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The Best Book On the Presidency:
Comments on a Classic That Is Particularly Trenchant In Times Of War


Friday, Mar. 14, 2003

From time to time, I'm asked what is the best book on the modern American presidency. Actually, this last, most recent inquiry was a bit more specific: If there is one book President George W. Bush should read about the presidency, what is it?

In making a single recommendation, I must pass over a number of tempting alternatives. Yet in the end, my choice is quite easy, notwithstanding the fact the president isn't much of a reader.

Important Works On The Presidency Not Easily Overlooked

I still refer to Professor Edward S. Corwin's classic, The President: Office and Powers, written in 1940. But despite periodic revisions, it has become a bit dated.

The same is true of Professor Richard Neustadt's, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, even though it has also been updated (through the Reagan presidency). While it is full of insights, Neustadt is still smitten with FDR's non-organizational organization - a model of the Presidency that simply is no longer viable.

Emmet John Hughes's The Living Presidency, published in 1973, is also excellent. In particular, its still-relevant extended appendix offers the personal observations of twelve former senior White House aides on the qualities necessary for presidential leadership and good decision-making, the requisites for those who serve a president, and the appropriate scope of presidential powers.

Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek's seminal 1997 work, The Politics Presidents Make, brings fresh thinking to the modern presidency, by showing that pre-modern presidents have much to teach us. But it might get a bit esoteric for Mr. Bush.

Finally, there is much to be said for The Presidential Difference, by Fred I. Greenstein, which provides a critical overview of all the modern presidents, from FDR and even including the incumbent Bush II (in the paperback edition). This work examines each president's skills as a public communicator, organizational capacity, political skills, cognitive style and "emotional intelligence."

Yet all these works are trumped by George E. Reedy's classic: The Twilight of the Presidency: An Examination of Power and Isolation in the White House. If a president read no other book on the modern presidency, this should be the one.

A Classic Every President And His Staff Should Read

George Reedy, a working Washington journalist, went to work as President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, at the time the war in Vietnam was being rapidly escalated. He remained in the post for eighteen months. But he was unwilling to mislead the American people about the increasingly unpopular war, so he left government, and returned to journalism.

It was several years after leaving government that Reedy wrote The Twilight of the Presidency. The book is a critical look at the modern American presidency - and, in particular, at the impact that war has had on the highest office of government.

While Reedy wrote nothing negative about Lyndon Johnson, the former president was most unhappy with Reedy's frank assessment of the presidency. Indeed, after the book was published, LBJ refused to speak with Reedy ever again.

President Gerald Ford, on the other hand, found the book so instructive and insightful he insisted - when he became president following the Watergate-forced resignation of Richard Nixon - that his White House staff read it. At the time, Ford was not only dealing with the final phases of the Vietnam war, but also the aftermath of Watergate.

A Brief Overview Of George Reedy's Classic

Reedy's general concern is quite simple. He believed darkness was falling on the office of the president because the modern presidency had become an institution that, by its nature, kept a president out of touch with the country he must lead and the real problems he must solve. The modern president, Reedy explained, is cut off from those who will tell him the truth, and surrounded instead by "yes men" who tell him only what he wants to hear.

As a one-time insider, Reedy found that the presidency had become a uniquely American monarchy, an institution never contemplated by our founders. There are few checks on the man (or perhaps in the future, woman) elected to this office, other than his (or her) own character. The office is, in effect, a stage - a focal place that magnifies a president's weaknesses, and often ignores his strengths.

With good reason, Reedy is not at all certain that the checks and balances of the Constitution, along with the powers of the media, are sufficient to assure that the executive branch is really properly serving the American people. To a remarkable extent, he explains, the president can do what he wishes, independent of what the people want, and what is in their interest.

Reedy's small book is large with reality. That is its strength. To wit, take his first point about the White House staff. His concern is as real today as when he expressed it three decades ago.

Reedy's Thoughts On The White House Staff

Based on his experience and observations, Reedy concludes that the working environment at the White House is unreal, if not unhealthy. This is true, Reedy says, because when a presidential aide "picks up a telephone and tells people to do something, they usually do it." In short, those acting in the name of the President of the United States get results. I'll attest to that being true, and it is actually quite astonishing.

Reedy found this particularly unwholesome for young people, whose White House experience only sets them up for disillusionment when they return to the real world. If Reedy were writing the rules, his first would be: "There should be a flat rule that no one be permitted to enter the gates of the White House until he is at least forty and has suffered major disappointments in life." Reedy is also concerned that young people, daunted and intimidated by the office, are unlikely to give the president the hard advice he needs to hear.

To appreciate what Reedy is saying, it is necessary to understand his relationship with President Johnson. Reedy was almost fifty years of age when he became LBJ's press secretary. Johnson was a demanding, if not impossible, boss. Reedy was willing to put up with LBJ for only a year and half, and he was not willing to lie for LBJ about the escalation of the war the Vietnam. So he resigned.

A young Bill Moyers, a man in his early thirties, replaced Reedy as press secretary. Moyers was willing to do the president's bidding regardless of his personal feelings. It was a great experience, and started Moyers on a new career path, for he has become a distinguished journalist.

Once when I was visiting with Bill Moyers before an interview, he said to me that he had no doubt about how so many young White House aides got involved in Watergate. "But for the grace of God there go I," he added. He said he felt himself lucky to have made it through the Johnson presidency untarnished.

From what I've learned of the Bush II White House, in chatting with those who do business there, the White House staff includes many young people. And George W. Bush is a president who tolerates no dissent. In short, he's created the world that worried Reedy. Former President Ford would do his successor a favor if he were to send Bush a copy of the book Ford insisted his staff read.

Rather than Barring Young People, Reedy's Rule Imposes Added Responsibility

Reedy's point is that young people who enter politics or government service and are fortunate enough to find themselves working at the White House (or some similar high post) are in for serious disillusionment. That is largely because they will discover that the President of the United States is not the paragon he paints himself to be in his campaign literature. In a White House like Nixon's, which was highly compartmentalized, very few of the president's staff really knew the real Nixon, the man who later surfaced on the tapes.

I hope no young aide ever again discovers themselves working for a corrupt president, as once I did. But if they do, I worry for them. There is no question in my mind that had I been ten years older at the time, I would have told Richard Nixon to go to hell much sooner that I did.

Having talked with countless White House aides who were in their early 30's, as I was, when working at the White House, I have found that most agree that while they felt fully competent to handle the work, it was a baptism-by-fire and on-the-job-training experience. It is my observation that young men and women who are starting their careers are far more likely to do the unsavory political work than those who are older - those who have sacrificed or interrupted established careers to assist a president.

Of course, anyone who works at the White House - young and old - serves at the pleasure of the president. If you don't want to do as the president wishes, you have no business working there. Only a few are like George Reedy, who have no compunction about telling the president no, and resigning. But often this is precisely what a president needs to hear.

I would be the last person to say that Reedy's rule should be adopted to preclude young people from the White House staff. But I do believe that the young people who go to the White House have an added responsibility to examine the consequences of their actions given their youth, inexperience, and ambitions.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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