Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents
FEATURE


HOW OUR PRESIDENTS--FROM
GEORGE TO BILL--HAVE LED AMERICA.





TERMS OF OFFICE
WRITTEN BY TOMMY EHRBAR


Once upon a time in America, a myth was born that any child could grow up to become the leader of the country. Across the Atlantic such a privilege was guaranteed only to the eldest son of the current king. The nature of the American presidency has always meant a shattering of social boundaries and an expanding of young imaginations. The myth bespeaks something honorable about our nation's character. Hail to the chief.

Our campaigns are ridiculous, political scientists say. We all say. Serious money drives out serious issues in primary voting. Candidates are forced to raise expectations to impossible levels. Then, in office, pilloried for not delivering the goods. What a way to run a country. Hail to the chief. I actually remember a less cynical age for our body politic: that Precambrian era known as the Nineteen Fifties. I was in kid-dom then, Ike was in the White House, parents prodded offspring to aspire to one day live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I myself don't remember, even in my boyhood delusions, ever targeting my dreams on the Oval Office, though I still care, deeply, about who sits in there. My caring began with Ike's successor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a hero to me though I didn't know anything about him then compared with what we all know, only too well, now. Who did?

Autumn of 1960. In Sister Mary Howard's fifth-grade straw poll, debate was minimal. Sister Mary Howard, preternaturally political, had seen to that, lobbying us with both grace and brimstone. She promised Kennedy backers a field trip to the amusement park, Nixonites to remain behind (forever?) preparing for a test on the tortures of hell. The upshot: Kennedy captured every vote. The nun delivered her ward.

Richard Milhous Nixon, it turned out, was the only president I ever actually encountered, at a time when his political world--seemingly his whole world--was in swift Watergate collapse. I was then a neophyte reporter in Washington, DC, professionally nonpartisan, privately an ardent foe of Nixonian machinations.

January of 1974. In the news: the discovery that 18-and-one-half minutes of crucial Nixon tapes had been erased. On the steps of the Capitol, it so happened that Nixon and I were inadvertently headed on a collision course--an epiphany waiting to happen. We stopped, gazed at one another, eyeball to eyeball. For a moment I was sure he knew about the Sister Mary Howard contretemps, about me, as if he didn't have other thoughts on his mind. Then I blinked. True, a phalanx of Secret Service agents divided our persons. True, not a word was uttered. But something did happen. I had locked eyes with Nixon, and what I saw was pure human pain. I felt compassion. I felt a sense, too, of my own self-righteousness. Who was I to judge this man suffused with agony?

These, then, are my two most powerful remembrances of presidents. One, whom I loved, left a legacy far more complex and disturbing than I could have imagined. The other, whom I disdained, caused me to doubt my certainties, to see human fragility even when ensconced behind a mask of power. Paradoxically, I became both more skeptical and more respectful of the leader of the nation. Hail to the chief.

The moving finger of fate traveled from 1960 to 1996. No one ascended to the pantheon of presidential superstars. John F. Kennedy: a tarnished myth, reputation downgraded. Lyndon Baines Johnson: withdrew painfully from the race in 1968. Richard M. Nixon: resigned from the office in disgrace. Gerald Ford: beaten in 1976. Jimmy Carter: vanquished in 1980. Ronald Reagan: the anomaly of our era; served two turns, propelled a conservative revolution. George Bush: defeated in 1992. Bill Clinton:? A litany of failures and humiliations evincing ridicule and all the pain that presidential flesh is heir to. But also moments of glory, political triumph.

I, too, moved on, eventually to the University of Pittsburgh where I remain fascinated with the presidency, the most prestigious and the most problematic office in the land. I decided, in the midst of an election year, to hunt for history, context, wisdom, apercu. I sought out the political scientists.

Professor Bert Rockman, an astute observer of presidents, is the author of The Leadership Question: The Presidency and the American System. He also co-edits a series, First Appraisals, that offers analysis of a president at mid-term. Not only does Rockman command an encyclopedic knowledge of presidential politics, he writes encyclopedia entries on the topic. His colleague, political scientist Mark Peterson, is also an interpreter of matters presidential, having joined the Pitt faculty after teaching at Harvard.

Rockman, holding forth in his fourth-floor Forbes Quad office, says that while the office of president as a post of true political leadership is mostly foreign to European and other parliamentary republics, it is commonplace in systems where the executive and legislative branches are elected separately, such as in Latin America. But the occupant of the White House, he says, sits in a unique American place: "You must remember, our system of government is not based on presidential power, but on separated power." He then proceeds to demolish a celebrated line by Harry Truman. "'The buck stops here,'" he argues, "while wonderfully capturing the man's no-nonsense character and give-'em-hell flavor, has one unfortunate characteristic. It's wrong. The buck stops nowhere in our system of government, certainly not in any given office." Such is the purpose, the genius even, of the American Constitution. Having waged war against a tyranny of kings, a tyranny of parliaments, and a tyranny of courts, the founding fathers were hell-bent on devising a government that reined in the power of kings, parliaments, and courts. "Our government is meant to be messy, rife with compromise," adds Peterson. "That's its burden and its glory." Or, as Truman said with Missourian pith, "The president who didn't have a fight with Congress wasn't any good anyhow."

The United States of America was born without a chief executive. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was both executive and legislative branch: parliamentary in style, but without a prime minister. Only by the grace of God, the resoluteness of General George Washington, the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, and the diplomacy of the French was the extraordinary foreign policy embodied in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence ratified in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, giving recognition to the United States as an independent nation. But not for another six years would a president lead it. Our founding fathers created a position to fit one man in particular.

On March 4, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. By all measure, the grand experiment was off to a brilliant start.

Rockman says: "The office he assumed in some respects has changed markedly while in other ways it has remained remarkably constant." He sketches out an evolutionary theory of presidential politics.

History tells us: Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. Rockman, in assessing the litany of presidents, casts his vote firmly with the third. He also agrees that history is replete with "critical moments" of presidential action.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Rockman argues, "The presidency was a much weaker branch of federal power." The Whig conception of the office, emphasizing the pre-eminence of Congress, tended to dominate nineteenth-century thinking. For the most part, presidents did not lead their parties; they were led by them. Chief executives accommodated themselves to party bosses--predecessors of Sister Mary Howard--mostly because they owed their jobs to them. The cardinal attribute of the Oval Office holder was to prove himself "trustworthy."

But did the public trust its presidents? Americans, like citizens of other democracies, are profoundly ambivalent about authority.

True, the enigmatic Ross Perot drew one-fifth of the vote in 1992 by promising bold leadership. But Americans also demand someone who listens, who is responsive to them. Hence, the so-called "impossible presidency," oscillating endlessly between an imperial and an imperiled presidency.

The story of the presidency lies in the tension between the powers that chief executives actually possess and the accountability to which they are held. So they are always aiming to do two things at once: enhance the powers at their disposal and limit their accountability. Hail to the chief.

Of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), John Kennedy once noted at a White House dinner for Nobel Laureates: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." A lingering irony. During the revolutionary era, Jefferson served as advocate for the citizen-farmer model of governance and a limited (and frugal) role for federal power. As president he spurred the greatest period of national expansion, culminating with the Louisiana Purchase. He set in motion the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as Zebulon Pike's explorations. Such is the cachet of Jefferson, Peterson says, that "today everybody across the political spectrum loves to approvingly quote him."

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), the frontier soldier, also elevated the profile of the presidency, as our nation shifted from a kind of aristocracy to a democracy, without destroying its essential republicanism. By 1828, virtually every state had turned from legislative appointment to popular vote in choosing its members of the electoral college. Jackson, who won the presidency that year, thus derived his power by the consent of the American people. And he knew it. Said Jackson of the chief executive: "It is his especial duty to protect the liberties and the rights of the people and the integrity of the Constitution against the Senate, or the House of Representatives, or both together." Believing the country's only national bank to be controlled by the moneyed elite to the exclusion of public input, Jackson unprecedentedly used his power of veto to refuse a renewal of the bank's federal charter. He was the first president to display such a penchant for the veto. "His ascendancy," Rockman says, "coincided with a fundamental political shift marking the identity of Jacksonian Democrats--and their populist agrarian base--in battle with the Bank of the United States."

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) waged the most daunting battle of all--opposing the breakup of the Union. Lincoln pushed the presidential powers to a new plateau. During his famous 11-week dictatorship he called out the militia, clamped a blockade on the South, enlarged the army and navy beyond their statutory limits, closed the mails to "treasonable correspondence," and, in defiance of all precedent, suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln justified these actions in the name of public necessity in time of emergency: "I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy." He went to the well of power, not out of megalomania, but on behalf of humanity.

The year 1900 arrived without the benefit of radio, TV, autos, and airplanes--technologies that would recast the world of the twentieth century. Rockman sees three elements converging to raise the level of presidential politics. One, the rise of the United States to global power. Two, a drive for political reform of domestic abuses. Three, a new political philosophy about the role of the federal government.

For one thing, government got a lot bigger. As late as Calvin Coolidge's tenure (1923-29), the federal government didn't figure much in people's lives. The budget was tiny. Nonexistent were: a social security system, health care for the poor or elderly, any regulation of food or drugs. Military confrontation also changed the nature of the presidency. In the twentieth century, the United States would fight in two world wars, conduct a cold war for 45 years, and combat a shattering series of emergencies.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), the first president of the new century, was also the first rhetorical president. The system of separated powers so ardently devised by the founding fathers, had indeed prevented tyranny from taking root on our soil but had not provided consistent presidential leadership. TR happily spoke of the White House as a bully pulpit, articulating beliefs and selling those beliefs to the nation. He forever established one clear idea: The president and the people live in direct relationship.

Before TR, American presidents addressed themselves chiefly to the other branches of government, not to the general public. And even then, most communications were written rather than spoken. The Constitution requires only that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union...." Presidential reticence was not merely a matter of custom, it reflected a fundamentally different view of the office. With TR, the president was metamorphosed into a leader who sought to rally the public and promote a policy agenda.

True, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is "recognized widely as the best short speech since the Sermon on the Mount," according to William Safire, New York Times columnist and former presidential speech writer. But on a more typical occasion, asked to comment on "the present distracted condition of the country" on the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln declined to utter a single word of oratory. Still the audience cheered wildly at his nonspeech.

It is even possible today that America has arrived at a post-rhetorical presidential age, an age overwhelmed by sound bites and electronic images. Still, our future great presidents will find ways to crystallize and communicate historic ideas from the life of the nation. Such is the character of moral leadership.

Here is a basic rule of presidential survival: It is better to inherit a crisis than to have it occur while in office. An exemplar of this maxim is Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), elected president at a time of unparalleled economic crisis. FDR invoked emergency powers, expanded the scope of regulatory measures, and initiated programs of social reform. Later when the United States entered World War II, his commitment to military preparedness paid off magnificently. Roosevelt advertised his administration as an experiment; he did not envision creating a bureaucracy. Peterson says, "Modern presidents all play to FDR. He is the benchmark." Hail to the chief.

For two generations or so, the experiment proved triumphant. In the decades of the '30s and '40s, Washington threw off the garb of a small backwater capital and emerged as a newsmaking capital city. The federal government, with power vested in the executive, took on new luster. America became a "social insurance state," says Rockman, adding, "None of this happened because of constitutional change or even statutory change."

"The ideas stemming from the Roosevelt presidency," he says, "survived almost wholly intact through the administration of Lyndon Johnson [1963-1969]." Even Bill Clinton, Rockman attests, shows New Deal instincts tailored to a more skeptical time.

Meanwhile, the chief executive became ubiquitous in American life. More than 300 members of the White House Press Corps--local, national, and international--cover the White House now. Everything the president does, says, or appears to say becomes news that influences public judgment about him. Ever since FDR's day--when the public opinion poll came into being--a president's performance has been instantly judged. Is the job itself do-able? Here's a hint of an answer from Richard Neustadt, Peterson's colleague at Harvard and author of Presidential Power, still considered, some 30 years later, the definitive work in the field. "Neustadt distinguishes between presidential powers--such as commanding the armed forces or pardoning a criminal--and presidential power. The difference is subtle, but consequential," Peterson explains. "He could veto a piece of legislation and be overturned by Congress. And gain popular support. Or he could veto, but erode his political stakes, and lose."

Peterson says, in a straightforward tone, "The best presidents are the guys who know the least." He explains: "The possession of great sophistication, the ability to simultaneously see 15 sides of a complicated issue, may be indispensable to a political scientist but not to a president.

"The chief executive's requisite role is to focus attention, create an environment, sustain energy, stay the course, inspire a connection between people's lives and public policy. Whatever your political views, you have to admit Ronald Reagan possessed this talent. Jimmy Carter, for all his intelligence--perhaps because of it--did not."

After World War II, American presidents came to live with a new awesome power: authorizing nuclear war. Every second, the president is accompanied by the "football," the code-containing device for missile launch. (There is no actual "button.")

Enter now a dream by Lyndon Baines Johnson, one LBJ recounted to Richard Neustadt: In the middle of the night, the president prowls the halls of the White House. On the walls he sees portraits of Washington, Lincoln. He broods about the Cold War. He ponders the problems of America: the poor, the environment, kids, jobs. "I have to end the Cold War," he mutters to himself. In the Oval Office he phones his Secretary of Defense on one line; on another he reaches the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We can't go on this way. I'm going to launch the missiles. Now!" The response over the phone: "Screw you, Mr. President."

The dream spoke truth. There are always limits to presidential power. Even as commander-in-chief, he, or perhaps, in the future, she, cannot single-handedly set in motion a nuclear strike. One more moral: Carefree nights are rare for presidents of the United States.

In his book Parliament of Whores, writer P.J. O'Rourke links the presidency to the realm of myth: "The president is not an ordinary politician trying to conduct the affairs of state as best he can. He is a divine priest-king. And we Americans worship our state avatar devoutly. That is, we do until he shows any sign of weakness, any disability, as it were.

"Thus, in our brief national history, we have shot four of our presidents, worried five of them to death, impeached one, and hounded another out of office. And when all else fails, we hold an election and assassinate their character." Hail to the chief.

Says Rockman: "For all the growth in importance and visibility, it is not clear that the office is any more powerful in 1996 than in 1896. The history of the American presidency is a history of the growth of the illusion of our presidents' power."

The public puts the president at the center of a political system that does not possess a center. Our chief executive holds the power to cajole and persuade with ever-dazzling technologies. But presidents cannot command responsiveness. And we do read their lips.

Presidents can promise jazzy initiatives, New Frontiers and New Covenants, but much of what they really do is repackage proposals and ideas from the past. And beyond this: Their proposals and ideas are overtaken by world events. Like geological evolution, history moves by powerful unseen forces.

But history moves too by individual grace and courage, and much depends on greatness thrust at the right moment on the right human being sitting in the White House. It happens sometimes. That is why we hail the chief.


Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents