Hail to the ChiefsPrint
Leaders of the last century
By Michael Sherry
December 7, 2015
The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton by William E. Leuchtenburg; Oxford University Press, 904 pp., $39.95
Wow! What an achievement by this 93-year-old historian, who experienced most of the presidencies he examines, once “lived a few doors down the block from Grace Coolidge,” and has “begun work on another book carrying the narrative from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to 1900.” At 70, I am in awe of what William Leuchtenburg has accomplished in this doorstopper of a book. He is perhaps today’s greatest presidential historian, and not of the presidency as some insular realm, but as it intersected with national life, which makes this book also a history of the nation in the 20th century.
He practices a neglected art. Periodically, historians get the call to “focus once again on the American presidency,” as a recent History News Network article put it, but few seem to answer it. None of the many graduate students I’ve taught or known over the past four decades have focused on the presidency, though they’ve done great work about how particular presidents have dealt with particular problems. I continue to admire Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), perhaps the best single volume on its subject, and often press it into the hands of my graduate students. Its top-down, political, and presidential approach—students overlook its rich material on the local and the regional—seems dated to them. In their own politics, they think that presidents matter. But most scholarship they read points them toward race, class, and gender; toward the grass roots rather than the top; toward the particular rather than the sweeping. They don’t disdain Leuchtenburg’s book; they just don’t know what to make of its force and clarity. Accustomed to authorial voices that can be hidden or slippery, they are flummoxed when told straight out what to think.
They also notice that in Leuchtenburg’s generation, presidential scholarship was written almost wholly by and about men, as this volume’s bibliography reflects. Back then, few women were in the academy to write about anything, much less about a realm of history already established as a man’s game. Later, when more women entered the fray, their political and intellectual sympathies lay with the bottom-up approach. Among the exceptions, some, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, looked to a popular audience. And of course there have been no female presidents: we can guess that if Hillary Clinton wins the White House, more women will pursue presidential history. Also largely offstage in this volume are sexuality, gender, and culture, subjects that historians, especially women, have dug into. Race is there when it hit a president in the face—which was often, as when FDR signed off on the incarceration of Japanese Americans—but less so otherwise.
But oh, what’s left! This is a brisk, smart account of a huge subject. Leuchtenburg’s wit, sense of irony, and eye for the apt quotation remain intact. The more than 100-plus pages on FDR alone would make a fine book, and taken as a whole, this work sheds new light on a political history elusive for many students and young scholars. His new book distills his generation’s scholarship, seasoned with more recent work. Anyone who remembers courses in American history in the ’60s and ’70s will recognize names in the bibliography—James MacGregor Burns, George E. Mowry, Richard Hofstadter, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Each of them wrote books I devoured as a student in the 1960s. Despite the limits of their work, I remain nostalgic for how they thought and wrote, if not always for their claims.
Leuchtenburg’s generation presumed that presidents matter a lot but rarely made that presumption explicit. Leuchtenburg does. While acknowledging the weight of “impersonal forces,” he remains “persuaded that twentieth-century America was significantly shaped by its presidents.” He carries that argument through the book, as well as a corollary about the aggrandizement of presidential power, without beating readers over the head with it. His book thins out on recent presidents both because Leuchtenburg has less scholarship on which to draw and because today there exist more barriers to scholars’ use of official sources. But Bill Clinton’s impeachment produced a tsunami of records, which Leuchtenburg uses for a rich account that doesn’t shy away from the unseemly particulars—Clinton receiving “oral sex while he was on the phone with a U.S. senator,” for example. He is similarly evenhanded yet sharply worded in his treatment of other recent occupants of the White House. Leuchtenburg tips his cap toward those who tried to do great things, but worries even more that “[t]oo many times … the lions broke loose from their reservation,” “lied to us,” and “wasted the lives of our children in foreign ventures.”
And what do we learn beyond the grand sweep of the presidency? A few samples. Given the hatred hurled at Barack Obama, it’s useful to recall that before William McKinley’s assassination, a Hearst newspaper editorialized, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” Ugliness toward (and by) presidents is an old story. Despite huge Democratic majorities in Congress in the mid-’30s (and lesser ones later), FDR “also broke every record in making use of the veto power.” Thin-skinned capitalists who bemoan Obama’s mild rhetoric about them should heed FDR saying of “organized money” in 1936, “They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.” The speech, Leuchtenburg writes, “did not so much foment class hostility as register the reality of it.” FDR’s assertion of presidential power during World War II was outrageous enough to make even George W. Bush blush, and also set precedents for things Bush did. Given the warm glow that has settled over George H. W. Bush in his old age, particularly in comparison with his president son, Leuchtenburg recalls the elder Bush’s “heinous racism” in 1988, his irresponsible choice of Dan Quayle as running mate, and his vapid and mangled rhetoric (“I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism, and anti-racism”), as well as his achievements (though Leuchtenburg skips Bush’s big contribution to the mass incarceration of Americans under scrutiny now). Readers will find much, much more.
Michael Sherry is the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University. His book The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon won the Bancroft Prize.