Michael Nelson: Fresh understanding of the presidency is needed

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. Most recently he edited, with Richard J. Ellis, Debating the Presidency: Conflicting Perspectives on the American Executive (CQ Press, 2006).]

The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson marked a sharp turn in the history of presidential scholarship. From FDR's New Deal 1930s until the mid-1960s, when the Johnson administration's main story line shifted from civil rights and the Great Society to its deepening and disastrous prosecution of the war in Vietnam, historians and political scientists had grown comfortable with the idea that the presidency was a powerful, benign force in American society. As Thomas E. Cronin concluded after reviewing dozens of college textbooks from the era, scholars typically regarded the presidency as being "benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, and highly moral." The president, wrote Clinton L. Rossiter in his 1956 The American Presidency, an exemplary work of the period, is "a kind of magnificent lion who can roam widely and do great deeds." If two recent cinematic saviors — Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia and Superman as portrayed in Superman Returns — come to mind, you have the idea.

Johnson's first two full years as president, 1964 and 1965, were filled with legislative successes on behalf of African-Americans and the poor that seemed to fulfill what Cronin called the "textbook presidency." But Johnson's major, unilateral commitment of American troops and treasure to a futile and, some believed, unjust war in Vietnam gave rise to a new scholarly model of the office: powerful, yes, but malign: Satan to the earlier model's Savior. Abuses of power culminating in Watergate by Johnson's successor, Richard M. Nixon, seemed to confirm the accuracy of the new model.

What had gone wrong with the presidency? Some scholars traced the problem to the modern office, whose large staff and mythic trappings tend to seal off presidents from critical voices that they need to hear in order to govern effectively and responsively. Others, notably James David Barber in his 1972 The Presidential Character, traced it to the presidents themselves. Those most likely to successfully climb the ever-greasier, ever-steeper political pole, he argued, may well be driven by a psychologically unhealthy need for power. When faced with serious challenges to their authority, such presidents tend to respond rigidly, aggressively, and, from the nation's standpoint, dangerously....

The need for a fresh way of understanding the presidency has never been more apparent. Powerful or weak presidential leadership, for example, used to correlate with variables like the size of the president's electoral majority, the length of his coattails in Congressional elections, and the extent of his persuasive abilities. What made those variables important was that they affected the president's ability to unite the other branches of government behind him in a constitutional system marked by checks and balances and separation of powers. George W. Bush scores low on all of the traditional power indicators, but he became a remarkably powerful president even before 9/11 by redefining presidential power in unilateral terms that do not require much support from the rest of the political system.

Clearly we need a fresh approach to understanding the presidency, one that illuminates the varied experiences of all of these presidents, from LBJ and his predecessors through Bush and his successors. But academic presidential biographers are not going to help us find that approach if the deepest questions they bring their subject are: How liberal (and thus good) was this president, and did a scholar or a mere journalist write the latest book about him?

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