“Few leaders are impeached or assassinated; most die from a thousand cuts”: an illuminating look at the highest office in the land and its occupants.
When the Founding Fathers first wrestled with how to organize a government, writes Suri (Chair, Leadership in Global Affairs, Univ. of Texas; Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, 2011, etc.), they quickly ascertained that the country “required central leadership that could unify competing interest groups without simultaneously denying their freedom.” That leadership was much stronger than the Articles of Confederation envisioned, yet, thanks to a carefully considered system of checks and balances, not tyrannical. Fortunately, the first president was George Washington, who, in the author’s view, “defined presidential authority as knowledge and trust-based.” The president knew things that were unavailable to ordinary citizens, who in turn had to place their trust in him to represent their interests. Theodore Roosevelt, by contrast, considered himself a kind of dictator or elected king, if a benevolent one who exemplified the progressive notion that smart and vigorous men “could improve a messy democratic process” by taking care of details best left unavailable to ordinary folks. Subsequent presidents have fallen somewhere between the models provided by those two presidents, if not outside them. Ronald Reagan, for instance, shunned the micromanagerial ways of Lyndon Johnson, with the ironic result that his administration was characterized by “policy indiscipline—too many interventions without careful strategic consideration.” On that note, Suri opines that the best use of presidential power is to confine it to a limited set of military, political, and economic objectives, even while noting that presidential power has grown so substantially in the post–World War II era that the office invites redefinition, inasmuch as “democratic leadership requires a vibrant fact-based public sphere, and trusted anchors for informed policy discussions”—things that are notable today for their apparent absence.
Lively and well-grounded, offering good measures by which to judge our best and worst presidents and their methods of governing.