Do presidents control the government, or does the government control presidents?
In the old days, it was supposed, America’s leaders were men of the people, representing the people, interested in the welfare of the people; as if by design, they were ipso facto morally superior to the crowned kings and queens of the old country (though, of course, Sydney Smith’s query of 1820 still holds: “Under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave?”). But by the end of the 20th century, writes Graubard (History Emeritus/Brown Univ.; Mr. Bush’s War, 1992, etc.), things had changed; for a century, America’s rulers “were monarchs, admittedly of a new breed, increasingly attended by courtiers” and given to waging war constantly, all over the world, in order to maintain the Empire. It’s a lively and promising conceit, but Graubard undermines it by starting off with the essentially decent Theodore Roosevelt, who showed admirable restraint while glowering and talking of big sticks: “ . . . whatever his admiration for military and naval power,” says Graubard, “they never led him into foreign wars.” His thesis is worn away, too, by all the nagging questions the reader is likely to form along what is, after all, a very long way: Was H.R. Haldeman really more of a courtier than Alexander Hamilton? Was Jimmy Carter really as bad as all that? (Yes, Graubard answers, he really was. But Al Haig was even worse.) What’s more terrible, getting caught in a lie or getting caught in a blunder? And so on. Still, Graubard’s portraits of 20th-century presidents are useful in a college-survey sort of way, and they lead him to a quite wonderful fire-and-brimstone denunciation of the current administration, which is all about power, secrecy, and deception, staffed by “men and women, courtiers and mock warriors, [who] served a monarch whose authority rested on a contested election, who acted as if the nation had invested him with exceptional powers.”
Imperfect, then, but quite interesting: much like some of those very presidents.