The flavour of Stephen Graubard’s account of the American presidency in the 20th century may be quickly grasped from his comparison of the only two presidents to follow their fathers into the White House, John Quincy Adams (1825-29) and George W. Bush (2001-?):
Adams, fluent in seven languages, accomplished in both science and mathematics, took pride in the cultivation he had acquired through years of living in close proximity to his gifted and influential father, benefitting from his schooling in Paris and service as a very young man as an additional secretary to the American negotiators that ended the war with Britain …. A student at the University of Leiden and Harvard …. George Washington recognised his potential … appointed him minister to the Netherlands when he was only 26 … to Lisbon as minister to Portugal … to the more important post in Berlin … served first in the Massachusetts senate and then in the United States Senate … minister in Russia … President Monroe appointed him secretary of state. In that post …. Adams excelled.
almost nothing in the career of George W. Bush, except for the advantages he enjoyed from being the son of a former president, compared with those enjoyed by John Quincy Adams … travelled little, knew neither foreign languages nor the world abroad … ranked 114th in a class of 238 at Philips Andover Academy and excelled in no sport …. made no very great impression either on his teachers or his fellow students . . . a heavy drinker . . . ‘totally, completely drunk’ … an affable drunk … Billy Graham, the noted evangelist … became a born-again Christian … understood what Reagan, his father’s mentor, had taught him: to feign originality, to show no deference to the past, and to pretend to be striking out on new and bold paths, an almost sure recipe for political success.
As unmistakable as it is restrained lurks the curl of the fastidious Cambridge lip for a transformation, in the 19th as much as again as in the 20th century, from learning and refinement wrapped in republican simplicity and dignity to media-driven vulgarity and plutocracy, most recently served up by Reagan’s choreographers and their heirs in the quasi-royal trappings of military parades and imperial magnificence. A lifetime Ivy League history professor and for nearly 40 years editor of Daedalus, the official journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science, Graubard comes from the top of the top drawer of East Coast intellectuals, profoundly loyal to the America they themselves represent, cosmopolitan, learned, liberal-minded and easily disgusted by the more brash, ignorant, fundamentalist and conservative America that lies to the west and south of Massachusetts.
The book tells the stories of the 18 ‘20th-century’ presidents — redefined to exclude the slain William McKinley (1897-1901) and to include the present incumbent. Graubard supplements this with three discerning essays on what he sees as the growing power of the presidency, on the vice-presidency and those VPs who succeeded presidents who failed to complete their term and on the triumph of popular democracy in the sense defined and analysed in Alexis de Tocqueville’s timeless essay. As should be expected from such a stable, it gallops through the century with style, scholarship, wit and scrumptious readability.
The argument of the book may, how- ever, come in for more critical examination by future historians. The growing power of the presidency, the book’s central thesis, appears to me to be a far more complex matter than any straightforward linear rise would capture. To be sure, George W. Bush is conducting his presidency with every appearance of huge personal command, not least because his agenda has centred on matters of war and peace, where the President does indeed have, not unfettered but much less fettered, discretion not enjoyed in matters of domestic policy. And even at home the events of 9/11 have hugely enhanced his freedom of action.
But to draw a line from, say, Woodrow Wilson’s youthful thesis that the US was now ruled by ‘congressional government’ to the post-9/11 world would do violence to the winding path that real history has traced. Many British observers of the American scene will have shared my own experience from Kennedy to Clinton of finding it very necessary and relevant to explain painstakingly to European audiences the severe checks and balances on the executive branch of the American federal government, the extreme contrast in this regard with the arrangements to be found in, for example, Britain and France and the clear intention of many at least of the founding fathers in Philadelphia that the American executive should be paralysed, lest it conduct itself like the European monarchies in reaction to which the US had come into being in the form they chose.
The Kennedy administration (before post-Dallas hindsight rewrote the story), the post-Watergate Nixon White House and the Ford, Carter, Bush (senior) and early Clinton years were all construed by persons like myself as object lessons in the limitations of American presidential power and the importance of the legislative and indeed judicial branches of what was, after all, constitutionally part of, not just a check on, the American government. Nor is it clear to me that the post-9/11 Bush (junior) administration will be found by future historians to lie closer to the trend line of centennial history than that of, say, Coolidge (1923-9) or Carter.
But there is a different secular change which is both more historically accurate and at least as profoundly important; and that is the decline of policy and policy-making as hallmarks of outstanding presidents. Nobody could for one moment doubt that both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, Truman and indeed Johnson, for all their consummate political skills, were policy men in the sense both that they dominated the making of policy in their own administrations and that they saw the policies they made — and their navigation through the inevitable political shoals — as the justifying purpose of their presidencies. And they changed America and the world in consequence and mostly for the better.
But only Carter and Bush (senior) of the last six presidents were policy men in that sense; and their eventual political failures were attributed by serious commentators precisely to this fact. When a master politician such as Clinton displayed considerable interest and facility in policy matters as well, this was regarded as a foible celebrated in the condescending phrase ‘policy-wonk’.
We live now, not only in America, in a world where the most senior politicians are not expected to be proficient or even concerned in policy, where their energies, skills and time appear primarily focused on the mechanics of winning and holding on to power, or at least office, and where their most omnipresent lieutenants are experts in media management, electoral strategy and political marketing. It is seen as the task of such men as Reagan and George W. Bush, whom Graubard views as the great actor’s true political heir, to secure the office and therefore the power which can then be exercised by more shadowy figures working in the murky political basements where policy is cranked out.
This, it may appear, is a more solidly established trend, rooted in the growing professionalisation of electoral politics and, in America, the exploding cost of campaigns conducted mainly through television advertising, than any swing of the pendulum of power between one end and the other of Pennsylvania Avenue; and it carries at least as grave potential consequences for all of us who live in the shadow of what is done in Washington as well as in other capitals.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 5, 2005