THE PRESIDENTIAL DIFFERENCE: Leadership Style from Roosevelt to Clinton.
FRED GREENSTEIN, WHO HAS written with great insight and creativity about the American presidency, undertakes in this book his most ambitious project. He seeks to lay bare the heart and mind of presidential leadership through systematic historical analysis. Greenstein's project is of great potential significance. The presidency is the pivot point of American government and there is much to be learned from the historical record of presidential leadership. Greenstein also achieves the remarkable feat of assessing recent presidents impartially, without undue bias or partisanship.
Yet the book fails to realize its promise. Instead, Greenstein falls victim to one of the fallacies common to recent presidential assessments, the deconstruction of presidential leadership as the sum of separate parts. The result is analysis according to arbitrarily selected categories, frozen in time, and fraught with unexamined tensions. In the search for objective standards of judgment, Greenstein misses what is perhaps the most crucial element of "presidential difference," the values that presidents represent and implement during their term.
After a brief introduction to the power and influence of recent presidents, Greenstein presents an analytical model for assessing past and future presidents according to six distinct criteria. These include the president's communication skills, his organizational ability, his political expertise, his capacity to develop a vision for the nation, his cognitive style, and his emotional intelligence. He applies this checklist to the experience of the dozen presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Through this analysis, he suggests the American people should be able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of past presidents and to select future presidents "with attributes that serve well in the Oval Office."
For openers, 12 presidents constitute too small a sample from which to develop or test a typology of presidential leadership. For example, Greenstein's examination of a president's "emotional intelligence" would have been greatly enriched by including Abraham Lincoln, who was subject to mood swings and bouts of depression. Did these qualities undermine his presidency, or enhance his compassionate, insightful brand of leadership? Should a candidate with Lincoln's personal traits be excluded from the presidency because he might fail Greenstein's test of emotional stability?
Greenstein excludes presidents prior to FDR because "until the 1930's, Congress typically took the lead in policymaking and the programs of the federal government were of modest importance for the nation and the world." This distinction is untenable in the light of modern scholarship on the presidency. Despite periods of congressional dominance such as the late nineteenth century, numerous presidents prior to FDR, including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson dominated their political eras. These and other early presidents imposed policies on the nation that changed the political order in the United States and were of far-reaching significance for the history of the nation. They fought wars on the North American continent and worldwide, founded the American party system, pushed the continental expansion of the United States, facilitated the development of national infrastructure, established America as a world power, set policies regarding Native Americans, dealt with slavery and the Civil War, and initiated federal regulatory and welfare policies.
Greenstein also fails to consider alternatives to his six categories or to explore the internal dynamics of the categories themselves. Why arbitrarily select these particular standards of performance? Why not also include courage under pressure, compassion, tolerance, creativity, etc.? Each category, moreover, presents a dialectic tension that the author ignores. At what point, for example, does vision become ideological rigidity or attention to organizational form become preoccupation with detail?
The very attempt to deconstruct presidents as the sum of separate parts, which has become all too common in evaluations of presidential performance, obscures more than it reveals about presidential leadership. Greensteins approach calls to mind the perils of judging football players by their vertical leap, foot speed, arm strength, and bench press. By these standards, such stars as Joe Montana and Steve Largent should have been also-rans, whereas countless unknowns should have been top performers.
The fallacy of the categorical approach emerges in several of Greensteins sketches of recent presidents. For example, Greenstein indicts FDR as "deficient in vision," suggesting that his "views were vague and contradictory and his policies were patchwork." Even assuming that this interpretation is correct (many historians would disagree) a pragmatic, flexible approach to policymaking may have been precisely what the nation needed during the era of the Great Depression and World War II. FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had a clear and consistent vision for the country. Yet Hoover's vision was a fatal impediment to the adoption of policies responsive to the national crisis. Also clear and consistent was the vision of the isolationists who bitterly opposed America's involvement in World War II. Would FDR have been a better president if he had Herbert Hoover's vision of domestic policy or Charles Lindbergh's vision of foreign policy?
In another sketch, Greenstein knocks Clinton for his lack of "emotional intelligence," arguing that Clinton's presidency is a "reminder that in the absence of emotional soundness, the American presidency is a problematic instrument of democratic governance." In contrast, he gives John F. Kennedy a passing grade on emotional soundness, claiming Kennedy channeled his passions and managed to "prevent them from confounding his official responsibilities." Yet Greenstein fails to show that Kennedy was any less reckless than Clinton in exercising his passions. Instead the main difference appears to be one of historical contingency--that Clinton got caught and that Kennedy did not.
The presidency of Richard Nixon also cannot be contained within the pop psychological box of emotional intelligence. Nixon's problem was not, as Greenstein writes, that he "had imperfect control of his emotions." To the contrary, as continuing revelations of far-reaching transgressions demonstrate, Nixon coldly and systematically undermined his public trust for personal and political ends by disregarding the law, ethical standards, and the rights and privacy of his fellow Americans.
Greenstein's historical analysis underscores the futility of analyzing presidential leadership without explicit consideration of the values advanced and implemented by presidents. An assessment of FDR's domestic vision depends on how the analyst views the role of government in American life. An evaluation of Truman's decisions during the Korean War turns upon assessments of the Communist peril and the appropriate means of response. The lesson is that presidential performance cannot be judged by considering form in isolation from content.
Although Greenstein's historical sketches are often balanced and informative, there are numerous assertions of questionable historical validity. For example, he indicts Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty for "massive expenditures" that failed to break "the poverty cycle." Yet the War on Poverty was a modestly funded effort designed to help the poor pull themselves out of poverty. The massive social spending of the post-Johnson years came mainly from spending on social security and federal health-care programs. Similarly, Greenstein argues that the Iran-Contra scandal "erupted at the lower levels of the White House," attributing this "misadventure" to aides who exploited Reagan's organizational deficiencies. Contradicting this conclusion is the well-documented finding of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh that Iran-Contra was not an organizational lapse, but a set of deliberate policy decisions that "were fully reviewed and developed at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration."
Despite his good intentions, Greenstein does not advance the quest for a Philosopher's Stone for decoding presidential performance. But the failure is a significant one because it illustrates the limitations of attempts to deconstruct the conduct of the presidency into separate parts. The American presidency cannot be understood in terms of rigid, ahistorical categories without consideration of the values that each president brings to the Oval Office.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is chair of and professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at American University.
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|Author:||Lichtman, Allan J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2000|
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