewinsky — you name it. Over the years, Maraniss observes, this has led Clinton to perceive himself as "invincible." Aiding this is his ability, learned from an early age, to "deny reality or block out facts." Though Maraniss falls short of saying so, Clinton obviously is the true "Teflon president."

Maraniss concludes with a warning to us all:

Bill Clinton starting running for president when he was sixteen, and he’ll run for president for the rest of his life. That’s what he does. So even though he won’t be able to serve as president, he will keep running. Now, he’ll be running for the historical perception of his presidency, his legacy. He will go out and try to shake every hand and attempt to convince people that his presidency was different from the way it was presented at the time.

Worse, Maraniss might consider, Clinton will leave office a mere child in terms of the typical age for an exiting president. This means we’ll be watching his ongoing campaign for years.

The Wilson book’s most interesting chapter will surprise conservatives. Making an appearance in chapter six is the imaginary friend of Ronald Reagan — Edmund Morris. This Morris piece features no remarks about his "airhead" subject, as did Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir. Reagan is not portrayed here as lacking in compassion or misunderstanding economics. There are no "rhetorical opportunities missed," such as when Reagan "blew it" by demanding that "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall."

Most notable, Morris is himself in this work. In a review of Dutch, Robert Novak made reference to 60 Minutes and other interviews in which Morris called Reagan "a great president and a great man." Novak correctly noted that those words don’t appear in Dutch.

Well, they’re here. This chapter fawns over its subject. Reagan is directly referred to as a great man, a notion that is woven throughout the chapter.

This Reagan was "theatrical in the best sense of the word." He worked hard. He was "authentic." He was obviously compassionate. His "ambition and his force were at once more formidable and more benign." He had a "delicious and superabundant sense of humor." He was highly organized — a "meticulous timekeeper." Reagan was a "very fair man." "Because he was fair, he was honorable. He was presidential." His voice was "beautiful." He had a "complete lack of ego." "He smilingly, humorously, beguilingly prevailed throughout life; always seemed to come out on top; always seemed to get exactly what he wanted, in career after career." Reagan "represented the force, the personality, the character of the United States." His SDI "brought about the final capitulation of the Soviet Union" — "as we all know."

Morris delineates America’s "angst" in the late 1970s, and how that changed under Reagan:

When President Carter wasn’t telling us about his hemorrhoids, he was telling us about our national malaise. "Patriotism" was an embarrassing word. Young people were snickering at men and women in uniform. The legacy of Vietnam infected our national discourse. But then something happened at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ceremony in January of 1981 — when he stepped in front of the microphone, and with entire predictability the sun burst out and bathed him in a glow. . . . There was something about that voice and that physical presence that indefinably and inexplicably made us feel that that America was finding its way back to self respect. The national mood changed overnight.

The chapter ends with this shocker: "[H]istory may decide that Reagan’s legacy was spiritual as well as substantial."

It’s difficult to identify a criticism of Reagan in these pages by Morris. There aren’t any. If anything, as a biographer whose intent is to speak well and persuasively on his subject, Morris may impeach his credibility by giving such a one-sidedly gushing portrait.

Morris’s flare for metaphor is manifest. The chapter opens with a splendid story I hadn’t heard before. After receiving the 1980 nomination, Reagan set up headquarters at a Virginia farm owned by the wealthy William Clements. The estate would be Reagan’s home for a couple of months. On the first morning of his stay, the sound of chopping wood was heard from out front. Glimpsing out the window through curtains, Reagan could be seen at dawn chopping down the large ash that flawlessly split the lawn, fields, forest, and distant Blue Ridge mountains. Reagan took the liberty to chop it down with no one’s approval, least of all the gracious host’s. When asked why he axed it, he said simply, "Because it spoils the view." Morris elaborates:

Had Reagan been an ordinary person, one would simply say, "How could he do that? It wasn’t his house; it wasn’t his view; it wasn’t his tree." But Ronald Reagan was not an ordinary man. He was indeed extraordinary. So the questions are more complex. Why was it so urgently necessary for him to rearrange the landscape? Why was it done without consultation? . . . Why, in short, did Ronald Reagan get exactly what he wanted that morning, as he always had, from the time he was a teenage boy?

The answer is both simple and mysterious, and it applies to all natural leaders. He chopped down that tree . . . because it was his nature to eliminate obstacles. It was not his nature to consider the feelings of the tree’s owner or, for that matter, the feelings of the tree. His heart told him the tree had to go. His brain told him that the landscape would be better off without it. . . .

The odd thing about Ronald Reagan was that although you might think that particular act crude and rude, even barbaric, he was in person both kindly and gentlemanly. He was gentle and gentlemanly. Never was there anyone with less personal hostility or desire to hurt.

This is Morris at his best. This chapter is the anti-Dutch. And therein lies a key irony. Let’s be fair: Morris wrote some harsh things about Reagan in his 13-year tome. But he also wrote some good things. That mix may anger Reagan supporters but it will always grant Morris credibility with left of center — i.e., mainstream — historians and political scientists. Hence, positive portrayals like the one in this Wilson book will be all the more powerful. Conservatives don’t need to be convinced of Reagan’s greatness. But academic historians and political scientists do.

One such person is Fred Greenstein. Unlike the Wilson book, where several scholars divide up a handful of postwar presidents, Princeton’s Greenstein alone tackles them all. As one of the high priests of presidential studies, Greenstein is worthy of the task. He earned his fame in a noble way: He almost single-handedly salvaged Eisenhower’s presidential reputation. This was achieved via his 1982 book on Ike, The Hidden-Hand Presidency, which the Economist dubbed the "most important work on the presidency" since Neustadt’s 1960 Presidential Power. Prior to that book, elite academics viewed Eisenhower as a bumbling, lazy, unorganized, dumb, lucky president (precisely as they’ve viewed Reagan). Greenstein admits to having been among them, until his research firmly reversed this perception among both himself and colleagues. The change is evident in surveys by presidential scholars and historians. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ike languished near the "below average" category. By the 1990s, it was typical to see him ranked "near great."

This effort by Greenstein examines each postwar president’s "difference" — based on leadership and "significance" — according to six criteria: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.

The book is easy to read. Each president is laid out in well organized, brief chapters (usually under 20 pages). The book is an excellent resource for presidential facts and recommended readings, equipped with lengthy appendices on each. Most impressive is Greenstein’s fairness. He is a liberal Democrat, and it’s difficult to imagine, for instance, a more fair treatment of Nixon by someone of Greenstein’s mold. The chapters on Bush, Ford, Carter, and Ike — the "Clark Kent of the American presidency" — are well done. The book also contains occasional factual gems, such as that Bush’s average approval rating for his presidency was 61 percent, the highest average since JFK — and yet Bush wasn’t reelected.

He does find much to criticize in Lyndon Johnson, as anyone should. He sees the Texan as a "legislative wizard" who was a flawed decision maker, poor manager, and emotionally wanting.

There are some annoying points in the Clinton chapter, such as Greenstein’s invocation of academic clichés about Clinton’s brilliance and the expected rigmarole about him being a "politically talented underachiever." Still, Greenstein powerfully makes the point that this "gifted" politician undermined himself with his notable "emotional challenges" and "debilitating psychic shortcomings."

His fairness breeds surprise in chapters on JFK and FDR. Greenstein believes that despite JFK’s eloquence, he was deficient in vision, lacking an "overarching perspective." He makes a similar point about FDR, acknowledging that it may "border on blasphemy to suggest that a leader with Roosevelt’s superlative inspirational qualities and sweeping imagination was deficient in vision." Greenstein then surely sends some of his liberal colleagues into apoplexy by noting that it took World War II, not the New Deal, "to bring about economic recovery."

The chapter on Reagan, for its part, is most intriguing and disturbing. It’s not surprising that Greenstein here criticizes Reagan’s organizational skills, asserting that he had "no general views about presidential organization." While this is hyperbole, Greenstein is fairly safe criticizing Reagan here. The president possessed some organizational shortcomings, and it is probably fair to say that Iran-Contra stemmed from those liabilities, as Greenstein does. He also aptly notes that Reagan’s method of delegating both helped and hurt him.

But that’s a relatively minor point. The truth is that this chapter is unnerving, even infuriating. There are points made by Greenstein that will please conservatives. In fact, if the introduction to the chapter were removed, this would be a fair and primarily positive assessment of Reagan. The problem — and it is a big, big problem — is the introduction. It begins with intermittent praise, only to finish by crediting Reagan’s staff rather than the man himself, to wit:

Ronald Wilson Reagan was at once innocent of much that went on in his own presidency and an overshadowing political presence in his times. Before his first year in the White House was over, Reagan presided over a fundamental reorientation of public policy in the realms of taxes and spending. In his second term, he played a significant part [emphasis added] in the peaceful termination of a global conflict that threatened the survival of humankind.

If one asks whether Reagan was a leader whose actions were determined by circumstances or one who shaped historical outcomes, he has to be placed in the second category. But much of his impact was inadvertent, and he was more dependent than any other modern president on others to accomplish his aims. As a result, the policies of Reagan’s presidency were to a large extent a function of the shifting cast of aides who served him.

A couple of those lines are beautifully put. The last two are damning — and not substantiated by either reality or Greenstein. It is ludicrous to say that much of Reagan’s impact was "inadvertent." In both domestic and foreign policy, Reagan established a few clear objectives and devoted eight years of consistent, comprehensive policies and effort to accomplishing those intended goals.

Yet it’s the other point in those last two lines that is utterly mysterious. Greenstein falls prey to the increasingly obsolescent myth that it was Reagan’s advisers — the "smart men around the president" — who were responsible for the administration’s success, not Reagan himself. Ironically, Greenstein himself goes on to prove this charge inaccurate. His chapter on Reagan is only 12 pages long. In multiple references on pages 147, 150, 151, 153, 154 (three times), 155 (five times), 156, and 157, he cites example after example demonstrating that Reagan himself was personally responsible for his administration’s success. On page 150, clearly contradicting his opening, Greenstein calls Reagan the "spokesman-in-chief and principal negotiator of his presidency. . . . He was more than its star performer, however. He was its producer, setting the tone and direction for his administration’s policies." Really? A few pages ago it was that "shifting cast of aides," not Reagan. (By the way, if the aides are always shifting, but the policies remain the same, then maybe the sole constant — Reagan himself — is most responsible.)

Referring to Reagan’s economic program on page 151, Greenstein said the president was "his program’s principal spokesman and salesman. His timing was unerring." On pages 153-54, he emphasizes that Reagan was "emphatically not out of the loop" in relations with the Soviet Union. He trusted his instincts and "ignored those of his aides who were skeptical of Gorbachev." The president personally "set about to establish a working relationship with the new Soviet leader." Greenstein grasps the importance of Reagan’s powerful and underappreciated negotiating skills and notes that they derive from his "labor leader" days — once again, not from his aides.

Finally, on page 155, he writes this on the end of the Cold War:

Reagan was far from the sole cause of the dramatic improvement in Soviet-American relations of the second half of the 1980s. That transformation would have been out of the question without the rise of Gorbachev. . . . Still, if Reagan had responded to Gorbachev in a spirit of confrontation, it would have been impossible for the Soviet leader to resist his hardliners.

Instead, Reagan formed a personal bond with Gorbachev and supported those of his own aides who were preparing to find an accommodation with the Soviet Union, contributing to the end of the cold war simply by being who he was.

Hmm. Sounds like there’s a personal role by Reagan in there somewhere. It’s as if Greenstein wrote his thesis — as stated in the chapter’s introduction — years ago, when it was influenced more by his partisan leanings than by evidence he amassed later.

Greenstein adds that Reagan "excelled" in both "vision" and rhetoric. Greenstein considers him among the most "rhetorically gifted presidents," rivaled only by FDR. He had high "emotional intelligence," confidence, self assurance, and "equanimity." He credits Reagan with a "great historical impact."

Again, these points ought to please conservatives. The accolades are coming from someone of Greenstein’s stature and credibility. They will make a difference in the historical view of Reagan by academe. Greenstein isn’t close to doing for Reagan what he did for Ike, but his comments will make a dent in improving the academic perception of Reagan. That is, if Greenstein’s followers read beyond the introduction of this chapter.

I don’t want to suggest the chapter is filled solely with accolades. Greenstein writes that SDI did, ironically, contribute to the reduction in Cold War tensions, "but not because of the reasons for which Reagan favored it." Why, then? "It made the Soviet leaders more pliable by threatening to impose unacceptable costs on the already strained Soviet economy." Sorry, but that’s precisely the advantage that the administration saw in SDI. Yes, Reagan felt it was technologically feasible, but he also understood SDI as a tremendous bargaining chip to gain Soviet concessions.

Greenstein also talks of Reagan’s "cognitive limitations." In one sense, he is not entirely off base when he asserts that Reagan was "astonishingly uninformed about the specifics of programs." Yet, this was often a virtue. Reagan focused on the big picture and left the details to others. Jimmy Carter didn’t.

But Greenstein goes overboard in asserting, "Reagan’s policy views were poorly grounded in information." Greenstein cites one: Reagan was a "congenital optimist who had no difficulty believing that a tax cut would increase revenues by fostering prosperity." For over 10 years now, we’ve had economic data showing that tax revenues under Reagan increased from $600 billion in 1981 to $1 trillion in 1989, and yet liberal political scientists and historians still haven’t stopped to glance at the numbers.

Still, the Reagan chapter shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the rest of Greenstein’s work. Both this book and the Wilson collection improve our understanding of the presidency. Despite their occasional faults, they are informative, entertaining, and easy to read. They are also, in a certain way, encouraging. In total, the books offer words of wisdom on presidents from nine different contributors, most of whom are usually fair, admirably preventing partisanship from corrupting the analyses of their subjects — the way things should be.

This fact is all the more notable considering that nearly all the contributors are contemporaries of the postwar chief executives they assess. This makes their claims to objectivity all the more impressive. It’s easy to be detached in writing about, say, Millard Fillmore. But it’s much more difficult to be unbiased about, say, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush when you and all your friends and colleagues voted for and perhaps even campaigned for McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and Clinton. That said, maybe we should expect future assessments of Republican presidents to be yet more fair and positive once the assessors are no longer tendentious contemporaries. These two books suggest the glass may be half full.