Does the Man Matter?

Reviewed by Michael Kazin
Sunday, January 25, 2009


Character, Conviction, and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness

By Waller R. Newell | HarperCollins. 344 pp. $25.99


Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis

By Mark K. Updegrove | Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 292 pp. $25.95

For most Americans, the history of the nation's politics means the lives of its presidents. Academic historians deplore that viewpoint and the hefty book sales that accompany it; to explain past presidents, scholars insist, one must appreciate the context in which they campaigned and governed. For example, the rise of mass democracy for white men made Andrew Jackson's tenure possible, while Ronald Reagan owed his success more to the decline of liberalism and the breakdown of the Soviet empire than to his prodigious skill with a teleprompter.

Yet a fascination with the 43 individuals who have held the big job is hardly naive. In the U.S. system, the president is both the head of government and the head of state, which gives him (and someday, her) both the power to shape policy and the obligation to be the symbolic embodiment of the nation. Presidential historians like Robert Dallek and William E. Leuchtenburg, who weave together the personal and the political, the man and his era, can illuminate the workings of power at the highest level, as well as the severe limits of what that power can accomplish.

Unfortunately, any thriving market generates its share of shoddy goods. Far too many presidential histories fail in one of two familiar ways, both reminiscent of undergraduate term papers dashed off the night before a due date. Their authors either indulge in large but banal ideas about leadership that bound heedlessly across the centuries, or they rehash biographical details familiar to anyone who's read a history textbook or seen the documentaries that certain cable channels run with the frequency of ads for body-building equipment.

The Soul of a Leader illustrates the first kind of failure. Waller R. Newell is a professor of political philosophy at Carleton University, and so one might assume he has spent a lot of time thinking about how presidents understand their goals and how ideas frame their conduct. Instead, he delivers a potpourri of rambling essays occasionally tied together by the notion that every great leader is engaged in "the pursuit of honor through preeminent public service." Newell grazes through such familiar topics as the graceful personae of FDR and Reagan, Lincoln's moral code and the age-old dilemma of combining empire and democracy.

The flaw in this approach is that it makes each leader out to be a transcendent force whose supposedly matchless character cowed or conquered his opponents. While we would prefer a president to have a virtuous soul instead of a rotten one, political skill and good fortune usually matter more. We would probably view Lincoln, for all his "innate gentlemanliness," as a failed president if the Union army had lost the battle of Antietam and Britain had recognized the Confederacy soon after. And Reagan might not be remembered as "a wise and patient father figure" if the economy had not recovered midway through his first term and if Mikhail Gorbachev had not been so eager to end the Cold War.

By the end, Newell, or perhaps his anxious editor, may have realized this baggy mess needed an argument. So he tacked on a conclusion -- "The Ten Secrets of Leadership" -- which is brisker and more pointed than anything else in the book. But it has all the insight of a commencement address: "Character trumps brains," "Inspiring rhetoric is necessary -- but only in moderation," "A leader embodies the times" and so on. These are secrets only to a reader who has never bothered to reflect, even briefly, on the nature of political power.

In contrast, Baptism by Fire is unsullied by big ideas of any kind. Mark K. Updegrove, a former publisher of Newsweek, begins with a worthy goal: to compare how eight presidents managed the crises they inherited. Alas, his portraits, while well-crafted, contain few details one couldn't find on Wikipedia. Worse, he offers no thoughts about the matter at hand. Is an economic crisis, such as the one that embroiled FDR, comparable to the political scandal that lifted Ford into the White House? Are modern chief executives, with their regiment of aides, better able than their predecessors to handle dire problems?

Nor does Updegrove explain how he chose his particular octet of presidents. One of the few unusual elements of his superficial book is a chapter on John Tyler, the little-known Virginian who was the first vice-president to succeed a president who died in office. But what about Andrew Johnson, who took power at a far more perilous moment, as the Civil War was ending and the ordeal of Reconstruction had just begun? And is there any reason to write about JFK and not LBJ, other than a desire to tap into the public's unquenchable thirst for Camelotiana? Upon taking office, Kennedy faced the ongoing dangers of the Cold War; Johnson had to cope with a potential defeat in Vietnam, the battle over civil rights and a nation shaken by the murder of his predecessor. But then, Updegrove seems unashamed of vacuity. "The forty-fourth president," he concludes, "may be mindful of all or some of these examples as he takes office. . . . And then, he may not."

Fortunately, Barack Obama is too good a writer and too shrewd a student of history to settle for bromides. Judging from his post-election comments, he seems aware that he will struggle to balance his ambition to do great things with the caution that a serious understanding of the past can provide. In 1913, Henry Adams, sitting in his parlor in Lafayette Square, told the young assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, "I have lived in this house many years and have seen the occupants of the White House . . . come and go, and nothing that you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for very long." At a time of genuine crisis, Obama's task is to prove him wrong. ยท

Michael Kazin's latest book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.

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