The Changing Nature of the American Presidency: From Pre-Democracy to Post-Truth
Iain Dale, The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political Leadership, Hodder & Stoughton, reviewed by Christopher Carman.
Why are some presidents considered “great” and others “mediocre” (and some even “complete failures”)? To wrestle with this question, we need to examine both the institution that is The Office of the President of the United States of America as well as the (deeply) personal characteristics, personalities and life stories of the people who have inhabited the office.
One of the great challenges of examining the men (because up to now they have all been men) who have served as US President is that there are relatively few of them – including Joe Biden there have been 45 different presidents; 13 in the entire post-war period so far.
The number of data points limits the extent to which we can generalise across the presidents. This simple fact has often meant that to understand the US presidency, we need to understand something about the people who serve as president.
This is where Iain Dale’s The Presidents excels. It provides the reader with a highly engaging set of narratives that highlight the (very) personal stories of the people who have served as president and how their individual stories helped to shape their time in the office. As Iain Dale states in the book’s introduction, “This book is a celebration of the office of the presidency and the personalities that have lived in the White House and worked in the Oval Office” (pg. xv).
Of course, in reading the collected chapters in Iain Dale’s edited volume The Presidents, a little context is important. It might be helpful to take a step back to remind ourselves that the government established under The Constitution of the United States (drafted in 1787 and taking effect in 1789) was not the first attempt at the great American experiment in republican self-government. The Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 was technically called for the explicit purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation (think of those as the beta version of the Constitution) – not throwing them out completely and devising an entirely new set of federal structures and institutions. Yet throw out the Articles is what the Constitutional Convention did – and probably with good reason.
The weaknesses of the governing structures, processes and institutions established under the Articles of Confederation (1781-89) were plenty and have been well documented elsewhere (see, e.g., James Madison’s “Vices of the Political System of the U. States” (1787); Donald Lutz, “The Articles of Confederation as a Background to the Federal Republic,” Publius (1990)). The particularly relevant weakness in this context is that that the government under the Articles did not have a chief executive. In fact, there was no meaningful executive function in the government at all.
Under the concept of separation of powers (see Madison’s Federalist #51), the idea is that the different branches of government hold distinct sets of powers: Congress legislates, the Courts adjudicate and the Executive Office of the President executes. Yet the Articles distinctly lacked this crucial executing function – namely that someone (or some office) in the national government should hold the responsibility to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (U.S. Constitution, Art. II, §3.3). And the lack of an office charged with ensuring legislation actually be put into force was keenly felt during the revolutionary period.
Perhaps, then, one of the more iconic innovations adopted by the Constitutional Convention was the establishment of an (indirectly) elected chief executive, separate from the legislative branch but with some degree of overlapping and intertwined competencies.
However, as the office of the presidency was a somewhat novel concept in 1787, it was, in many ways, more of a set of institutional aspirations rather than a clearly articulated set of institutional structures. This meant, as the collected chapters in The Presidents colourfully detail, that the presidents’ lives, backgrounds, personalities and approaches to governing unquestionably played a large role in shaping and moulding the office as the nation grew and evolved. What becomes clear in the chapters in this volume is that the role and office of President Joe Biden has changed greatly since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. And the presidencies they held were very different from that of Buchanan and Lincoln, and their presidencies were distinctly different from those of Washington and Adams.
Collectively, all of the chapters offer intriguing snapshots of the men who have served as president and the development of the United States. The great stain, or ‘peculiar institution’ as it was called, of slavery, not surprisingly, features heavily in many of the chapters. There is careful and thoughtful attention to the legacy of the individual presidents on this topic – how they felt on the institution, if they owned enslaved people, if they took any actions to improve the lives of or, indeed, free enslaved persons, and so on.
Similarly, the chapters, especially across the earlier presidents, are also careful to note and detail how the presidents – especially those who had served in the military – treated or felt about the indigenous Native American population. The details of the Caucasian-centric, underhanded and often outright cruel treatment of the first peoples can make for uncomfortable reading for those who may have been inclined to idealise the Founding Fathers and their successors in the oval office. (An interesting counter-point to this treatment is Woody Holton’s recently released Liberty is Sweet, which details the contributions of both Native and Black Americans, enslaved or not, to the development of the United States.)
Given the nature of this book – largely written by keenly interested and accomplished people who, nonetheless, are not necessarily experts on the US presidency – it shouldn’t be a surprise that the quality of the chapters can be somewhat variable. Some are extremely well-written and highly engaging, some are less so. Perhaps a bit of a surprise is that the more compelling and cogent chapters detail the lives of the more obscure presidents. Indeed, the two portions of the book that chronicle the lesser-known presidents (from, say, the 8th president, Martin Van Buren, to the 14th, Franklin Pierce, and then from the 19th, Rutherford B. Hayes, to 25th, William McKinley) are perhaps the most intriguing as they detail the lives of men often overlooked in the office and often end up at the lower end of presidential league tables.
Through these stories we learn that the “most powerful office in the world” does not necessarily have the degree of power that many might think. We also can see why the presidential scholar Richard Neustadt (1960) argued that “Presidential power is the power to persuade” and, by extension, those who are unable to persuade haemorrhage power. In his seminal treatment of the presidency Neustadt would argue that:
“A President, himself, affects the flow of power… though whether [it] flow[s] freely or run[s] dry he never will decide alone. He makes his personal impact by the things he says and does. Accordingly, his choices of what he should say and do, and how and when, are his means to conserve and tap the sources of his power. Alternatively, choices are the means by which he dissipates his power. The outcome, case by case, will often turn on whether he perceives his risk in power terms and takes account of what he sees before he makes his choice. A President is so uniquely situated and his power so bound up with the uniqueness of his place, that he can count on no one else to be perceptive for him.” (1960: 150).
Through the narratives in The Presidents – some well-rehearsed in American political history and some more novel – we see how the choices presidents make influence their ability to exercise their power. While other authors (Robert Caro’s masterful multi-volume coverage of Lyndon Johnson’s cultivation of political power springs to mind here) explore a single individual in extensive and intensive depth, the beauty of The Presidents is that the volume affords readers the ability to identify patterns in the exercise of presidential power (successful or not) across different presidents and their administrations. We are able to get a sense for what presidential scholar Stephen Skowroneck referred to as “political time” in his classic The Politics that Presidents Make.
A few smaller observations on the book are warranted. The illustrations, the work of Zoom Rockman, as well as the factoids provided at the beginning of each narrative offer lovely insights into the presidents and their families. The quotations can be particularly enjoyable – whether the lofty, such as Grover Cleveland’s exaltation, “A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, the morality, the justice, and the interest of the people themselves,” or the more humorous and mundane, such as Franklin Pierce’s quip, “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.”
What perhaps shines through most brightly in Iain Dale’s The Presidents is that in the polarised, hyper-politicised, post-truth world that we now face, the office of president has historically relied on a degree of integrity in those who inhabit the office of president. Of particular note is a quotation from John Adams before he became president: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence” (pg. 19). Likely that many readers may crack a wry smile if they try to apply the second president’s admonitions to contemporary politics.