Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Books: On Presidential History

As the nation experiences one of its worst crises in history, battling the coronavirus pandemic, it's a good time to look back at other rough moments in time, and how presidents have dealt with them. Four books that are great resources are: Shall We Wake The President? Two Centuries Of Disaster Management From The Oval Office, By Tevi Troy; Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen; Presidents Of War, by Michael Beschloss; and Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making, Eleventh Edition, by George C. Edwards III, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Stephen J. Wayne.

Shall We Wake The President? Two Centuries Of Disaster Management From The Oval Office
By Tevi Troy; foreword by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
Lyons Press; hardcover, $26.95; paperback, $19.95; eBook, $19.00

Tevi Troy is the founding member of the American Health Policy Institute, a former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, and a bestselling presidential historian. 

Dr. Troy's experience in the White House is extensive, as he has served in several high-level positions over a five-year period, which culminated in his service as Deputy Assistant then Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. He specialized in crisis management, creating intra-governmental consensus, and all aspects of policy development, including strategy, outreach, and coalition building. 

In Shall We Wake the President?, Troy looks at the evolving role of the president in dealing with disasters, and looks at how our presidents have handled disasters throughout history. There are sections on how American presidents have dealt with a variety of disasters, including health crises, terror attacks, economic upheaval, bioterror, and civil breakdown. 

Troy looks at the evolving role of the president in dealing with disasters, and looks at the likelihood of similar disasters befalling modern America, and details how smart policies today can help us avoid future crises, or how to react to them if they occur.

There is a lot of attention on how President George W. Bush responded to the September 11th attacks, and Troy writes of one of its most singular, emotional, and stirring moments, "It was in the aftermath of this unsteady response, on September 13, that the nation began to see what White House speechwriter David Frum called 'a new Bush.' The first inklings of this different presidential response came with a short but powerful speech at the Washington National Cathedral. Then the president flew to New York, where he visited the Ground Zero site for the first time. At the site Bush was pressed by the rescue workers assembled there to give impromptu remarks. he joined Bill Beckwith, a retired firefighter, on top of the ruins of a fire truck. Bush borrowed a megaphone to address the first responders and workers sifting through the remains. Bush had not been prepped and had spoke for almost the entire country: 'We can't hear you!' The comment inspired Bush to speak from the heart, and he replied, 'Well, I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
"The crowd loved it, and the chants of 'USA! USA!' showed that the president had given the nation the reassurance it needed that justice would be done."

Presidents of War: The Epic Story, From 1807 To Modern Times 
By Michael Beschloss
Crown; hardcover, 752 pages; $35.00

Preeminent presidential historian Michael Beschloss is the author of nine books on presidential history, including, most recently, the New York Times bestsellers Presidential Courage and The Conquerors, as well as two volumes on Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes. He is the NBC News Presidential Historian and a PBS NewsHour contributor and has received an Emmy and six honorary degrees. 

Beschloss' latest epic work, Presidents of War, is a groundbreaking saga of America’s wartime chief executives.

Beschloss put ten years into the research and writing of this fresh, magisterial, and intimate look at a procession of American leaders, from Madison, Polk, and Lincoln to McKinley, FDR, Truman, and LBJ;  as they took the nation into conflict, mobilized their country for victory, and expanded presidential power.

We see them privately plotting against Congress, the courts, the press, and antiwar protesters; seeking advice and solace from their spouses, families, and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer.

It brings us into the room as they make the most difficult decisions that face any President, at times sending hundreds of thousands of American men and women to their deaths.

From James Madison and the War of 1812 to Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, we see presidents struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisers and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer.

"The 1812 conflict proved to be the first major test of the constitutional system for waging war," Beschloss writes of the starting point for this book. "In Philadelphia, Madison the Founder had worried that American Presidents, like the European monarchs they execrated, might be tempted to take the nation into military confrontation without a national consensus and an immediate, overwhelming foreign danger. But with the War of 1812, Madison had, however reluctantly, succumbed to exactly that temptation. Much of the country and Congress had opposed waging war with Great Britain, and two years into this struggle, many Americans still did not fully understand why they were fighting."

With analysis like this, the reader comes to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war, both physically and emotionally. or were broken by them.

Beschloss’s rich and vivid storytelling is supported by interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his findings in original letters, diaries, once-classified national security documents, and other sources help him to tell this story in a way it has not been told before.

Presidents of War combines the sense of being there with the overarching context of two centuries of presidents and how they dealt with wars. 

Beschloss shows how far we have traveled from the time of the Founding Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.

On how Lyndon Johnson dealt with Vietnam right after he won the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater, Beschloss writes, "In his inaugural address, on Wednesday, January 20, 1965, Johnson spoke not a word about Vietnam. He had defeated Goldwater in what was the largest presidential landslide in modern history. Benefiting from his coattails, more Democrats dominated the Senate (68 to 38) and House (295 to 140) than any President since Franklin Roosevelt. In his speech, opposite to Kennedy's in 1961, he spoke exclusively of domestic affairs, for he planned to make fundamental changes in American life - with his War on Poverty, voting guarantees for all Americans, Medicare, aid to education, and other initiatives - that would install the architect of the Great Society in the record books.

"Three days after being sworn in, at 2:26 on Saturday morning, Johnson was hurried by ambulance from the White House to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Lady Bird, who had been resting up from the inauguration at Camp David, feared that he had suffered another heart attack. As she later told her diary, when she arrived at the hospital, she 'just patted him and sat down and held his hand. It could have been a frightening day. It was a day I had expected and thought about.' Without telling him, she brought a black dress, just in case she needed one for her husband's funeral.

"When Johnson returned to the White House after three days at Bethesda, Lady Bird told her journal that Lyndon was feeling 'washed out' and 'depressed.' He called Nicholas Katzenbach to ask what the Constitution said about presidential disability. Eight days after his collapse, the First Last recorded that, 'Lyndon spent most of the day in bed,' and 'for a man of his temperament, it means you have time to worry.' She told her diary, 'It's sort of a slough of despond...the obstacles indeed are no shadows. They are real substance - Vietnam, the biggest.' His malaise reminded her of William Butler Yeats's poems 'The Valley of the Black Pig' (1896), which portrayed a desperate man facing an apocalyptic war:

The dews drop slowly and dreams gather: unknown spears
Suddenly hurtle before my dream-awakened eyes,
And then the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
Of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears

"Soon the First Lady's fears came to pass. On Saturday, February 6, the Viet Cong attacked a US Army barracks in Pleiku, killing eight Americans. That evening, Johnson called Speaker McCormack, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, McNamara, and other advisers to the Cabinet Room and told them he would order retaliatory air strikes against three North Vietnamese targets. He explained he had 'kept the shotgun over the mantel and the bullets in the basement for a long time now,' but now they had to act because 'cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.' Citing history, he contended that the United States could have avoided both world wars 'if we had been courageous in the early stages.' As Lady Bird recorded on Sunday, the seventh, Lyndon took repeated calls from the Situation Room: 'The ring of the phone, the quick reach for it, and tense, quiet talk...We'll probably have to learn to live in the middle of it - for not hours or days, but years."

Johnson ended up not running for re-election in 1968 because of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Presidents of War is nothing short of a masterpiece on American history.

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America
By Jared Cohen
Simon & Schuster; hardcover, $30.00

Jared Cohen is the founder and CEO of Jigaw at Alphabet, Inc., and from 2006 to 2010, he served as a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and as a close advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Accidental Presidents is Cohen's masterful book on the eight men who took office after the president's death - John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.

This is the first book of its kind, and it is the story of how these men, who were neither the voters' nor their party's choice, rose to power and confronted the challenges and contours of their times. While not all of them were successful or skillful leaders,the lessons learned from them offer a roadmap for future moments of chaos and transition.

Cohen began researching and writing this book when former President Barack Obama was still in the White House and just as Donald Trump emerged as a contender in 2016. This book is especially relevant since President Trump was just impeached and there has always been a cloud of investigations hanging over him, with open talk of how Vice President Mike Pence would be if he had to take over.

Two of the best accidental presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, who took over after William McKinley's assassination, and Harry Truman, who was an able and decisive leader following Franklin Delano Roosevelt's passing. Andrew Johnson was one of the worst, as he succeeded Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, and he betrayed his ideals and proved to be an unfit leader.

Cohen looks at where it all begins in essence, how they were selected as vice presidents.  Usually, the VP choice is someone who can help a presidential candidate win a swing state or fill a gap in their expertise. Cohen feels those assets should be secondary, and that we do not need to accept a system where running mates are chosen by the campaign. This conversation has urgency considering Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee and is weighing who will join him on the ticket.

There is quite a deep dive into the 25th Amendment, which has been much discussed since President Trump took office. Although seven presidents died in office prior to John F. Kennedy, his assassination catalyzed the most serious debate about presidential succession since the Constitutional Convention. This amendment was passed on February 10, 1967, formalizing the path of succession in the event of death, resignation, or removal of the chief executive. No president has died in office since ratification, but was tested when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 and VP Gerald Ford assumed office. Today, the president can't go under general anesthesia for a colonoscopy without exercising the 25th Amendment.

There are some dramatic stories involving the accidental presidents, including a massive yacht explosion that killed members of the Cabinet, a president being kicked out of his own party, a senator threatening to shoot a colleague on the Senate floor, violent brawls in Congress, and a Vice President accused of conspiring to murder the President.

Cohen writes of the accidental presidents, "In many cases, the men who came to fill the shoes of dead presidents had been spouses in a marriage of political convenience for a president to win a state or appease a particular constituency. Only five - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush - completed terms as vice president and went on to win the presidency. Their election relieved them of that vice-presidential image of irrelevance. In the eight instances when the vice president succeeded to the office, a set of common challenges made the path to success much harder. Each had to earn the respect of the men loyal to his predecessor, or find a way to discard them. They had to honor the loss while at the same time getting back to governing. All had to find a balance between continuing the policies of the man who was elected (including navigating te ambiguity left behind) and responsibly fulfilling their present duties. Each had to step out of the shadow of his predecessor and earn the presidency in his own right."

Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making, Eleventh Edition
By George C. Edwards III, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Stephen J. Wayne
Rowman & Littlefield; paperback, $79.00; eBook, $75.00

George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University, and as a leading scholar on the presidency, he has written or edited 26 books on American politics or public policy making and more than 80 articles and book chapters.

Kenneth Mayer is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his expertise is in the presidency, campaign finance, and election administration. He is the author of With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power.

Steve Wayne, professor of political science at Georgetown University, is an expert on the American Presidency who has written 12 books, several in multiple editions, including Is This Any Way to Run a Democratic Election?

In their new bookPresidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making, Eleventh Edition, they examine the leadership dilemma all presidents face. The first objective is to win election, and then once in office, they need to obtain the public's support, win Congress's backing for legislation, make wise decisions, and implement a vast array of policies. 

Edwards, Mayer, and Wayne examine how presidents attempt to fulfill their responsibilities, exercise their powers, and utilize their organizational structures to affect the output of government. They posit two models of presidential leadership to get that done, one in which a strong president dominates his environment as a director of change, and one in which the president has a more limited role as facilitator of change. These models provide students with a framework to understand leadership in the modern presidency, and evaluate individual presidents' performance.

The eleventh edition of this textbook is richly illustrated with wide-ranging coverage of the Trump presidency, and separate chapters are devoted to essential aspects of his approach to governing, such as media relations, leading the public, and decision making.

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