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Scripted for Change: The Institutionalization of the American Presidency.

Scripted for Change: The Institutionalization of the American Presidency. By Victoria A. Farrar-Myers. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007. 268 pp.

The thesis of Scripted for Change is that "shared understandings" or norms between the president and Congress are the vehicle through which the institutionalization of presidential power occurs. The methodology that Victoria A. Farrar-Myers employs is straightforward, and her perspective on the presidency offers important insights. Yet what looms large for presidency studies are the profound implications that flow from this analysis.

In this study, Farrar-Myers chooses nine cases from the period 1881-1920 to validate her thesis. That time frame is further subdivided (1881-93, 1894-1907, 1908-20) so that temporal changes can be more easily identified. She examines three types of cases: troop commitments abroad, tariff legislation, and the creation of executive branch agencies. For each discrete time period, the following clusters of cases are analyzed: the commitment of troops in Samoa (1888, by Grover Cleveland), the Dominican Republic (1905, by Theodore Roosevelt), and Haiti (1915, by Woodrow Wilson); the McKinley Tariff (1890, under Benjamin Harrison), the Dingley Tariff (1897, under William McKinley), and the Underwood Tariff (1913, under Wilson); and the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (1887, under Cleveland), the Department of Commerce and Labor (1903, under Theodore Roosevelt), and the Federal Trade Commission (1913, under Wilson).

It makes perfect theoretical sense to include three cases involving Woodrow Wilson, but I would have recommended that only Grover Cleveland be included in the early cases and that Theodore Roosevelt exclusively represent the middle period. Farrar-Myers may be correct to deemphasize the role of presidential personality in the scripting process, but my suggested strategy would have allowed her to control for such effects. Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson are all considered great or near-great presidents, unlike Harrison and McKinley, and it would be especially revealing to have detailed executive-legislative scripting in all three policy areas under Cleveland.

In probing coordinated scripting, the use of multiple cases "allows us to track coordinated scripts in order to investigate both the development of shared understandings and the process of how such understandings become informal institutions of authority" (p. 23). Of course, the most urgent consideration is selecting the optimal time frame for this kind of analysis, as Farrar-Myers explains: "[O]ne that is too early may not uncover sufficient coordinated scripts for analysis, but in a later period the coordinated scripts may be so well established that they also do not fully reflect the institutionalization process" (p. 17). In 1881, few scripts defined executive-legislative relations, but by 1920 the scripted behavior had become institutionalized. Finally, Farrar-Myers believes that the scripts are best revealed through executive-legislative communications and interactions in making public policy, because the White House and Congress both have a stake in addressing and resolving pressing national problems. She begins with the presumption of presidential control over troop commitments, congressional dominance over tariff law, and mixed executive-legislative impact on the creation of executive agencies. And the case studies largely confirm those expectations.

The implications of the analysis, however, will command the serious attention of presidency scholars for years to come. Because presidential power is grounded in "shared understandings" between the executive and legislative branches, this evolutionary process of scripting casts doubt on the prevailing viewpoint that modernity began with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Scripted for Change belongs in that genre called American political development, in which the touchstone for presidency scholarship is The Politics Presidents Make by Steven Skowronek. But the regime-changing presidents (those Skowronek calls "reconstructive" leaders) were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, arguably, Ronald Reagan, but not Woodrow Wilson.

For Farrar-Myers, institutionalization culminated under Wilson, which strongly implies that there was relatively little scripting during the nineteenth century. This analysis, therefore, goes far beyond The Rhetorical Presidency by Jeffrey Tulis, who argues that Wilson began the "new way" only with respect to rhetorical leadership. For Farrar-Myers, after 1920 institutionalization continued, unless those shared understandings were challenged (as with presidential troop commitments during Vietnam). In sum, this research aligns Farrar-Myers with those scholars who date "modernity" to the turn of the twentieth century.

Yet that implication begs the larger question of why one should focus on the turn of the century rather than the 1930s. Did not the Great Depression dwarf the problems faced by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson? Would not scholars who identify Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first modern president point to the institutionalization of the presidency (the Executive Office of the President) and his new shared understandings with Congress (the Hundred Days), which had an impact on his successors in ways that his predecessors could not have imagined? Finding our way out of this puzzle will require future presidency scholars to do comparative analysis of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, aimed at identifying who, Wilson or FDR, had more impact on developing the scripts that underwrite the scope of presidential power in our separated system.

--Raymond Tatalovich

Loyola University Chicago
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Author:Tatalovich, Raymond
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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