An acclaimed historian examines the American presidency from 1901 to 2001.
Even though he was uninspiring, William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, was the “creator of the 20th-century presidency,” writes Leuchtenburg (Emeritus, History/Univ. of North Carolina; Herbert Hoover, 2006, etc.), who chronicles the entire presidential gallery across the 20th century. So what made McKinley so modern? Not only was he the first to ride in an automobile, appear in motion pictures, and use the telephone, but he set up a table for reporters to brief them daily and pursued a more imperial executive style in deploying American troops on his own authority. This greatly increased power of the presidency was new, as the country at that point was expanding hugely in terms of industry and population. With the accession of Theodore Roosevelt, the office became the famous “bully pulpit” of a muscular, progressive leader, not afraid to take on big business—e.g., J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, trustbusted by the Supreme Court in 1904. Woodrow Wilson, with his “stern demeanor and his kinetic energy,” was both revered for his idealism and vilified for the scarring of the World War I years. After the “Wilsonian usurpation,” writes Leuchtenburg, Congress was “in no mood to indulge a strong executive.” The country was content with Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover yet welcomed the activism during the Great Depression of Franklin Roosevelt, a transformative president when he had to become commander in chief of the armed forces, then engaged in “a global struggle against fascism.” What the author conveys so marvelously is the sense of how such seemingly ordinary Americans—e.g., Harry Truman, “a man so transparently unqualified”; Dwight Eisenhower, son of a storekeeper in Abilene, Kansas; the polarizing, paranoid Richard Nixon; good-natured Gerald Ford; peanut farmer Jimmy Carter—could bring majesty to the office.
A top-notch historian brings together recondite research with felicitous prose. An excellent choice for students of 20th-century American history.