Book Review: The Presidents, by Stephen Graubard

By Babak Moussavi

How has the office of the President been transformed in the past 100 years?

How did the United States Presidency transform in the 20th and early 21st Centuries? That is the main question that Stephen Graubard sets out to answer in this excellent history of the office. At 734 pages of text, The Presidents is a massive tome, and offers a succinct biography of each of the men (no women, yet) who held the office in the 20th and 21st centuries. Its fascinating subject matter, and well-written style makes it an excellent read.

Before considering the individual presidents in turn, Professor Graubard begins by exploring a few of the most obvious changes in the Presidency. Elections are now huge occasions, with large popular involvement in the process of nominating candidates. At the start of the century, elections, or at least party nominations, were largely determined by “men in smoke-filled rooms”. This has been effectively replaced by the primary system, which introduces more democracy into the process, by rooting out the corrupt opacity, but it also means that money and personality offer routes to nomination. Indeed it is such a given that money is a necessary feature for election in the USA, that the hapless Ross Perot thought his billions would win him the office as an independent.

Professor Graubard also points out, in considering the development and changes in the American presidential system, that the office of the Vice-President has expanded greatly. Previously, this post was seen as little more than ceremonial, and was not a position aspired to by particularly ambitious men. They sought the grandeur of Presidency itself. But if they couldn’t reach that summit, a Senate post or Governorship may have been preferred. This tendency slowly evolved, however, as shown most obviously by the influence of the second-in-command in the recent administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Al Gore came within a whisker of the Presidency himself, even winning the popular vote. Moreover, given Bart Gellman’s documentation of the levels of influence that Dick Cheney held over his boss, Mr Bush, it is unsurprising that some consider him to have been a ‘co-President’.

It wasn’t always like this though. In the chapter on Lyndon B Johnson, Professor Graubard describes how the man – who, following JF Kennedy’s assassination, became President in the least fortunate manner – spent the saddest years of his otherwise vibrant and impressive political life as Vice-President. Indeed, Kennedy did not even really want him as part of the administration: the offer had been made with the assumption that Johnson would not give up his plum seat as Senate Majority Leader for the meagre role as VP. When he did take it, Kennedy and his advisers, including his brother Robert, made every effort to try to dissuade Johnson from this surprising decision. The move had been made partly to placate him, as Johnson had also sought the Democratic nomination, as well as to stop him from being a potentially disruptive force within the same party. But it backfired, and they ended up with an unwanted guest in the administration. Such is the level of calculation associated with picking who joins a party’s nominee on the presidential ticket.

Harry S Truman, too, was elevated to the Presidency after Franklin D Roosevelt’s death, and worried about the lack of authority he possessed by ascending from the position of Vice-President. As such, before he won his own mandate – somewhat unexpected at the time – he proceeded to remove and replace many of the senior members of the administration that had been installed by his predecessor. The Vice-Presidency seems then to have hardly been a position of grandeur.

The main, chilling thesis of The Presidents, however, is how the Presidency has essentially been debased. This is not to say that it has become weaker (although, as the book was written just after Barack Obama’s election, Professor Graubard may have to reassess), but that the type of qualities that it requires in a person are less serious and respectable than they used to be. Graubard says Presidents nowadays have similar powers to monarchs. But he laments that the levels of intellectual gravitas and commitment to public service that are required are now secondary qualities.

At the start of the century, ambitious, learned men, such as Theodore Roosevelt, aspired to the office, and in turn, expanded the power of the Presidency. Although a few of Theodore’s successors were disappointing in their ambition and authority, the successful Presidents, such as his namesake, Franklin D Roosevelt, followed in Theodore’s mould of ambition and learning. Many in between, with the exception of the professorial Woodrow Wilson, were forgettable, disappointing and lacked all ambition.

Spot the odd one out.

The pattern set by Theodore stopped with the “Reagan revolution” however. Ronald Reagan was a “transformative” President: his election clearly portrayed that one did not need the learning or ambition to be President. What was needed was style. Reagan, as a gifted actor, possessed this in abundance, with impressive stump speeches and limitless charisma. Brains, by contrast, were not his strong point; but they were not needed. In George W Bush’s election, this truth had taken hold; so much so that Professor Graubard gives Mr Bush the epithet “Reagan’s Boy”. In Barack Obama, Professor Graubard writes with the hope that change has come in a way that Obama had perhaps not meant: a reversion to a time when cerebral men would want to lead, and would be electable too.

While Professor Graubard is right to point out that the skill of performance is a far more important attribute nowadays, its rise correlating with the ascent of mass media and the television as the main medium for transmitting news, I fear he goes too far by suggesting that intellect has stopped mattering since the Reagan revolution. For here, the distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties needs to be recalled. Since Reagan, the Republicans have, it seems, not valued intellectual prowess as much as the Democrats have. Indeed, one look at the Republic primaries of 2012 that are occurring as I write this should provide enough evidence that sharpness of mind is not the most important attribute (although some candidates have stood out, in particular Ron Paul, who is certainly consistent in his libertarian arguments, and the recent dropout Jon Huntsman, who seemed at least to have a more intellectually honest attitude to evidence-based thinking). Rather, the Republicans are concerned with representing the ‘common man’, and therefore do not want to appear aloof, or detached from the average voter’s concerns. When Mr Huntsman broke into fluent Mandarin at one of the debates to demonstrate a point about China, the reaction was negative: the average Republican voter, with traditional values, and conservative concerns, appears not to care much for linguistic talents. Anti-intellectualism is treated as the same as anti-elitism, so much so that Rick Santorum, another contender for the nomination, called Mr Obama an “elitist snob” for wanting more young Americans to attend university. It is quite revealing that Mr Santorum thought this would be a vote-winner, though Katherine Orr’s post yesterday might shed some light on to why this might be.

On the Democrats’ side, though, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are both, by all accounts, learned men, perhaps even equal to the great Roosevelts. It is also the case that they are gifted speakers, and politician-actors. While the latter may now be a necessary condition for Democratic nomination – a point Professor Graubard makes of all Presidents – it is not a sufficient condition. The Democratic Party, one would hope, is still one that values its politicians’ brains.

In terms of consideration, Professor Graubard treats some Presidents as more equal than others: Franklin D Roosevelt gets more than five times as many pages devoted to him than the inept – and forgotten – Warren Harding. True, FDR won four elections, whereas Harding, a presidential disaster, died after two years on the job.

FDR: The greatest?

Indeed, it is noteworthy that Professor Graubard offers much criticism of the various Presidents, but little praise. When he does give it, it is for their efforts to use their distinguished office to do ‘good’ in society. Lyndon B Johnson’s domestic policies, including the Great Society programme, are praised, and the suggestion is that the President has the potential to be an excellent one had he not inherited – and continued to wage – a catastrophic war in Vietnam. Professor Graubard’s writing is full of hope for Barack Obama to be a success too, and, although an obstructionist Congress and an irate, post-financial crash electorate hamper his efforts, Mr Obama has been a good President so far, displaying an obvious passion for creating a just and flourishing society.

But Professor Graubard’s most obvious admiration lies with FDR. As the formidable personality who used his bedridden-polio years to improve his mind, FDR brought about the New Deal, fought off the economic gloom of the time, and won World War Two. FDR’s achievements for social justice have been unrivalled by any President since.

1 comment
  1. I especially like the phrase “anti-intellectualism is treated as the same as anti-elitism” which I think sums up the Republic culture at this point. I do hope that Democrats are still the party more concerned with intellectual prowess but I’ve really started to wonder. It seems like, although we are almost certainly the stronger team intellectually, we are becoming repulsively apologetic about it. I get that it is a delicate balance to be electable but the reality is, only the super-rich stand a chance in our electoral process so why pretend they have anything in common with the average Joe? Democrats are rightfully vocal about the absurdity of Mitt Romney acting Everyman by wearing jeans and a button-up but they won’t admit the blatant attempts to make Harvard educated Obama Everyman? Am I convinced that the constant footage of Obama playing basketball and singing Al Green makes him relatable? No, just like I wasn’t convinced that Bill Clinton chowing down at McDonald’s made him at all normal. I just think if we are going to be the party of the intellectual, we need to embrace it and not apologize for believing a Harvard education is more important than free throw skills.

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