The American President: The Thinking Person

In this presidential election year, I revisited the PBS series on the American presidency originally broadcast in 2000. One reason was personal. The commentator on the series was one of my mentors, Harvard professor and dean of scholars of the American presidency of a previous generation, Richard Neustadt. Neustadt passed away in 2003. Watching the series reminded me of Neustadt’s way of delivering penetrating insights with his characteristic smile and his great enthusiasm.

The series was constructed thematically, rather than chronologically. Each of the ten episodes discussed several presidents who illustrated a common theme, for example military heroes (Washington, Grant, Eisenhower), scions of prominent families (John Quincy Adams, FDR, JFK), or professional politicians (Lincoln, LBJ). The choice of a thematic construction provided unexpected juxtapositions and insights. It posed the question of what was required for a certain type of person, or a person assuming power under certain circumstances, to succeed in the presidency.

The one downside of this presentation was that every episode’s concluding one-paragraph summary of the lessons learned from the presidents discussed sounded like something a student would memorize for an impending examination. This was accentuated by the musical accompaniment, which of course swelled during the concluding lines.

In his commentary, Neustadt often focused on formative experiences and how they determined whether or not the president the boy ultimately became was comfortable in his own skin when in office. For example, FDR’s cheerfulness and optimism as a child characterized his presidency; in contrast, LBJ’s youthful insecurity contributed to his self-defeating tendency as president to push people too hard and to be too much in their faces. And Neustadt expressing his amazement that Richard Nixon, a classic introvert who always hated dealing with people, sought a career in politics. What was he trying to prove? What insecurities was he trying to overcome?

Looking back over the last seventy years, it is clear that from the thirties to the sixties, Americans elected four superb leaders in FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy, while their successors – LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush – have, on average, been considerably less impressive.

Neustadt, in discussing the impeachment of Bill Clinton, commented that, since Nixon, American politics has become more partisan, so that there is always an opposition, together with at least some of the media, that is intent on unmaking the president. In a parliamentary democracy such as Canada, this is nothing new, but in a republic that fuses the identity of the head of state and head of government in one person, this is problematic.

Out of Neustadt’s commentary emerge a number of characteristics necessary for success, possibly even greatness, in the presidency. I pose these as questions.

  • Does he have a vision for the country?
  • Can she concentrate on a small set of key priorities, rather than attempting to implement a laundry-list?
  • Does he display integrity, by keeping the public’s trust, upholding the law, and refusing to abuse power for personal gain?
  • Is she at ease in her own skin and does she enjoy exercising power to achieve her vision?
  • Is he comfortable as a politician, in the sense of accepting the necessity of building coalitions and convincing powerful people, both in the US and, increasingly, overseas to join?

These questions seem to me to be the essential ones. It is, of course, harder to pose them looking forward to predict how someone will perform than it is to ask them retrospectively. But voters should be posing them, both in the US presidential election later this year, and in the Canadian elections that will be held, at the latest, in October 2009.

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