Lewis L. Gould, The Modern American Presidency (Univ. Press of Kansas 2003)
To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the life of the modern presidency has been experience, not logic. At least that is one lesson of Lewis Gould's The Modern American Presidency, an elegant summary of the institution and the presidents who served during the twentieth century.
Gould's themes are familiar, and his account accurate. During this time, as Gould describes, the Executive Branch bureaucracy grew enormously; the emphasis on campaigning became permanent; and the president emerged as a full-blown celebrity. In describing the modern presidency's origins and tracing its development, Gould has given us a graceful primer on the history of the institution.
Gould falters somewhat, however, when he shifts from describing the history of the presidency to prescribing, briefly, solutions for what he perceives as its current flaws. His main prescription - voluntary one-term presidencies - seems unwise given the lessons to be drawn from his account.
A Brisk Survey From McKinley To Clinton, with A Few Surprises
Gould, an Emeritus Professor of History and a Fellow of the Center for American History at the University of Texas, has written a number of books on the presidency. In this volume, he aims for the general reader. The result is a brisk survey of the presidential administrations from that of William McKinley (elected in 1896 and 1900, assassinated in 1901) to that of William Clinton (elected in 1992 and 1996, still with us today).
There are some surprises along the way, especially for the general reader. "Silent" Calvin Coolidge, who became president in 1923 after the death of Warren Harding, in fact was quite adept at what is now known as "spin." Perhaps most cleverly, Coolidge managed to distinguish himself from Harding without repudiating his policies. He did so by, among other tactics, making himself readily available to reporters and providing "enough substance in his responses so that the reporters could build effective stories around what he said," according to Gould.
Gould offers an interesting description of Richard Nixon as well. He depicts Nixon as immersed in the trivia of his presidential duties. For instance, citing H.R. Haldeman's diaries, Gould recounts that in April 1970, Nixon "'chewed' Haldeman 'out worse than ever has as P' over the issue of whether . . . Sixty Minutes should devote twenty minutes or an hour to a tour of the White House with his daughter Tricia."
In addition to adding new insight to our view of particular presidents, Gould also provides valuable commentary on governmental structure. He suggests, for instance, that the Office of Management and Budget has its origins in the presidency of William Howard Taft. To take another example, he characterizes Republican administrations as tending to be more structured - in terms of the bureaucracy, as well as the executive's reliance upon it - than their Democratic counterparts.
The Inevitability Of The Continuous Campaign
Although nearly all of The Modern American Presidency is descriptive, Gould also includes a brief critique of the current state of the presidency. It is here that the book falls short of its promise.
Gould elaborates the idea of the "continuous campaign" - hardly a novel concept. He argues that "[t]o win election and reelection now requires mastery of the arts of movies and television, but these time-consuming rituals, though necessary from a political perspective, produce a corresponding loss of concentration on the business of governing the country." The need to campaign, Gould argues, detracts from the president's (and the executive branch's) ability to govern.
Gould notes that the Twenty-second Amendment, which restricts presidents to two elected terms, has contributed to the "continuous campaign" phenomenon. As he explains, the Amendment "created an environment in which the first term was seen only as a prelude to the productive second term that would validate presidential greatness."
In the end, Gould suggests, neither first-term, campaigning presidents nor second-term lame duck presidents have benefited: The Amendment "drained presidential power in the second term from what had become in effect a lame-duck president." Thus, the presidency as a whole has suffered.
A Political Approach To Administration May Be Most Effective
Gould's complaint about what he calls the "continuous campaign" is problematic, though. He suggests that the necessity that presidents be political drives out the time and capacity for administration. But isn't the notion of apolitical administration itself a fiction?
Moreover, playing politics may be the most effective form of administration. Gould's own evidence suggests that the single-minded pursuit of efficient administration, without attention to political considerations, undermines even that limited pursuit.
When Gould notes that one incumbent president "rejected the notion of a continuous campaign for president while governing the country" and consequently was not reelected, he is describing the one-term administration of George H.W. Bush. But he could just as easily be referring to Taft, Gerald Ford, or Jimmy Carter.
Furthermore, Gould's concern for administration seems unduly focused on the time and attention of the president as an individual. Carter may have been much more personally attentive to the details of administration than Ronald Reagan, but it is difficult to dispute that no president has had more influence in shaping the contours of the modern presidency than Reagan.
Gould's Solution - Single-Term Presidencies - Would Not Improve Matters
Gould says that the solution is for presidents to "content themselves with a single elected term and retire." But, according to his own account, that proposal likely would not improve matters. Rather than alternating first-term campaigners with second-term lame ducks, we'd have all first-term lame ducks - not exactly an appealing prospect.
Of course, Gould's solution is not likely to be adopted any time soon. The continuous campaign - driven primarily, but not exclusively, by the quest for re-election - defines the modern presidency. And although Gould may decry this development, he also demonstrates that mastery of the continuous campaign is a prerequisite for an effective presidency.