Article II of the United States Constitution provides a spare, even skeletal description of the role of the president of the United States. The president, it says, will be vested with “executive power,” will be commander in chief of the nation’s military forces, and will have the power to make treaties and appoint judges and executive officers with the advice and consent of the Senate. “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union” and recommend measures for the legislature’s consideration. The president will receive ambassadors and will “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Otherwise, the Framers had almost nothing to say about what the president would do or what kind of person the president would be.
Through most of American history, however, the presidency has been much more than a simple instrument of executive power. Presidents, far from merely executing laws conceived and passed by others, have been the source of some of the most important shifts in the nation’s public policy and political ideology. They have played not only political, but social and cultural roles in American life. They have experienced tremendous variations in their power and prestige. The presidency has hidden its occupants behind a vast screen of delegated powers and deliberate image-making. And the office has been critically shaped not just by individuals but by powerful social, economic, and cultural forces over which leaders have little or no control. Characterizing the American presidency—the task that this book has set for itself—is, as a result, very challenging.
We start by distinguishing the presidency from the presidents, the office from those who held it. This book is not, then, a collection of presidential biographies, although it provides much biographical information about each of the forty-two men who have served as president. Rather, its focus is how these individuals have perceived and used the office, and how the office has changed as a result.
Since George Washington’s Inauguration in 1789, there have been periods of greater and lesser change, of turbulence and calm, of advance and retreat in the American presidency. Across these many years, however, four broad themes stand out: the symbolic importance of the presidency, which transcends its formal constitutional powers; the wide swings in its fortunes; the influence wielded not only by the president but also by his advisers; and the role of contingency and context in shaping the office and particular presidencies.
Among the salient characteristics of the American presidency is that it has usually played a role in American life that extends well beyond the formal responsibilities of the office. Almost all presidents—whatever they have or have not achieved—have occupied positions of enormous symbolic and cultural importance in American life. They have become the secular icons of the republic—emblems of nationhood and embodiments of the values that Americans have claimed to cherish.
Exaggerated images of the virtues (and occasionally the sins) of American presidents have helped shape the nation’s picture of itself. Stories of presidential childhoods and youths have become staples of popular culture and instructional literature. Parson Weems’s early-nineteenth- century life of Washington, with its invented stories of chopping down a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the river, contributed greatly to the early self- image of the American nation. The popular Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt influenced generations of young Americans and helped form twentieth- century images of the presidency and of the nature of leadership.
Just as Americans have often exaggerated the virtues of their presidents, so they have often exaggerated their flaws. Charges of presidential misconduct and moral turpitude have repeatedly mesmerized the nation for two centuries. The scandals that plagued Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, Richard M. Nixon, and Bill Clinton have molded both scholarly and popular views of those presidencies. But these most famously bedeviled presidencies are hardly alone. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most revered of all Americans, was savagely attacked in his lifetime as a revolutionary, a tyrant, and a miscegenist. John Adams and John Quincy Adams, pillars of personal rectitude, were harried throughout their presidencies by accusations of corruption, fraud, and abuses of power. Rutherford B. Hayes, a paragon of propriety (and sobriety), was known during his unhappy administration as “His Fraudulency” for having allegedly stolen the 1876 election from Samuel Tilden. Harry Truman, a folk hero today for what Americans likke to remember as his plain-speaking honesty, was buffeted for years by charges of “cronyism” and “corruption” —for creating what Richaaaaard Nixon and many others in 1952 liked to call the “mess in Washington.” Almost everything a president does, in the end, seems to much of the nation to be larger than life, even that least dignified of political activities: running for office. During the first century of the American republic, most Americans considered the presidency so august a position that candidates for the office were expected not only to refrain from campaigning, but to display no desire at all for the office. In reality, of course, most of those seeking the presidency did a great deal to advance their own candidacies. In public, however, they accepted their nominations and, if successful, their elections as if they were gifts from the people. In the twentieth century, campaigning for president became almost a full-time job, both before and after election, and no one could hope to be elected in our time by pretending to have no interest in the White House. But the perpetual campaigning has given the presidency a different kind of symbolic importance; for presidents, and presidential candidates, are now ubiquitous figures in our media culture, their presumed personalities and their projected, carefully crafted images a focus of almost obsessive attention and fascination.
The gap between the image and reality of the president and his office has been enormous at some moments, relatively narrow at others, but always there. The reality of George Washington’s life was for many years almost completely replaced by the hagiographic myths created by Weems. Abraham Lincoln, widely and justly regarded as America’s greatest president, became soon after his death a kind of national saint, his actual character as an intensely and brilliantly political man obscured behind generations of paeans to his humility and strength—by his law partner William Herndon, by his White House aides John G. Nicolay and John Hay (whose account occupied ten volumes), by the poet Carl Sandburg (who limited his to three). Franklin Roosevelt, a wily figure whose evasiveness and inconsistency infuriated even his closest allies, became and for generations remained “Our Friend,” the heroic battler against depression and tyranny. But even less exalted figures have inspired their myths—the aristocratic William Henry Harrison portrayed as the simple product of a log cabin who liked hard cider from a jug; the gruff, stubborn, and ultimately rather ineffectual Ulysses S. Grant considered, for a time, a great and noble conciliator; the cool, detached, intensely pragmatic John Kennedy, who became a symbol of passionate idealism and commitment.
Another distinctive characteristic of the American presidency is the tremendous variation in the fortunes of the office. At times it has been a posit...