Presidents, Good, Bad, and Just Plain Mediocre

Posted on March 12, 2016


I promised you more on presidents, given that we are buried in a tide of presidential wannabes this year. We are now having early presidential caucuses. As near as I can tell this is the process of welcoming half a dozen presidential candidates looking for your vote into your kitchen for some coffee and a donut in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. The goal is to ensure they don’t run into each other and then have to pretend that they like each other.

I have borrowed quite a bit from William Leuchtenburg’s book review on past presidents which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 9, this year. Historians like to be iconoclasts, and so, it appears, do Presidents.

Past presidents, and we might as well throw in the incumbent, seem to think a lot more of themselves than historians sometimes do. In fact, today some presidential candidates think a lot of themselves and the public can make up their own minds on how this reflects on their character without the help of historians.

A few weeks ago I quoted James Bryce who devoted one entire chapter in his book The American Commonwealth (1888) to “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President.” We can add great women since today we are genderized.

Bryce exempted Abraham Lincoln and James Madison from the herd.

The question is why do we elect who we elect, and Bryce’s answer was that “the American voter does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge.” But this really didn’t matter since “four fifths of his work is the same in kind as that which devolves on the chairman of a commercial company or the manager of a railway.”

Theodore Roosevelt (president 1901-1909) came along and transformed the presidency from, as Leuchtenburg writes, “the feckless institution Bryce described into a vigorous engine of democracy,” or, in other words, into an activist institution. His program was labeled progressivism, and T.R. injected the presidency into a lot of places it had never gone. He wrote “I decline to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary in the nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization.”

T.R. lambasted his successor, and old friend, William Howard Taft, as a “fathead” with a “streak of the second-rate and common in him” in the election of 1912.


Taft struck back in a series of lectures and made, “in what has come to be regarded,” Leuchtenburg wrote, “…as the most important statement of the advisability of restraint in the executive office: ‘The view of …Mr. Roosevelt, ascribing a residium of power to the President, is an unsafe doctrine.’”

Admitting that the Constitution did give the President “wide discretion and great power,” Taft nonetheless denied T.R.’s “notion that the chief magistrate should ‘play the part of a Universal Providence….’”

“[This] might lead,” wrote ex-President Taft, “to results of an arbitrary character, doing irremediable injustice to private right.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt took his cousin Teddy’s cues and expanded the powers of the president into what many later called the “imperial presidency,” especially under Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his The Imperial Presidency, recalled that in writing of FDR and working for John F. Kenned, he learned to admire the strengths of both those presidents. But he was shocked by how far, especially Nixon, had extended the powers of the President in foreign policy. Schlesinger wrote the president had become “on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-Tung of China) among the great powers of the world.”

Leuchtenburg concludes his review essay by quoting the British historian Marcus Cunliffe who observed–in evaluating the two sides of the office–in his The Presidency (1987) that “for the foreseeable future, the quasi-monarchs briefly occupying the White House will probably come in the iron gate but leave by the gate of the weeping willows.”

It seems to me that modern presidents—at least the last two or three—have not dealt very well with everything that comes at them. It is just too much for one man. I’ll throw in women presidents when we elect one.

Government has become immense, and now one candidate even wants to affirm that we are already a socialist state in fact.

I, for one, am not ready to give up my liberties to an autocratic, authoritarian government, the “nanny” state which prescribes what is good and not good for me. Think about it. How inspiring is the leadership coming out of Washington or Montgomery? How about the “front runners” going into the Iowa caucuses?

Published as “Presidents: The Good, Bad, and Mediocre” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday jan. 29, 2016

Posted in: History, Politics