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Why Presidents Succeed: A Political Psychology of Leadership.

Why Presidents Succeed: A Poltical Psychology of Leadership. Dean Keith Simonton. Yale University Press, $22.50. This book is part of a wounded tradition of presidential scholarship, The failure of the field can be seen in the fact that Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power still ranks among the preeminent texts. Taking nothing away from it, it is a quarter century old and, despite recent updates, remains something of a period piece. That Neustadt continues to hold such a prominent place in the literature of the presidency tells us some things both about the office and those who choose to study it. And Simonton's failures, and occasional strengths, help explain why we don't have better books about those who occupy the Oval Office.

What hinders the study of the presidency? First, there's the problem of access. The closer scholars can get to an institution, the better the research is likely to be. Not surprisingly, then, the literature on Congress is abundant and of high quality, and research on the House of Representatives is better and more plentiful than that on the U.S. Senate, in large measure because the House is more open. While the Supreme Court in its icy palace might seem to be an unlikely focus of scholarship, it is actually quite rich, if for no other reason than the fact that opinions are published and reflect on both the reasoning and philosophy of their authors,

True, the presidency itself is very visible, but its operations are hidden from the public eye, And ex-presidents haven't helped the cause of scholarship much. They may endow huge libraries but they have yet to write any revealing veto-and-tell memoirs, Jimmy Carter's, the most recent, is virtually unreadable; Nixon's are so suffused with wounded innocence that they should have been printed on Kleenex. The literature of White House staff and advisers is similarly flawed-ranging from Brzezinski's sententiously tided Power and Principle to Califano's arrogantly tided Governing America, Their pomposity is enough to make a person long for a presidential memoir entifled, Gabbing with Gorbo or Putting the Red Phone on Hold,

To be sure, we do know bits and pieces about individual presidents, particularly recent ones, because of the long primary season. But much of it may be useless in understanding bow they govern. Campaign reporters uncovered that Ronald Reagan's favorite meal is macaroni and cheese and that Richard Nixon put ketchup on his scrambled eggs. But looking back on the campaign coverage there was little to tell us about the mesh of Personality and institution that gave us scandals like Watergate and the Iran-contra affair

Students of the presidency have long sought to post a scholar-inresidence at the White House. But I'm not sure that would help much; nor would two scholars, one to check on the honesty of the other. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, a person of more than Middling honesty and intelligence, was almost as hagiographic in his writing as was Dave Powers, author of that detached piece of scholarship Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. Having tried myself to bring this off in twoyear-long stints studying Congress, I found it hard not to be contaminated ty loyalty. And if you risk becoming a cheerleader as a Capitol Hill staffer, imagine the seductive influences of the Oval Office.

'The problems of access associated with the presidency are exacerbated by the restless need of modern political science to quantify the human behavior it studies. Our conclusions are most persuasive when we use vast numbers to yield important correlations or associations. The presidency, however, does not exactly provide a wealth of statistics. What you are left with in Your search for regularities in the conduct of the office is 37 people over a 200 -year period. Contrast this with Congress, where almost 12,000 have served and which has seen 31,000 congressional elections since 1789, Presidential scholars have to coax sweeping conclusions from some very skimpy numbers. Simonton's book is an honest effort to sort out the question of why presidents succeed, but it ends up being unpersuasive because of the small number of cases used to back up this ambitious effort.

How does he go about it? First, he accepts at face value the judgment of several scholarly panels that have distinguished great presidents from not-so-great presidents, using factors like popularity in the polls and success at pushing through major legislation. The results are not exacdy surprising: Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and FDR are consensus choices for "greatness," and Grant, Harding and Buchanan are pretty much the pits. The whole idea of ranking presidents may sound foolish, but there is value to the enterprise. The consistent judgment of scholars from so many different fields-political science, history, sociology-over such a long period of time is impressive. When virtually everyone points to Lincoln as a great president, it's worth asking why.

The purpose of Simonton's book is to look at the grew presidents, find out what they have in common, and construct a formula that will predict greatness. Not surprisingly, as a social psychologist, Simonton puts as much emphasis on personality as he does on politics. From this vantage point, birds order becomes as important as ideology or party affiliation.

A composite figure of a president that Simonton finds likely to be adjudged great: he (certainly not she, since the database on female presidents is rather small) would come to the presidency after having had a distinguished military career and written prolifically He would come from a family of three or fewer siblings, would remain in office for a long time, and be assassinated. Being the object of an unsuccessful attempt on your life won't do. You've got to be hit.

Before you sneer at this as a kind of Presidential Aptitude Test, keep in mind that Simonton judiciously claims nothing more for his data than what the statistics will bear and acknowledges the eternal importance of Machiavelli's fortuna: presidents benefit who lead the nation to victory in wars they didn't start or who prosper from economic cycles over which they had little influence. (It is as true in politics as it is on Wall Street that greatness shouldn't be confused with a bull market.) And he also presents compelling evidence that it is probably better to have a president with few close friendships than one who lets those close to him corrupt him with favoritism. Reflect on the reluctance of Michael Dukakis to fire aide John Sasso after the Biden tape incident or Jimmy Carter's tardy dismissal of Bert Lance, not to mention Reagan and Meese.

No one should be intimidated by the number-crunching used to find meaning in statisticsthat are pathetically small. There is little that is surprising in this inventory and litde that has not been observed already by those armed with nothing more than a trained eye and a perceptive mind,

Had we chosen our 1988 nominees based on Simonton's factors we would have looked for a tall, friendless man in his fifties who came from a small family and wrote many books. Scanning this year's contenders, there was only one who appeared to fit the profile of the great president: Gary Han.
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Author:Baker, Ross K.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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