‘The Living Embodiment of the Nation’
Phillip G. Henderson
A review of The American Presidency: An Intellectual History,
by Forrest McDonald. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994.
516 pp. $29.95.
[From HUMANITAS, Volume VII, No. 2, 1994 (c) National
Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]
Forrest McDonald's The American Presidency: An Intellectual History
is a most impressive work. Few contemporary books in American politics
reflect the careful and prodigious research, as well as the considerable
breadth of knowledge and historical insight brought to bear by McDonald.
If you are looking for behavioral models and typologies of presidential
behavior, this is not the right book. But if you seek a deeply historical
and substantively rich overview of the U.S. presidency, this book is without
As one might expect, given McDonald's reputation as a leading scholar
of the American founding, about half of the book is devoted to a discussion
of the numerous influences shaping the creation of the presidency as well
as the institution's evolution during the formative early years of the
republic. No less than five chapters out of sixteen are devoted to assessing
the importance of the "great commentators on English law and constitutional
custom," political philosophers, ancient and contemporary historians, and
the experience of the colonial and revolutionary eras as reference points
for the Framers of the Constitution in their creation of the presidency.
McDonald's discussion of this broad array of influences is not without
its contradictions, however. "It seems fair to say," writes McDonald, "that
the Framers could not have accomplished what they did without the political
philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Bolingbroke, Hume, De Lolme,
and a few others" (39). Yet, in his next chapter, McDonald argues convincingly
that political philosophy was substantially less important than the lessons
of history as a guide for the Framers in shaping the Constitution. As he
History, to most of the authors of the Constitution, was more valuable
than political theory because it was more real; as Bolingbroke put it,
history was philosophy teaching by example. Eighteenth-century Americans
read widely in history, thought historically, and cited history as authority.
During the first three weeks of the Philadelphia convention, for instance,
delegates buttressed their positions with historical references at least
twenty-three times, not counting references drawn from British, colonial,
or recent American history, inclusion of which would treble the total.
A number of delegates delivered lengthy addresses on the lessons to be
learned from ancient or modern history. During the same period only one
political philosopher was mentioned by name. (67)
A noted biographer of Washington and Jefferson, McDonald offers what
may well be the best chapter-length treatments on record of the precedent-rich
Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican eras. Ever sensitive to the role
of decorum in shaping the office of the presidency, Washington sought the
advice of Adams, Hamilton, Jay and Madison on the appropriate rules of
behavior for the new office. Washington wished to strike a balance between,
in his words, " 'too free an intercourse and too much familiarity,' which
would reduce the dignity of the office, and 'an ostentatious show' of monarchical
aloofness, which would be improper in a republic" (214). For the inauguration
ceremony itself, "Washington took the oath of office in the Senate chamber,
where both houses of Congress had gathered, and then he delivered his address."
This procedure "was consciously patterned after the arrangements in England,
where the king, at the beginning of each session of Parliament, addressed
both houses in the chamber of the Lords." But Washington, wearing a suit
of brown broadcloth made in Connecticut, hoped to take some of the monarchical
edge off the proceedings.
Even when it came to "the niceties of federal-state relations," Washington
was very considered in his actions. When he was invited to review the militia
in Massachusetts, Washington declined, " 'otherwise than as a private man'
because they were under state jurisdiction." Having deferred to state sensibilities
in that regard,
he similarly refused John Hancock's invitation to stay in the governor's
residence in Boston but agreed to have dinner together—on the assumption
that Hancock would acknowledge the subordinate position of governors by
first paying the president a courtesy call. Hancock instead sent a message
that he was crippled with gout and could not leave home, whereupon Washington
flatly refused to see him except in Washington's own lodgings. Next day
the governor, heavily swathed in bandages, called upon the president. (216)
While some of Washington's contemporaries found such concerns pretentious
or comical, Washington did not. "It was his task," McDonald writes,
to enable the American people to make the transition from monarchy
to republicanism by serving as the symbol of nationhood and to institutionalize
the symbol by investing it in the office, not in the man. To that end,
he behaved as if his every move was being closely scrutinized, which to
a considerable extent it was. (216)
The standard of excellence that McDonald not surprisingly meets in his
discussion of the early period in the evolution of the presidency is matched
or exceeded in subsequent chapters of the book. Vast amounts of information
are distilled and presented in each chapter. In his discussion of the modern
presidency, for example, McDonald eloquently weaves together strands of
the works of Clinton Rossiter and Richard Neustadt. The Neustadtian theme
finds expression in McDonald's observation that the president
must inspire confidence in his integrity, . . . competence and capacity
to take charge. . . . Indeed, it is scarcely possible to govern well in
the absence of such confidence because the president's job is to persuade
other people to implement his decisions, and his persuasiveness rests largely
on what those others perceive his public perception to be. The image thus
determines the reality. (425)
McDonald's discussion of Thomas Jefferson also has a Neustadtian ring to
it. McDonald suggests that Jefferson was an "intensely private man," with
"a passionate aversion to confrontation, argument, and disharmony," who
chose to wield power, "not by direct exercise of his constitutional authority,
but by bargaining, persuasion, and the careful husbanding or expenditure
of his counters in the political game" (247).
But while Neustadt advised John F. Kennedy to "deinstitution-alize"
and "humanize" the presidency, McDonald warns that Jefferson's "humanizing"
of the presidency allowed him to exert influence independent of office,
with adverse consequences for his successors. "By stripping from everyone
pretense and the trappings of status," Jefferson "established a milieu
in which he was quite without a peer. In the intimate surroundings in which
he was host and master of the house, he was clearly the first among equals."
But "his methods could be effective only with a man of Jefferson's gifts
at the helm" (248).
Garry Wills offers a similar critique of Neustadt's formula for highly
personalized leadership in his book The Kennedy Imprisonment. "The Neustadt
school," Wills writes,
maintained that the presidency is only what each President makes it,
that the office is defined by the man, not vice versa. This has led to
the intense personalization of the institution. . . . This personalization
creates charismatic expectations in noncharismatic times, to be followed
by inevitable disappointment.
Hence, Wills argues that while George Washington's authority "was lent,
in diluted and diffused manner, to the constitutional procedures he affirmed
by his resignation of power," the charismatic leaders attempt to contrive
a "crisis" atmosphere even when no crisis exists.
In acknowledging the limitations of the "personalized" presidency, McDonald's
focus is far more compatible with the work of Clinton Rossiter than it
is with the Neustadtian perspective. The Rossiterian influence is evident
in McDonald's pronouncement that "the president is during his tenure the
living embodiment of the nation. Hence it is not enough merely to govern
well; the president must also seem presidential."
Rossiter perceptively noted that the presidency fuses the dignity of
a king with the governmental adeptness of a prime minister. McDonald shows
through numerous examples of actions and rhetoric how various presidents,
from Washington onward, have mixed, merged, or ignored these roles. McDonald's
discussion of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, for example, serves quite
nicely to explicate the "chief executive" and "chief of state" roles.
Shortly before taking office, Wilson wrote that the president "must
be the prime minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation
as with the just and orderly execution of law, and he is the spokesman
of the Nation in everything." Congress, as "the law making part of the
government," should, according to Wilson, "be very hospitable to the suggestions
of the planning and acting part of it," the presidency (359). To stress
this point, McDonald observes, Wilson "abandoned precedent by appearing
in person to address Congress," much as a prime minister addresses the
While Wilson focused his energies on the "chief executive" role, Ronald
Reagan was chief of state par excellence.
He saw the main task in his role as head of state (as distinguished
from head of government) as restoring the nation's confidence and self-respect
after the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. President Carter had perceived
the same need but had exacerbated the problem by giving a television speech
in 1979 in which he almost whiningly complained about a "crisis in confidence."
Reagan, by contrast, exuded faith in himself and in his country, and the
confidence was contagious. (453)
The contrast between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on the chief of
state role is striking. While Reagan clearly understood the importance
of preserving what Walter Bagehot described as the habitual reverence of
the people for institutions that instill a sense of dignity in their government,
Carter seemed to have no such conception of the office. McDonald cites
Tip O'Neill's memoirs to illustrate this point. Commenting on Carter's
efforts to, in press secretary Jody Powell's words, "de-pomp" the presidency,
What Carter failed to understand is that the American people love kings
and queens and royal families. They want a magisterial air in the White
House, which explains why the Kennedys and the Reagans were far more popular
than the four first families who came in between them. (426)
O'Neill was not alone amongst members of Congress who yearned for a
more presidential air. Dan Rostenkowski once surprised Carter during the
president's visit to Chicago by having the house band strike up "Hail to
the Chief" as Carter entered the room. Until this point, such pomp had
been strictly forbidden by Carter, but the enthusiastic response that he
received from the Chicago audience convinced Carter to allow the practice
Carter, Forrest McDonald makes clear, was not the first president to
attempt to "de-pomp" the presidency. When it came to the ceremonial, ritualistic,
and symbolic functions of the presidency, McDonald notes, Jefferson seemed
intent on rejecting them out of hand. Unlike Washington before him, Jefferson
"shunned display, protocol, and pomp; he gave no public balls, held no
levees, had no public celebrations of his birthday." Moreover,
He abandoned the monarchical ritual of appearing in person before the
legislative branches and afterward exchanging formal messages. When Jefferson
had anything to say to Congress, he sent his secretary with a written note.
. . . He never held court for government officials or, though he understood
the ritualized niceties of European diplomacy, for foreign ministers. Instead,
he held an endless succession of small dinner parties, invitations to which
were handwritten and signed not "The President of the United States," as
Washington and Adams had signed, but simply "Th: Jefferson." There were
rarely more than twelve guests at a time, and the seating was pell-mell.
. . . Unwigged, casually dressed, Jefferson charmed his guests . . . .
The lively interplay between historical insight and contemporary analysis
of the presidency makes for interesting and informative reading. In a midterm
election year that will be remembered for its negative campaigning, McDonald
reminds us that negative campaigning is as old as American politics. While
George Bush was chastised by the press for not instantaneously repudiating
the non-candidate sponsored commercials on the saga of the furloughed felon
Willie Horton in 1988, and for calling Clinton and Gore "bozos" in the
1992 race, these incidents pale in comparison to the campaign that Andrew
Jackson faced in 1828. Supporters of John Quincy Adams vilified Jackson
as "an uncouth frontier ruffian, a murderer, and an adulterer." And, as
if this were not enough, Jackson's detractors "slandered his wife" and
charged that Jackson's mother "had been the concubine of a black man and
thus that he was a bastard mulatto" (430).
Jackson's supporters responded in kind, "charging Adams with corruption,
with using public funds for private advantage, for having had premarital
sex with the woman he later married and for being involved, while minister
to Russia, in facilitating the seduction of an American girl by the tsar."
McDonald's insights also suggest that earlier elections were marred
by many of the same faults that political scientist Thomas Patterson attributes
to modern elections in his new book Out of Order. Patterson notes, for
example, that media coverage of modern elections places great emphasis
on personalities and tactics while little attention at all is paid to issues
and substantive policy differences. As McDonald notes, "the striking fact
about the 1828 election . . . is that nothing at all was said about what
the candidates would do if elected" (430).
By 1885, McDonald notes, "the technology that made mass-circulation
newspapers and magazines possible, created an enormous demand for news."
Indeed, "demand far exceeded supply, and reporters early on learned to
file stories about nonevents such as speeches, ceremonies, and rumors."
Since presidents and presidential candidates "were among the few people
whose names newspaper readers everywhere could recognize . . . Americans
were fed information (or misinformation or disinformation) about their
president on a daily basis" (435). Again, not much has changed.
Nor are adversarial relations with the press new. Woodrow Wilson made
it clear that he viewed reporters as impertinent, disrespectful, and prying.
"The reporters, for their part, regarded Wilson as cold and aloof, prone
to lecture as if he were still a professor, and somewhat dictatorial in
his efforts to control the news" (437). Needless to say, Wilson did not
ingratiate himself with the press.
What has changed in press coverage of the presidency is the ideological
thrust of reporting. During Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, such major
newspapers as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Detroit Free Press,
and Chicago Tribune were "vehemently antiadministration" (444). Roosevelt
had the editorial support of just 37% of the daily newspapers in 1936 though
he won 60% of the popular vote. Consequently, Roosevelt turned to the radio
airways to get his message across in undiluted form with "carefully scripted,
diligently rehearsed, and beautifully executed" talks.
Today, of course, the major newspapers tend to champion activist "Rooseveltian"
presidencies like Bill Clinton's while conservatives emulate Roosevelt's
clever practice of turning to radio as the communications medium of preference.
Unable to exert editorial control over radio talk-show hosts, Washington-based
reporters for the major news dailies, like Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles
Times and Charles Corddry of the Baltimore Sun, excoriate and demonize
the likes of Rush Limbaugh as alleged purveyors of misinformation.
Last, but not least, McDonald's reading of history is refreshingly different
from the Rooseveltian lenses of a Neustadt or an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
A brief look at McDonald's observations concerning Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan underscores the differences. Regarding Wilson,
for example, McDonald writes:
Radical as Wilson's conception of the presidency was, it was moderate
compared to his conception of himself, which was little short of messianic.
Indeed, the day after his election, the Democratic national chairman called
on him to confer about appointments, only to be rebuffed by Wilson's statement,
"Before we proceed, I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing.
Remember that God ordained that I should be the next President of the United
States." He was a master of oratory who described every issue, no matter
how trivial, in terms of a great moral crusade, always with himself as
the nation's (and later the world's) moral leader—and he believed what
he was saying. Given that attitude, it followed that people who opposed
him were unenlightened or evil; it was therefore impossible to meet them
After winning reelection in 1916 by a narrow margin in the electoral
college and again by a minority of the popular vote, Wilson had become
"frustrated domestically," and "directed his attention to saving the world
'for democracy.' " In 1918, McDonald wryly observes, "Republicans regained
control of Congress, and they made life hell for Wilson" (364).
McDonald's discussion of Franklin Roosevelt is prefaced by a discussion
of how Herbert Hoover's own legislative proposals to combat the steadily
worsening depression in 1931 set the stage for Roosevelt's activism. Chief
among Hoover's bills was the Glass-Steagall Act, which had vast implications
for the expansionistic presidency of Roosevelt's era. Designed to counteract
the devastating contraction of currency and credit, it broadened the kinds
of commercial paper that were acceptable for rediscount (and thus usable
as the basis for the issuance of money) in the Federal Reserve System,
and it also made government debt acceptable for that purpose. Politicians
took a while to perceive the implication for fiscal policy: The more the
federal government borrowed, the greater was the potential money supply.
That innovation, coupled with the income tax on personal and corporate
incomes authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment, made the growth of the Leviathan
state and the imperial presidency fiscally possible (365).
Roosevelt was more than willing to start the nation and the presidency
moving in that direction. As McDonald puts it: "Having reached the pinnacle
of legislative power and having taught the people to look to the president
as the remedy for every problem, Roosevelt went too far and committed political
blunders that made it impossible for himself and for successors to fulfill
the expectations he had raised" (367).
Bill Clinton should read at least this much of McDonald's book, but
he ought to read pages 378-79 as well. In these pages, which concern Reagan's
economic program, McDonald notes that the program was not all doom and
gloom. On the down side, federal expenditures increased from $657 billion
to $1,064 billion over a seven-year period, and "by no means just because
of defense spending, since outlays for civilian programs increased considerably
faster." On the plus side, "the nation experienced a period of economic
growth and prosperity that lasted more than seven years." Federal revenues
increased from $599 billion in 1981 to $909 billion in 1988. And while
Reagan left a legacy of increasing deficits, the economy was growing so
rapidly that the deficit "was less as a percentage of gross national product
when Reagan left office than when he had entered it." As an added bonus,
in McDonald's view, the deficit "had the effect of preventing Congress
from enacting many new social or economic programs."
McDonald gets in a few digs at Congress along the way. He notes, for
example, that no real spending cuts were made under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings,
"not even of the bogus variety Washingtonians called a cut: a smaller-than-projected
increase." After nearly two years of struggling with the deficit, George
Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge and agreed to support a tax increase
in exchange for a promise to cut spending. As McDonald notes, "Congress
lived up to half the agreement, namely the tax increase" (380).
In addition to containing a heavy dose of meaningful history, Forrest
McDonald's book is chock-full of memorable anecdotes. His vehicles for
developing the story of the presidency are often as humorous as they are
trenchant. Bill Moyers, for instance, once said, "The real problem with
Lyndon Johnson is that he probably believes about ninety percent of what
he reads or hears. So he finds it perfectly natural to expect the people
to believe about 90% of what he says" (472).
Even the poet Robert Frost serves as a keen lens for observing the presidency.
A lifelong Democrat, Frost, in McDonald's view, captured the essence of
Woodrow Wilson's legacy to future presidents when he wrote in 1928 that
Wilson "saw as vastly as anyone that ever lived. He was a great something,
if it was only a great mistake." Frost added: "Some might think his failure
was in missing a mark that someone to come after him will hit, but I suspect
it was worse than that: he missed a mark that wasn't there in nature or
in human nature" (439).
McDonald closes one of his chapters with the following remark: "By the
year 1992 American citizens had become sick unto death of their government
and of their president. Somehow they managed to retain faith in the office
of the president—if the right candidate would come along" (381). McDonald
did not suffer the burden of having to appraise Bill Clinton's presidency
in the first edition of this remarkable book. He does note, however, that
Clinton's path to the presidency included a saxophone solo on the Arsenio
Hall show and an appearance on MTV. Tony Coelho, a top adviser to Clinton,
acknowledged a few weeks before the mid-term elections of 1994 that there
is "a feeling among the American people that maybe he's not quite up to
being president." Because Clinton had "become a prime minister," Coelho
added, "people don't know he has a vision. He's got to keep being president."
Perhaps Coelho has already read McDonald's book. Many others ought to.
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