Bitter Harvest: FDR, Presidential Power and the Growth of the Presidential Branch.
Author Dickinson set for himself a rather challenging task and for the most part he succeeded in elucidating an area of presidential studies not often under investigation. The book focuses on the White House advising apparatus and the president's effectiveness in structuring a given executive branch. Dickinson's objective is the study of presidential bargaining objectives--assessing the relationship between presidential staff and presidential power. The impetus for this study is the author's contention that "the presidential branch is flawed" (p. 19). Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra affair "illustrate the hazards of presidents relying on a large, layered and functionally specialized White House staff for administrative assistance" (p. 36). Dickinson sets out to describe the presidential advisory system with an analytic framework--that of bargaining effectiveness. Presidents select and implement an executive system relative to their bargaining needs and objectives and they "institutionalize advising structures to reduce bargaining uncertainty within recurring bargaining arenas" (p. 9). Although the book's title implies a progressive study from FDR onward, the book is primarily a very detailed and focused study of FDR with few implications and lessons for later and future presidents.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I (chapter 1), focuses on concepts and controversies regarding presidential staff and the effectiveness of presidential power. Part II (chapters 2 and 3), focuses on FDR's administrative and bargaining processes during the period 1933-39, with specific attention paid to the first New Deal and the Brownlow Committee. Part III (chapters 4 to 7), tests FDR's bargaining skills during the war years, 1939-45. Part IV (chapters 8 and 9), reflects on FDR's "competitive adhocracy" and the lessons presidents can and ought to consider in promoting greater administrative, policy, and political effectiveness.
Essentially, the book is an organizational study of FDR's White House operations during his four presidential terms. During the New Deal phase, FDR sought to integrate newly established emergency agencies into the traditional cabinet system. When viewed from a systematic perspective, FDR's efforts were often characterized as inconsistent and fraught with problems. Yet, the circumventing of cabinet secretaries and the overlapping responsibilities and objectives of various agencies did produce the end result FDR sought. During the war mobilization phase, FDR created several agencies to handle various war related tasks. Yet, the agencies suffered from weak statutory authority, they were ill-defined and their leadership divided. This weak structure resulted in clashes between individuals and agencies, needing the president to arbitrate a final decision, precisely what FDR had in mind. Ultimate control was left to the president. FDR did not care much for well-formalized job descriptions and preferred instead to borrow experts as needed while other assistants and advisers were asked to serve in more general capacities with multiple tasks at hand. The most important individuals assisting FDR were often those without formal cabinet positions, acting as troubleshooters or given broad latitude to accomplish specific tasks (Howe, Early, and McIntyre, or special advisers such as Moley and Tugwell).
FDR preferred to make decisions outside established channels, investing no government entity with too much power, allowing many to have access to him, leaving him to control most decision making while enabling him to acquire necessary and varied information. What FDR looked for were "executive assistants with a `passion for anonymity' to be my legs" (p. 111). The guiding premise FDR followed was based on his understanding that in an organization only one person--the leader--has the best overall view of all organizational aspects. To implement such a White House, FDR built anything but a structured system. The flexible and fluid advisory system served FDR well and kept costs in terms of time and energy low.
Dickinson considers FDR a very effective president vis-a-vis his advisory system. FDR stands alone in setting his advisory system and his White House serves as "a standard by which his `modern' presidential cohort is judged" (p. 1). Although the events FDR faced were significantly different from those proceeding him (New Deal and World War II), he was, nonetheless, unique in understanding the resources of administrative effectiveness. What looked to others as disarray and lack of administrative and organizational sense, served FDR perfectly. FDR resisted delegating those powers he considered to be presidential, he relied on many channels of information to increase his control over situations, he duplicated (and triplicated) staff and agency functions, he relied on ad hoc advisers thus avoiding formalizing and enlarging the White House staff, he preferred a small White House staff and separated political from institutional staff functions, he was his own staff coordinator, set internal staff deadlines, but kept public statements vague and non-committal as much as possible.
Dickinson does a good job filling a gap in presidential scholarship, taking an administrative and organizational perspective of FDR and his governmental support system. His analytic framework is sound and where he is aware of limitations of his study, he qualifies his perspective and focus. The writing is crisp, the book is well organized, and the primary sources are impressive. There are, however, several omissions that are worth noting. Dickinson points to the scarcity of studies about the presidency's institutional staff dynamics (p. 6), yet he almost completely ignores the plethora of scholarship coming from the rhetorical tradition with its focus on presidential suasiveness, influence, and symbolic image making (the two citations of Tulis and Hart are tokens at best). Given the book's thesis that presidential power means the maximization of effective influence on governmental outcome (for example, p. 9), the pervasive cause and effect perspective utilized is rather restrictive. It would have been interesting to see whether FDR's penchant for organizational and bargaining precepts predates his presidential period. Was he consistent throughout his political life? Is there a continuous development from the governship time or did the Great Depression and World War II present unprecedented challenges that required new thinking not earlier recognized?
Dickinson's book is of great value to those interested in FDR, his administrative style, and his unique approach to governing. The insights the author draws are wen documented and can serve scholars interested in further developing the area under investigation. Finally, the book does serve as an alternative to those advocating a highly-structured executive branch. The lessons for future presidents are worth noting.
AMOS KIEWE Associate Professor of Speech Communication Syracuse University
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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