This review goes to press just three weeks out from the most consequential election in my lifetime, perhaps in the history of the republic. For those who might judge that hyperbolic, consider that a surprising number of eminent historians – including such iconic scholars in the field as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Harold Holzer, Bernard Weisberger, Joseph Ellis, and Sean Wilentz – have come together on a Facebook page “Historians on Donald Trump” to post video jeremiads as dire warnings against the election in November 2016 of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Add to that list renowned nonagenarian historian William E. Leuchtenburg, Professor Emeritus of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose own articulate video cautions us in no uncertain terms that: “What’s especially different about Donald Trump is that he is not a patriot. He has no sense of the American past and he doesn’t understand the achievements of this country. He has said we are a third world nation . . . we are not a third world nation! We are the envy of most of the world . . . and Donald Trump has no sense of the glory of the more than two centuries of the American republic or what we can take pride in today.” [full video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YEAPv5hxBw]
Leuchtenburg, author of a numerous Presidential biographies and other works of American history, knows something about Presidents and seeks to showcase his decades of scholarship in the ambitious yet in many ways deeply flawed epic The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, a favorite genre that if well-executed not only examines the specific figure but lends focus to an entire era of American history. In this election year, I was drawn to Leuchtenburg’s book because it promised a consecutive survey of twentieth century Presidents which presents a connectivity to the Oval Office ever lacking when each chief executive is treated in isolation. The problem, of course, with a single volume approach is that even with a truly big book like this – The American President is 812 pages – there simply is not adequate space to do appropriate justice to each figure under consideration, especially when there are seventeen such figures and one of them is the historic giant of the century Franklin Roosevelt, and some of the others include such complex characters as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. Typical “handbooks” of American Presidents end up as little more than a series of Wikipedia-like entries. Leuchtenburg the noted historian aspires to much more than that, and not unexpectedly falls short.
In the end, Leuchtenburg compromises and his portraits are an uneven swirl of careful biographical studies and sometimes awkward editorials which occasionally drift off to little more than polemic that leaves the nuance and complexity so critical to historical studies somewhere way off in the dust. This book has been criticized for not including footnotes, although Leuchtenburg reveals in the prologue that he was specifically asked not to annotate the volume as such. That turns out to be an unshackling convenience for the author as his history is overshadowed by his summary judgement of the White House occupants that he considers. That my own politics and Leuchtenburg’s often coincide – I too find little to praise in the respective tenures of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — makes me no less uncomfortable as a historian with the license he grants himself to blatantly and often sweepingly pronounce sentence upon his subjects.
The American President does not start off that way. Indeed, his opening analyses of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson reflect a far more scholarly approach to his subjects, warts and all. He rightly identifies Roosevelt, the accidental President (upon McKinley’s assassination), for playing the pivotal part in the reshaping of the office of POTUS for the twentieth century and expanding the role of the White House in national affairs, something not seen since Lincoln’s days in Washington during the Civil War. And TR in peacetime was in many ways to go far beyond Lincoln during armed insurrection, paving the way for a far more powerful Chief Executive. Without Teddy Roosevelt, the kind of imperial presidencies of a Woodrow Wilson or a Franklin Roosevelt or a Richard Nixon might never have been possible.
The author gives short shrift to Taft, probably deservedly, and cuts corners for the sake of brevity – unfairly I think – by combining Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to a single dismissive chapter. A biographer of FDR in other volumes, Leuchtenburg expertly charts Roosevelt’s impressive accomplishments in leading the nation during the dark days of depression and war, crediting him for much but not failing to identify his various flaws and missteps, including the egregious court-packing attempt and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Next, he attempts to make some sense out of the chaotic Truman era of dramatic peaks and valleys, acclaim and condemnation, although that probably is not achievable in the delimited space allowed. Despite recent revisionist attempts to credit Eisenhower with more than his due, Leuchtenburg concurs with the consensus of historians that other than demonstrating appropriate caution in dangerous times, the popular Ike proved to be a fine general but a rather mediocre President whose two terms can perhaps best be summed up, in Stephen Ambrose’s words, as “the time of the great postponement,” because Eisenhower’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked the dangerous cans down the road of civil rights, urban decay, poverty and “a Cold War warming toward combustion.” [p385]
It remains somewhat puzzling given Leuchtenburg’s spot-on appraisal of Eisenhower’s legacy that he subsequently cuts John F. Kennedy so little slack and assigns him virtually no credit for juggling the huge basket of crises, both foreign and domestic, that he inherited in a world literally on the brink of catastrophe. JFK had a tragically abbreviated Presidency, but it seems utterly disrespectful to sum it all up in thirty-eight pages, most of it with derision, affording him only half-credit for Al Hunt’s tribute that “Kennedy’s skills may have saved 20 million to 30 million lives” in the Cuban Missile Crisis [p420] while dismissing JFK as “. . . a figure not of chronicle but of myth.” [p424] It is here, in Chapter 7, just about the midway point of this huge volume, where Leuchtenburg can be seen to begin to strain stridently at the leash of the academic and to yank his studied analyses more toward the unbridled and uncertain territory of the polemicist.
Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Lyndon Johnson is predictable and thus disappointing, crediting him with great domestic accomplishments while condemning him for the Southeast Asian adventurism that delivered the Vietnam debacle, without the careful autopsy of a Robert Dallek or a Robert Caro that would more accurately reflect the flaws of a figure of great ego and ambition who whatever his intentions stumbled mightily both home and abroad and whose worst legacy was to open the doors of the White House to Richard Nixon. Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Nixon strips the latter of all complexity and marches a mostly vile cardboard cutout of an unbalanced man past us as he harnesses every ounce of the power of the imperial Presidency once shaped by Theodore Roosevelt for mostly benign purposes and puts it to work like a kind of criminal syndicate to achieve his corrupt and devious ends at all costs. Everything the author presents here is chillingly accurate, but lost in the translation is the brilliance of the man. Nixon was a kind of a demon, but he was nonetheless a far more complicated figure than the evil comic book villain that is showcased on these pages. Again for brevity, and especially unfairly in my opinion, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are afforded a slim chapter that hardly does either one of them justice. Ronald Reagan earns more space in the volume, but much of it is a paragraph by paragraph revelation of how ill-equipped and unsuited to the office of the Presidency he was. Today, Reagan is lionized on the right and has been mostly forgiven by much of the rest of the political spectrum for his dunderheaded reign, but Leuchtenburg does little to – like Rick Perlstein would gleefully do – wade through the layers of the man and his two administrations to identify why this is fact not editorial. And Leuchtenburg probably unfairly denies Reagan the one accolade he, as Richard Reeves has assessed, most deserves: it was Reagan who broke with his own administration to take Mikhail Gorbachev at his word that the stated intentions of the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War were genuine and not a hostile diversion.
To his credit, it is in the subsequent and final chapters devoted to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that Leuchtenburg returns to his earlier more dispassionate approach to history seen in his treatment of TR and Wilson. He analyzes these men for their accomplishments and their failures, and rightly sums up why each stood on the very edges of greatness in office yet failed to achieve that because of their own unique but no less unshakable shortcomings. Finally, Leuchtenburg clearly blames Clinton’s incautious “sexcapades” with contributing to the loss of his successor, Al Gore, and what was to follow. This volume does not contain a chapter on George W. Bush, but there is no question that the author rightly recognizes the disaster of those years by citing editor Michael Takiff’s conclusion that “Bill’s dalliance with Monica [Lewinsky] . . . cost the nation not only what might have been . . . [in the concluding years of the Clinton Administration] . . . but what might have been done, and what was done instead, over the eight years that followed.” [p794] You don’t have to be a historian to recognize the merit in that estimation.
The American President winds up with an unremarkable epilogue, as if after all of those pages the author has simply run out of steam. In retrospect, as a reader deeply invested in historical studies, I cannot help but wonder if Leuchtenburg’s own life’s trajectory proved to be a critical measure of his approach to this book. Born during the Harding Administration, Leuchtenburg has lived through the Presidencies of all of his subjects save three. Did a lifetime contemporary with the bulk of his protagonists put pressure upon his perspective as an historian and impact upon the appraisals in this volume? Perhaps that is so. Still, the value to this book, faults and all, is that it offers that continuous narrative of the Oval Office and reminds us that each occupant must first of all confront what has been left behind by his predecessor. In these tumultuous times, it is also a cautious reminder that much, much worse things could happen to America than Richard Nixon. As Leuchtenburg concludes in his video on the “Historians on Donald Trump” Facebook page: “When I think of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency the words of Thomas Jefferson come to mind: ‘I tremble for my country.’”