Iain Dale, The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political LeadershipHodder & Stoughton, rreviewed by Christopher Carman.
Why are some presidents considered “excellent” and others “poor” (and some even “complete failures”)? To wrestle with this question, we must examine both the institution that is the office of the President of the United States of America as well as the (deeply) personal characteristics, personalities and life stories of the people who have inhabited office.
One of the big challenges in examining the men (because so far they’ve all been men) who have served as US president is that there are relatively few of them – including Joe Biden, there have been 45 different presidents; 13 throughout the post-war period up to the present.
The number of data points limits the extent to which we can generalize across presidents. This simple fact has often meant that to understand the American presidency, we need to understand something about the people who serve as president.
This is where Iain Dale The Presidents excels. It provides the reader with a highly engaging set of stories that highlight the (very) personal stories of people who have served as presidents and how their individual stories have helped shape their time in office. As Iain Dale states in the book’s introduction, “This book is a celebration of the office of the presidency and the personalities who have lived in the White House and worked in the Oval Office” (pg. xv).
Of course, reading the chapters collected in the volume edited by Iain Dale The Presidents, some context is important. It might be useful to take a step back to remember that the government put in place under The United States Constitution (drafted in 1787 and taking effect in 1789) was not the first attempt in the great American experiment in republican autonomy. The Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 was technically convened for the explicit purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation (think of them as the beta version of the Constitution) – not throwing them out completely and designing a whole new set of federal structures and establishments. Yet, rejecting the articles is what the Constitutional Convention did – and probably for good reason.
The weaknesses of the governance structures, processes and institutions put in place under the Articles of Confederation (1781-89) were numerous and have been well documented elsewhere (see, for example, “The Vices of the Political System of the United States” by James Madison (1787); Donald Lutz, “The Articles of Confederation as the Background of the Federal Republic”, Publius (1990)). The weakness particularly relevant in this context is that the government under the Articles has not not have a general manager. In fact, there was no significant executive function in government.
As part of the concept of separation of powers (see from Madison Federalist #51), the idea is that different branches of government hold distinct sets of powers: Congress legislates, the courts rule, and the executive office of the president executes. Yet the articles clearly lacked this crucial enforcement function – that someone (or an office) within the national government should be responsible for “keep the laws faithfully executed” (US Constitution, Art. II, §3.3). And the absence of an office responsible for ensuring the effective application of the legislation was sorely felt during the revolutionary period.
Perhaps, then, one of the most emblematic innovations adopted by the Constitutional Convention was the creation of an (indirectly) elected chief executive, separate from the legislature but with some degree of overlapping and intertwining of powers.
However, as the office of the presidency was a somewhat new concept in 1787, it was, in many ways, more of a set of institutional aspirations than a clearly articulated set of institutional structures. This meant, as the chapters collected in The Presidents colorful details, that the presidents’ lives, backgrounds, personalities and approaches to governance have unquestionably played a significant role in shaping and shaping the office as the nation has grown and evolved. What becomes clear in the chapters of this volume is that the role and office of President Joe Biden has changed significantly since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. And the presidencies that they held were very different from those of Buchanan and Lincoln, and their presidencies were markedly different from those of Washington and Adams.
Collectively, all of the chapters offer intriguing snapshots of the men who served as presidents and of the development of the United States. The great taint, or “peculiar institution” as it was called, of slavery, unsurprisingly, features heavily in many chapters. There is careful and thoughtful attention to the legacy of individual presidents on this topic – how they felt about the institution, whether they owned slaves, whether they took action to improve lives or, in fact , free the slaves, etc. on.
Similarly, chapters, especially on past presidents, are also careful to note and detail how presidents—especially those who served in the military—have treated or felt about the native Native American population. The details of the Caucasian, devious, and often downright cruel treatment of First Peoples can make for uncomfortable reading for those who might have been inclined to romanticize the Founding Fathers and their successors in the Oval Office. (An interesting counterpoint to this treatment is Woody Holton just came out freedom is sweetwhich details the contributions of Native Americans and Black Americans, enslaved or not, to the development of the United States.)
Given the nature of this book – largely written by passionate and accomplished people who, nonetheless, are not necessarily experts on the US presidency – it should come as no surprise that the quality of the chapters can be somewhat variable. . Some are extremely well written and very engaging, others less so. Perhaps a little surprising is that the most compelling and compelling chapters detail the lives of the more obscure presidents. Indeed, the two parts of the book that chronicle lesser-known presidents (since, say, the 8e chairman, Martin Van Buren, at 14eFranklin Pierce, then from the 19eRutherford B. Hayes, at 25eWilliam McKinley) are perhaps the most intriguing because they detail the lives of men often overlooked in office and often found at the bottom of presidential rankings.
Through these stories, we learn that “the most powerful office in the world” doesn’t necessarily have the degree of power that many might think. We can also see why the presidential researcher Richard Neustadt (1960) argued that “presidential power is the power to persuade” and, by extension, those unable to persuade haemorrhage power. In his seminal treatment of the presidency, Neustadt would argue that:
“A president, himself, affects the flow of power… [it] to flow[s] free or run[s] dry he will never decide alone. He makes his personal impact by the things he says and does. Accordingly, his choices of what to say and do, how and when, are his means of retaining and harnessing the sources of his power. Alternatively, the choices are the means by which he dissipates his power. The outcome, on a case-by-case basis, will often depend on their perception of the risk in terms of power and whether they consider what they see before making their choice. A president occupies such a unique position, and his power is so tied to the uniqueness of his place, that he cannot rely on anyone else to be insightful for him. (1960: 150).
Through the stories of The Presidents — some well-rehearsed in American political history and some newer — we see how the choices presidents make influence their ability to wield power. While other authors (Robert Caro’s masterful multi-volume cover of the culture of political power by Lyndon Johnson comes to mind here) explore a single individual extensively and intensively, the beauty of The Presidents is that the volume offers readers the opportunity to identify patterns in the exercise of presidential power (successful or not) across different presidents and their administrations. We are able to get an idea of what the presidential scholar Stephen Skowroneck called ‘political time’ in his classic The politics that presidents make.
A few small observations about the book are warranted. The illustrations, the work of Zoom Rockman, as well as the facts provided at the beginning of each story offer great insights into the presidents and their families. Quotations can be particularly pleasing – whether lofty, such as Grover Cleveland’s exaltation, “A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, morality, justice, and interest of the people themselves,” or the more humorous and mundane, like Franklin Pierce’s quip, “There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.”
What perhaps shines brightest about Iain Dale The presidents is that in the polarized, hyper-politicized, post-truth world we face, the office of president has historically relied on a degree of integrity in those who hold the office of president. Of particular note is a quote from John Adams before he became president: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations or the precepts of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and the proofs” (p. 19). Many readers are likely to put on a wry smile if they try to apply the second president’s warnings to contemporary politics.