Soundbite: 18th Century Man


"I write for anybody who's intelligent and who's interested in the subject," University of Alabama historian Forrest McDonald told C-SPAN's Brian Lamb back in 1994. Continuing in the same welcoming spirit, McDonald also offered that he writes in the nude on his porch; a complete transcript of the genuinely engaging interview is available online at www.booknotes.org/transcripts/10046.htm.

McDonald, who jokes that he's spent most of his adult life in the 18th century, is the author of over a dozen books, including a biography of Alexander Hamilton and The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. His latest, the eminently readable States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876 (University Press of Kansas), traces states' rights discourse from the Declaration of Independence through the Reconstruction Era.

Shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush in January, Washington Editor Michael W. Lynch talked to McDonald about the presidency, Bill Clinton's impact on the office, and what we might expect from Bush as the nation's chief executive.

Q: Do you prefer a strong or weak president?

A: On balance, I think a strong president is preferable. There are drawbacks, because of the abuse of power. But Congress is so disposed to passing legislation without giving it much thought that a check against it is necessary. For instance, over the last 10 to 15 years there have been too many new federal crimes created. They make all sorts of things crimes and then they pass these strong mandatory minimum sentences.

Q: Was Bill Clinton a strong president?

A: He was not a strong president; he was a popular one. Ask yourself, what did he get done? Was there any major legislation he was responsible for? Welfare reform came from the Republican Congress. Health care was a disaster. He simply didn't get much done. He was a comedy of errors. Everyone approves of what he's doing, but when you ask the question, no one can say anything he did.

I think the presidency suffered in terms of prestige, and in terms of popular respect for the office, which may work to George W. Bush's advantage. It may make it possible for Bush to be a more effective president. But there's an irony there, because what Bush says he wants is a return to states' rights, local control. So if he's successful, he'll decrease the power of the presidency.

Q: Is there an inherent tension in trying to decentralize federal power, as in Bush's education plan?

A: Yes. He wants to send the authority to make decisions back to the states and to local schools. But the catch is that to get them to do this, you send them federal money. As Frank Sinatra once said on the Johnny Carson show about his connection to the mob, "They are perfectly OK, but don't ever let them do you a favor, because then you owe them." That's the catch in the education package, and it's a terrible one.

Q: You've written that authority has shifted among the three branches of the federal government. Where do you see it trending?

A: The Supreme Court is still ascendant. There are so many emotionally fraught issues that the politicians don't want to settle, and therefore dump on the court. School busing, abortion, and affirmative action, for example.