The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, by Forrest McDonald, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 5l6 pages $29.95
Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, by Garry Wills, New York: Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $23.00
The troubled public mind is increasingly fixed on the idea of "leadership." The decline of religious and other mediating institutions has consequently magnified the political dimension of leadership well beyond its reasonable limits, especially for the person and office of the American president. The apotheosis—and nadir—of this phenomenon was reached in the campaign of 1992, in the form of the Ross Perot movement, and especially in the three-way debate in Richmond that resembled a Donahue show. This was the episode where President George Bush was stymied by a young questioner who wondered whether Bush could empathize with his "needs."
Having replaced a patrician president with one who says he "feels our pain," we are now watching this self-styled empathic chief executive get hoist by his own petard. But Bill Clinton is merely an egregious example of the now-typical practice in American politics of inflating the people's expectations about the capabilities of political leadership. This trend has been unfolding for many years, and could yet prove to be the undoing of the presidency regardless of the occupant. Such is one of the sober conclusions suggested by Forrest McDonald's magisterial intellectual history of the presidency.
McDonald's book should be regarded as the third in a trilogy of indispensable books about executive power, the other two being Harvey Mansfield's Taming the Prince (1990) and Jeffrey Tulis's overlooked 1987 masterpiece, The Rhetorical Presidency. Where Mansfield argued that executive power paradoxically secures free government by adopting some characteristics of tyranny, Tulis traced the way changes in presidential rhetorical practice over the decades have corrupted our constitutional order.
For his part, McDonald, long regarded as at least a libertarian fellow traveler, thinks that "the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in the world." But McDonald's researches leave him "not sanguine" about the future of the presidency and our republic, and he "does not see how anyone who lived through the 1992 presidential election could be."
McDonald, professor of history at the University of Alabama, is the ideal person to shed light on the irony that prompted him to write this book in the first place: the ideological split over "whether the enormous growth of the responsibilities vested in the American presidency has been necessary, practical, or desirable." In recent decades, ideological perspectives on this question have reversed. During the New Deal and after, big government liberals strongly favored the aggrandizement of executive power, while conservatives deplored it and favored congressional and judicial power. Then, with Johnson and Nixon, liberals discovered the "imperial presidency," while even more recently conservatives have come to champion executive power against the excesses of the "imperial Congress." (Terry Eastland's 1992 Energy in the Executive is the pre-eminent example of this.)
McDonald is a historian, not a political scientist, so he eschews writing a brief for either side. But his intellectual history of the presidency sheds light on many aspects of government power that both sides argue incessantly about, from the struggle to direct foreign policy to the battle to control the budget and the bureaucracy. For example, McDonald explains how inter-branch conflicts over foreign policy and the withholding of information from Congress under the doctrine of "executive privilege" began with the presidency of George Washington.
Although McDonald avoids explicitly taking sides in the executive-versus-legislative branch contest, he nonetheless displays a subtle partisanship on the larger question of the proper size and scope of government. Government today, he recognizes and deplores, has become "a huge, amorphous blob, like a creature out of science fiction." The White House has itself become bureaucratized along with the rest of government, to the point that neither the president nor the Congress truly "govern" as that idea was understood by the Framers.
McDonald does not take up the various suggestions for institutional reform of the presidency, such as cabinet government under a quasi-parliamentary system (which was popular with some reformers, such as Lloyd Cutler, in the 1980s). As McDonald sees it, the central problem with the presidency—and government as a whole—is that popular expectations of government have come to exceed its capacity to meet those expectations. Leadership in the cause of expanding government was easy back when statist objectives were arguably within the capacity of government to deliver. Today, Congress increasingly enacts, and the executive tendentiously administers, unenforceable or profligate laws. Attempts at reform usually make matters worse; McDonald has an excellent discussion of the 1974 Budget Act and how it has made fiscal policy even more irresponsible and uncontrollable. Unfortunately, there is only a brief account of Nixon's attempt to gain mastery of the bureaucracy in 1973, which was quickly aborted by Watergate but which may have been the last serious chance for a president to assert control of our administrative state.
McDonald limits himself to history and does not take on the awesome question of what kind of leadership is necessary to reduce people's expectations and shrink the state. Garry Wills is obviously not the person to answer this great question, but he usually has some interesting things to say, even when he is flat wrong or up to mischief (which is most of the time). In Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, Wills attempts to get at the thing in itself by examining leaders and "antitypes" across a wide spectrum of vocations and callings. Wills glosses over and dismisses the two most popular notions of leadership—the Periclean "great man" school and the Dale Carnegie "winning personality" school—in favor of a more serviceable three-part understanding. Leaders, says Wills, cannot lead without followers and a goal to aim for. Goals with some kind of moral dimension, he adds, provide the clearest and most compelling possibilities for leadership.
This understanding might seem simple or simple-minded, yet it is fitting for a time when many invocations of the need for "leadership" come off as clichéd precisely because the idea of leadership has been cut loose from clear ends to serve. Leadership has been made into a disembodied virtue not dissimilar to the vacuous meanings of the words caring, concern, or commitment as they are used in contemporary discourse. A concrete example that Wills himself would not trumpet is the reason why the president has been known for 50 years as the "leader of the free world." The free world followed the United States because we had fairly clear goals and a reasonably consistent policy. But under the direction of Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher, and Strobe Talbott, "American leadership" is fast becoming an oxymoron.
Some of the predictable people (for Wills) show up in his pantheon: Lincoln, FDR, George Washington, Napoleon, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King Jr. But among Wills's "certain trumpets" are a fair number of fluegelhorns, thin reeds, and kazoos. For instance, Andrew Young as a diplomatic leader? As with most of Wills's efforts, there are some acute judgments and observations scattered widely through the pages of the book. Certain Trumpets is best in its criticisms of the leadership qualities (or lack thereof) of several "antitypes," especially Clark Kerr, General George MacClellan ("MacClellan, in effect, spent his whole war dressing up for a battle he never attended."), GM's Roger Smith, and even Madonna. His analysis of Adlai Stevenson's defects might well apply to Jack Kemp: "Stevenson felt that the way to implement his noble ideas was to present them as a thoughtful idealist and wait for the world to flock to him."
But some of Wills's comparisons misfire and reveal his fondness for statism. Nancy Reagan and her "Just Say No" crusade are held up to ridicule next to Eleanor Roosevelt and her brand of do-goodism. Regardless of how one regards the war on drugs, at least Nancy Reagan's slogan appealed to a virtue—self-restraint—that is much in need at the moment, while Eleanor Roosevelt, were she on the scene today, would strike most people as a sanctimonious busybody. A more just comparison, because the circumstances and time frame are more equal, might be Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton; in such a contest, it is not clear that Nancy Reagan's style of leadership would come out on the short end. And here and there, Wills verges on a blooper: His comparison of King David to Fidel Castro seems a bit infelicitous, even before the latest round of the "refugee regatta" commenced.
Still, Wills does provide a helpful clue about our times, although he would not acknowledge it as such. He asserts that what we have today is not a shortage of leaders or would-be leaders, but rather a shortage of followers. "We do not lack leaders," he writes. "Various trumpets are always being sounded. Take your pick. We lack sufficient followers." If true, this is good news, because it suggests that individualism may be ascendant. People who are less eager to jump in line behind some "leader" just might be inclined to take responsibility for thinking and doing for themselves.
Perhaps this is the reason for the ambivalence about public attitudes toward contemporary presidents that McDonald notes. We say we want strong, activist presidents, but we also distrust strong, activist presidents. If Wills is right that followers are a thinning herd, the "leadership void" we hear bemoaned might well be regarded as society's equivalent of "gridlock" on Capitol Hill. Gridlock, after all, as REASON readers and other anti-statists know, is a good thing because it prevents the government from piling stupidity on top of idiocy. All in all, stuffing a mute in the leadership trumpet may not be such a bad idea. Bill Clinton should try it with his saxophone, and learn by analogy.
Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank.