Friday, March 07, 2008

The history of the American presidency & what Lyndon would do

“In the United States … the national political agenda is a product of careless comparisons … The media contribute to this … Almost continuous political campaigns also contribute, for ‘ins’ have to allege that things are better now than they used to be, while ‘outs’ have to charge that things are getting worse. And the public at large has little immunity, first because change inheres in ‘the American way of life;’ second because most people have not had much schooling in history; and third because they have been so deluged with ‘news’ denoted ‘crisis’ that the memory cells are cluttered.” Richard E. Neustadt & Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York: The Free Press, 1986.

If you caught Sen. John Kerry’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama, just ahead of the South Carolina presidential primary, you likely heard the Massachusetts Democrat say that America’s most transformational presidents were young men.

“Since the birth of our nation, change has been won by young presidents and young leaders who have shown that experience is defined not by time in Washington or years in office, but by wisdom, instinct and vision,” said Sen. Kerry in January, reported The New York Times.

There’s only one problem with Mr. Kerry’s conclusion – it’s wrong. The junior Senator from Massachusetts, educated at an Ivy League school, shows, with his endorsement, little knowledge of American history.

Of the eight men elected president while in their 40s, only two have been of any consequence: James K. Polk, a Democrat, and Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. The others, which include Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, were of little significance in the course of American history.

To be fair, both Garfield and Kennedy were assassinated, bringing their presidencies to a quick and unfortunate halt; there will always remain questions about what their presidencies could have been and, tragically, for their sake and ours, those questions will remain unanswered.

Should his wife win both the Democratic presidential nomination and this year’s presidential election, Bill Clinton’s legacy might improve. His will be seen as the launching pad for the first woman to be elected president.

If Sen. Obama is elected president, he’ll be the ninth U.S. chief executive to be inaugurated before turning 50. If the past is prologue, the odds are stacked against Sen. Obama’s presidency being anywhere near successful. It’s likely to wind up in failure. At the very least, a President Obama won’t come close to meeting his supporters’ expectations.

Presidents Polk and Roosevelt, taking the oath of office at the ages of 49 and 42, respectively, can lay claim to being some of the country’s more transformational and successful presidents. Compared to the many of their presidential peers, both men showed high amounts of executive skills, leadership ability, rugged determination, courage of their convictions, were opportunistic and, when necessary, conniving and ruthless in accomplishing their goals.

Looking back at the 42 men to have held the presidency, only 10 come close to being considered transformational or held the job during a period of time when the country underwent fundamental and wholesale change. These 10 showed all the traits listed in the previous paragraph. They also had something in common: They were, more often than not, older than 50 when elected president or, prior to their White House years, had a record of executive leadership.

Those presidents include Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.

George Washington and Andrew Jackson deserve special mention. Washington set the tenor and tone for the presidency; his most important accomplishment was showing how a president abides by the Constitution, something that has gone all too underappreciated. Washington was the “indispensable man” because, at a time when the country was vulnerable to being taken over by a despot, he demonstrated, instead, how a president could live within a new political system.

One of Washington’s greatest accomplishments was to improve the country’s standing in the world’s leading capital markets of his day. That was when he agreed to Alexander Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to acquire the bonds the individual states had written to fund the Revolutionary War. By supporting Hamilton’s initiative, and seeing it passed by Congress, the young nation found a new source of revenue beyond tariffs and taxes. Suddenly foreign speculators in places like Amsterdam were buying the new U.S. government-backed bonds.

Washington’s presidency, however, is not transformational. Which doesn’t mean it’s any less important. His presidency was about establishing the country, placing him on a higher pedestal which no other president, no matter how successful, will ever ascend. Washington stands alone, and no one stands with him.

Jackson, one of the more colorful characters to have ever occupied The White House, was, compared to his immediate predecessors, the first common man to hold the office; his presidency, while marked with some historic events – the Nullification Proclamation and the closure of the Second Bank of the United States – did not transform the country. Jackson is the first president to stand up to the South, thereby enforcing the Constitution.

Here are some highlights of our most successful, transformational and consequential presidents:

• Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president, doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase; by doing so, he showed the power of the presidency because he negotiated and signed the agreement with France without consulting Congress. This might go down as the first presidential violation of the Constitution. He also successfully fought the Barbary Pirates by launching a Naval and Marine strike against Tripoli. The Barbary Pirates, the terrorists of that time, and had been attacking U.S. shipping. Their defeat meant that the United States no longer paid them tribute. Prior to becoming president, Jefferson had been Virginia’s governor, the U.S. secretary of state and vice president. He was 57 when he became the president.
• James K. Polk, the 11th president and the first president elected while in his 40s, brought Mexico to its knees, forcing it to surrender all of its territory north of the Rio Grande River. This gave the United States territory that stretched from Texas to California. Had Polk been more ambitious, perhaps even ruthless, or had more control over his diplomat negotiating with the Mexican government at the war’s conclusion, he could have annexed all of Mexico, bringing our southern neighbor’s existence to an end. While the Mexican-American war was in full swing, Polk successfully negotiated a treaty with Great Britain, forcing it to surrender its claims to the Oregon territory. He did this by appearing to be a war-monger and the British fell for the bluff. With these two accomplishments, Polk sees to it that the United States is a country that stretches, as the song goes, from sea to shining sea. And it was all done in the course of one presidential term. Before becoming president, Polk had been speaker of the House of Representatives and governor of Tennessee.
• Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, successfully fought the Civil War and ended slavery, thereby allowing the United States to live up to its proclamations about being a country that supported and promoted freedom for all Americans regardless of their race, creed and religion. Lincoln was 52 when he became president and had little executive experience prior to his White House years.
• William McKinley, the 25th president, a former Ohio governor and Congressional leader, transformed the United States into an empire by defeating the Spanish during our war with them in 1898, giving the United States its first territorial possessions outside of its boundaries, including the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and, for a while, Cuba. McKinley had never wanted to go to war but events and public opinion forced his hand; the most significant victory of the war was the Navy’s defeat of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. It put the world’s considered top naval authorities, which included the British and German Admiralties as well as the Japanese, on notice that they had a new rival for command of the high seas. McKinley was 54 when he was inaugurated as president.
• Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, came to office just shy of his 43rd birthday. His was an accidental presidency; he had been McKinley’s vice president and became president on McKinley’s assassination. Prior to becoming vice president, Roosevelt had been New York City’s police chief, New York’s governor and assistant secretary of the Navy. During his nearly eight years as president, Roosevelt’s transformed the United States into a world power. He ended the Russo-Japan war; sent the Navy on a worldwide tour, showing the world that the United States was no sleeping giant. He supported a revolution in Columbia so the territory that would become Panama could separate and become its own nation; and then, because of his support, Roosevelt successfully negotiated a treaty with the new Panamanian government for the Canal that would completely transform worldwide shipping. It also gave the United States the ability to transfer its naval ships between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with ease, making the United States a two-ocean power. In addition, he ended a railway trust and became the country’s first “green” president by safeguarding and enlarging parts of the country from development.
• Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, had been the governor of New Jersey and the president of Princeton University prior to becoming president of the United States. The most significant accomplishment during his presidency was the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank, thereby giving the United States an effective monetary policy that’s outside of the control of the president. He also reversed a long standing tariff that had protected American industry, and he established the Federal Trade Commission, which is empowered to investigate corporate practices. His other domestic accomplishments included passing a child labor law and limiting railroad workers to an eight-hour day, something that would become part of American lexicon. He led the United States into World War I but his attempts to make the country more influential on foreign affairs were defeated by Congress. Wilson set American foreign policy for most of the 20th century when he said that the United States would fight in World War I "for things which we have carried nearest to our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free people as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free ... America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured." This proposition, the centerpiece of American foreign policy, has been advanced by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Wilson was 56 when he took office.
• Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president, was 51 when he was inaugurated. Prior to becoming president, FDR had been the governor of New York and, like his presidential cousin Theodore, an assistant secretary of the Navy. FDR transformed the United States into a world power by leading the country into World War II and seeing to it that had a say in global events after the war. He also pushed legislative action to end the Depression, called the New Deal, which increased the government’s role in the economy. Two of his most significant accomplishments include establishing the United Nations and the Social Security Administration.
• Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, was the first Cold War president. He established U.S. foreign and military policy so that it could counter the Soviet Union’s attempts to achieve worldwide communism. This would become a bipartisan initiative. HST succeeded FDR upon his death in April 1945. Some of his most significant decisions included using the atomic bomb to bring about Japan’s surrender during World War II; establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Truman Doctrine; and bringing about racial integration of the military. Truman was 60 when he took office.
• Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, because of his years in Congress prior to becoming John Kennedy’s vice president, successfully pushed through much of the legislation that Kennedy initiated but failed to have enacted by Congress. Besides FDR, there was likely no greater presidential force on Congress than Johnson. And because he knew just about everything about every member of Congress, he saw much of his proposed legislation, called The Great Society, successfully voted upon by Congress. The Great Society program included the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment; Medicare; Medicaid; the war on domestic poverty; the Equal Opportunity Act; and Head Start. Johnson’s accomplishments also included establishing the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The great tragedy that affect’s Johnson’s legacy is the Vietnam War. Had he either unleashed his military commanders so they could fight the war as they saw fit or, instead, decided to remove U.S. forces from the Republic of Vietnam early in his presidential tenure, his legacy would be much brighter. Still, all in all, LBJ was highly effective and very much a transformational president. LBJ was 55 when he took office.
• Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, goes down as the oldest man to ever be inaugurated; he was just shy of his 70th birthday when he took the oath of office. During his presidency, he showed the Soviet Union that it would cost them far more than they had ever anticipated if they were to carry on the Cold War. Reagan forced them to the bargaining table through a strategy that was simple but understood, “We win, they lose.” By his actions, he forced the downfall of the Soviet Union and thoroughly discredited communism as credible politics. The departure of the Soviet Union made the world safer in some ways, more dangerous in others. By defeating the Soviet Union, without firing a shot at it directly, Reagan put an end to an issue that had plagued American foreign policy and military planners for nearly half of the 20th century. Prior to becoming president, Reagan had been a labor leader and a two-term governor of California.

So what makes for a transformational president?

Transformational leadership, as defined by Pulitzer Prize winning historian James MacGregor Burns, in his book Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness, involves bringing about “a metamorphosis in form or structure, a change in the very condition or nature of a thing, a change into another substance, a radical change in outward form or inner character … It is change of his breadth and depth that is fostered by transformational leadership.”

Transformational leaders, Burns writes, “define public values that embrace the supreme and enduring principles of a people … Such values are not ordinarily part of the daily discourse of the citizenry. But at testing times when people confront the possibilities – and threat – of great change, powerful foundational values are evoked. They are the inspiration and guide to people who pursue and seek to shape change, and they are the standards by which the realization of the highest intentions is measured.”

It is impossible to predict what anyone will be like as president. The best ones never entered the job thinking their presidencies would stand out more than others. They were certainly ambitious politicians but they never thought they’d achieve all that they did.

The most successful and meaningful presidents knew what they wanted to do once they took office. President Polk stated that he’d expand the country during one presidential term, which may make him the only president to have lived up to all of his campaign promises. He didn’t run for re-election. Franklin Roosevelt, elected during the Depression, knew the economy needed help; he didn’t think he was going to fight Germany, Japan and Italy and discredit fascism. Witnessing Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Reagan knew he had to free U.S. hostages from Tehran and reduce Soviet influence. He never thought he’d wholesale defeat Soviet-style communism and liberate Eastern Europe.

Some of our better presidents entered office thinking they would do something entirely different than they did. Woodrow Wilson thought he’d spend his time working on domestic policy, not fighting Congress over the country’s role in global events. On his inauguration day, Lincoln did not see himself as the great emancipator. McKinley would have been perfectly happy to serve out his time in office with Spain possessing Cuba and its islands in the Pacific. The term “Cold War” hadn’t been invented when Harry Truman became president.

So what made these presidents better than others?

There are two things that stand out in their backgrounds: First, they more than likely came to the presidency with a record of executive leadership; second, they were more than likely over 50. Their record of executive leadership provided them with experience in working and leading a legislative body; it also gave them experience in leading a public body of voters and citizens. With the exception of Presidents Polk and Theodore Roosevelt, their age likely provided them with the confidence they needed to make difficult decisions, face troubling times and, perhaps, understand the nuances of the human condition.

There was also something that each successful president possessed, executive ability. Each one had the ability to understand the issues critical to success and then make the necessary decisions to turn their vision into reality.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, authors Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese suggest that presidential leadership comes from having vision, skill and political timing. “The most important ‘power’ a president can have is to present … a clear and compelling vision” for the future, they write. Visionary presidents include Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR; each is remembered for the ideas that they had on the country’s role.

Skill is shown by knowing to act when certain opportunities either present themselves or knowing what to do bring about attainment of political goals. Cronin and Genovese suggest that presidential executive skills are important but that success is also dependent on the task as well as the opportunity presented. This sounds like McKinley and the Spanish-American War. The authors say that “more experience (in politics) is better than less experience” in making a president successful.

Other important skills for presidents to possess, the authors say, include people skills. “They must know how to persuade, bargain, cajole and co-opt.” Think LBJ and the ‘Johnson Treatment,’ something the 36th president would bestow on wavering Congressman and Senators unsure of their vote on something near and dear to LBJ. Personality skills and self awareness also make for successful presidents, the authors write. Managerial skills, the authors write, help a president understand the institutional issues they face.

A president’s personal skills are also important, the authors say. A president “must be disciplined, intelligent, have stamina, show sound judgment and act with maturity. Good presidents are creative, empathetic, and expressive. They must also have a sense of humor, and learn to control their temper. President Reagan’s self-effacing sense of humor served him well as president, it disarmed his opponents and won over much of the public.”

Political timing, the authors write, is highly important in determining success for a president. A president-elect must know what they’ll do during their first 100 days in office. This is typically when a president holds the most clout to accomplish their goals. “Strong twentieth-century presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan began with clear goals and pushed Congress to approve bold new programs,” the authors say.

The presidency is, on the one hand, a magnificent job, and, on the other, one filled with potential pitfalls. Americans want, simultaneously, a president who will solve their problems as well as one who will not interfere in their daily lives. At least too much.

Authors Cronin and Genovese propose nine paradoxes involving the American presidency and the American public. They include the fact that while Americans want a strong president who can solve the nation’s ills, the citizenry is equally suspicious of “strong centralized leadership.” Americans also seek a presidential candidate who can unify “diverse people … but the job requires taking firm stands, making unpopular … decisions that … upset and divide.” One of the greatest paradoxes, write the authors, is that what it takes to be elected president is often entirely different from what it takes to govern from the Oval Office.

So given what’s known about the most effective presidents we’ve had, so far, how should we vote during the remaining primaries and in the coming election? Some of that answer relies on your politics. If you’re a Democrat, and have yet to vote in the primary, you have two choices, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. If you’re a Republican, you’re likely supporting John McCain.

The best presidential candidates, based on historical information, are Senators Clinton and McCain. They’re over 50 and have some experience in executive leadership. They’re also well aware of how Congress operates and know its members. Their age and experiences will make them more effective at the presidency, should they be elected, than Sen. Obama, who’s still serving his first term in the Senate.

Sen. Obama’s resume is weak in accomplishment. Yes, he’s charismatic speaker and offers up a wonderful vision of the country. But, so far, he does not have any significant victory in public life. When Reagan hit his presidential stride in 1980, he, too, offered up wonderful speeches for what the country would look like if he was elected president; the difference between Reagan and Obama is that he’d been an effective governor of the nation’s largest state. Sen. McCain has campaign finance reform to his name; Sen. Clinton’s failed initiative to reform healthcare, during her years as the First Lady, provides her with great insight on what needs to be done to make healthcare more accessible to all Americans – and how to get it accomplished. Failure can often lead to success.

Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, by Richard E. Neustadt & Ernest R. May, was originally intended for people in government. The idea behind the book was to educate government decision makers on a few historical examples, so they’d know to use previous experiences, historical ones even, as they considered policies that would affect the future.

You may wonder, then, what this means to you. If you’re a citizen, and a registered voter, you are the government. The lessons of Neustadt and May equally apply to you as to any government policy maker. Know the past, think in time, and you’ll likely make a better decision about the future. The authors’ lessons especially apply to you as you consider who you will vote for in the upcoming election. If you’re a Democrat, your best choice is Sen. Clinton. If you’re a Republican, even though the presidential primary is effectively concluded, your best choice was always Sen. McCain.


This year’s Democratic presidential primary, if you heard the endorsement from Sen. Ted Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, is akin to the one in 1960, when another young charismatic Senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, ran for the nomination. He was up against some of the Democratic Party’s best veterans, Senators Humphrey, Symington and Johnson.

Johnson lost the nomination to Kennedy at the Democratic Presidential convention in Los Angeles. Johnson, Kennedy thought, had been the best Senate Majority leader in the country’s history. And while Kennedy didn’t like Johnson, he knew he needed him on the ticket to be elected. Johnson would strengthen the ticket’s standing in the South and the West.

Johnson could have remained in the Senate but he knew his position as majority leader would be very much diminished if Kennedy was elected; he also knew that Richard Nixon, if elected president, wouldn’t be as gracious to him as President Eisenhower. He was caught between a rock and hard place. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the noted historian, has suggested that Johnson thought his presence on the Kennedy ticket would help the South move into the twentieth century.

Johnson, however, had to be convinced to take the job. A number of his advisors told him not to accept Kennedy’s overtures. What moved Johnson especially was the counsel he received from his political mentor, former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who told Johnson, in essence, it would be beneficial for him, as well as the country (and Texas) if he joined Kennedy’s ticket.

It appears that Senators Clinton and Obama are on course similar to that of Kennedy and Johnson. And the question is who will make the phone call to suggest to either Senator to join the other’s ticket, so the party is unified for the general election. Possible candidates for this task include but aren’t limited to former Vice President Al Gore, former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Walter Mondale and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Who will be the great unifier for the Democratic Party? It remains to be seen.

If LBJ were alive, he’d tell that Senator, either Clinton or Obama, to accept the other’s invitation to be on the ticket. The election, he would say, must be won. The party needs to unify for the good of the country, he would say. And if the Democratic presidential ticket – whether it’s Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton – is elected, it would be a culmination of the civil rights battles that LBJ had fought for during his career. There’s no better way to mark the 36th president’s 100th birthday.


A History of the American People, Paul Johnson, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822 – 1832, Rover V. Remini, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981

Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of our National Debt, John Steele Gordon, New York: Walker and Company, 1997.

James K. Polk, John Seigenthaler, New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2003.

Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978.

The Leadership Factor, John P. Kotter, New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and his times, 1908 – 1960, Robert Dallek, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, Randall B. Woods, New York: Free Press, 2006.

Oregon: A History, Gordon B. Dodds, New York: W. W. Nortorn & Company, Inc., 1977.

The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas E. Cronin & Michael A. Genovese, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done, Richard Shenkman, New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, Richard E. Neustadt, New York: The Free Press, 1990.

Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness, James MacGregor Burns, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Philip Bobbitt, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

The Use of Presidential Power, 1789 – 1943, George Fort Milton, New York: Octagon Books, 1965.

Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Richard E. Neustadt & Ernest R. May, New York: The Free Press, 1986, official Web site of The White House

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