Eight months after his inaugural, Donald J. Trump’s presidency is rotting before our eyes. Back in July — and who except nostalgists remembers July? — one poll found that only 25 per cent of Americans were certain he’d complete his first term. Another 30 per cent guessed he “probably” would. Meanwhile, slews of defenestrated and self-defenestrated White House staffers are no doubt already scrambling to publish memoirs, or maybe just get therapy.
This leaves the premise of Jeremi Suri’s The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office looking sharper than it might have if the 2016 election had come out differently. President Hillary Clinton could easily have been almost as unpopular as Trump is by now, but she’d still have been striving to simulate the placebo effect of business as usual. Glass ceiling or no glass ceiling, she’d have been less of a break with tradition.
In ways Suri can’t have anticipated — his book is patently a long-mulled study, not a post-election quickie — The Impossible Presidency is a useful reminder that our complacent definition of “normal” presidencies owes more to custom than innate structural resilience. Most Americans’ idea of the chief executive’s importance in shaping the country’s priorities and gestalt isn’t codified in law. Nor is it enshrined in the Constitution. It’s an accretion of power grabs by the job’s more aggressive holders that culminated, in the author’s view, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s eager lunge for every available lever in sight.
Since then, Suri argues, the all-encompassing FDR model of presidential bustle and clout has calcified in the public’s imagination. Long before the Marvelverse took over America’s multiplexes, many of us were unconsciously prone to greeting each new inaugural as the latest reboot of a venerable superhero franchise. Meanwhile, the way Suri sees it, the office’s responsibilities have grown too complex and its latter-day confusions too intractable for any of Roosevelt’s successors to truly measure up to the secular-messiah (or master-mechanic) image.
All the same, virtually every president since 1945 has either wanted or felt goaded to somehow handle everything — to function as both “Dr. New Deal” and “Dr. Win-the-War.” In FDR’s original formulation, those roles were consecutive, not simultaneous. But first the Cold War and then the post-9/11 Global War on Terror fused the two permanently.
Trump entered office with the same capacious idea of his bailiwick, coupled with a surreally vainglorious overestimate of his gifts for the job. But beyond his lack of the crudest grasp of the mechanics of government, he’s proven himself temperamentally incapable of abiding by the tactful rituals that keep Oval Office hubris palatable in a democracy. Those two glaring flaws could end up turning Hurricane Donald into the “anti-leader” (Suri’s term) who demolishes our collective acceptance of a presidential supremacy that he thinks is as boundless as he is reckless.
Even in its conventional, pre-Trump editions, first-among-equals status wasn’t the Founders’ notion of the chief executive’s role. He — in those days, “she” was unimaginable — was a cross between a figurehead monarch and an exalted janitor, which right now doesn’t sound too bad. Delineating how we got here from there is the main value of Suri’s work. While good biographies of individual presidents are easily come by, engrossing studies of the office’s evolving nature and reach are rare.
Even so, he isn’t the first political scientist whose worthwhile insights end up falling victim to his preordained schema. The Impossible Presidency is neatly divided into the “Rise” (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts, which makes sense) and the “Fall” (Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Clinton and Obama, which makes less). Aside from the misjudgment of treating JFK/LBJ and then Clinton/Obama as conjoined twins, which is wrongheaded coming and going — it’s bad enough to get Cary Grant mixed up with John Wayne, but not knowing the difference between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy is unforgivable — too many intervening figures are left out because they don’t fit Suri’s argument.
The MIA Woodrow Wilson defined our world role as a moral policeman, with grimly mixed consequences. The MIA Harry S. Truman invented the national security state. The MIA Dwight D. Eisenhower made brisk use of that new apparatus abroad while successfully — that is, soporifically, which was sly of twentieth-century America’s least-recognized political genius — reverting to the Mount Vernon ideal of an above-the-battle, non-activist, reassuringly humdrum POTUS otherwise.
Then there’s Richard Nixon. Any book on the modern presidency that neglects Nixon’s transfiguration of reflexive respect for the office into permanent suspicion amounts to a high school production of Othello minus its Iago, the two roles Nixon fused into one. In hindsight, “Every Othello his own Iago” was practically Nixon’s own, perceptive translation of E pluribus, unum.
Even so, Suri’s choice of decisive figures in the “Rise” category is hard to quarrel with. Washington is the inevitable starting point, since he invented the job as much as Frankenstein’s monster did his. Without any mandate to do so from the Constitution’s Article II, Washington decided he was responsible for setting national priorities above and beyond Congress’s parochial concerns. More crucially, he also established the executive branch as the sole arbiter of the United States’ embryonic foreign policy, the requirement for Senate approval of formal treaties aside.
When Jackson’s turn came, he rewrote the unwritten rules. Suri accurately calls him “the first populist president, with all the brutality and prejudice that entailed.” Brushing aside the polite fiction that presidents should stay above quotidian political hurly-burly, which had grown increasingly tenuous anyhow from cranky John Adams on, Jackson played to his base, convinced that his “strong powers to act on behalf of popular causes” had few limitations other than the (selectively defined) public will.
But if Jackson was the rough-hewn antithesis to Washington’s austere thesis, synthesis arrived a generation later in the gaunt but wily shape of Abraham Lincoln. “For Jackson and Lincoln,” Suri writes, “an energetic president represented partisan democracy.” Yet Lincoln’s rhetorical genius — not for nothing is the chapter devoted to him called “Poet At War”– managed to reconcile Jacksonian ferocity with neo-Washingtonian loftiness. That’s why it’s easy to underrate the revolutionary effect of his recasting of “the Union” as a mystical be-all and end-all.
Although the two Roosevelts are dealt with separately, Suri’s claims for each one’s distinctiveness overlap: an early sign that his thesis is getting the better of him. If TR was “the first commander-in-chief to think globally,” FDR is characterized as “the first global president.” Perhaps two different things if you squint hard enough, these formulations are nonetheless indicative of Suri’s increasing strain in concocting important-sounding “firsts.” The difference is that Teddy comes off fairly well, while Suri seems exasperated almost to the point of stammering at how FDR set “impossibly high . . . near impossible . . . unrealistic expectations” for his successors.
In other words, he’s being set up as the explanation for why every presidency since 1945 represents the “Fall” in the book’s subtitle. No wonder Eisenhower’s missing, since he governed successfully for two terms without showing any interest in mimicking either FDR’s busy-bee activism or his role as inspirer-in-chief. Instead, we zoom ahead to the New Frontier. “Built for the Great Depression and the Second World War, the presidency Kennedy inherited was not ready for the diffusion of superpower responsibilities,” Suri claims.
This seems a little berserk after fifteen solid years when confronting the Soviet Union while avoiding nuclear war had been Kennedy’s immediate predecessors’ main task, with an escalation of bristling and entrenched Cold War bureaucracy to match. But Suri’s JFK is “stymied, distracted, and often despondent,” as unlikely as the last of these, in particular, sounds. At the very least, his ability to conceal being down in the dumps right up until Oswald shot him was remarkable.
From there on, the cogency of Suri’s argument deteriorates as the reader’s interest dwindles. Among other oddities, he gets hipped on using each president’s daily calendar as evidence they were too swamped by trivia to contemplate the big picture, which is on a par with evaluating a new car exclusively by checking out its windshield wipers. He frets about JFK frittering away his precious time during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis by attending to his routine ceremonial duties, apparently unaware that Kennedy’s insistence on maintaining a façade of normality was intended to gull the public into thinking nothing was wrong until he got good and ready to tell us we might be facing World War III.
At the same time, Suri faults Johnson, for instance, for his “ambition to do more of everything,” both domestically (the Great Society) and abroad (Vietnam). Reagan gets high marks early on for ignoring the chaff of “day-to-day responsibilities” to focus on “a few simple, deeply held, and widely shared aspirations,” but he too becomes “scattered and over-scheduled” and then “overcommitted and uncertain.” (Whatever Reagan’s failings were, uncertainty wasn’t among them.) Then he turns out to be “flexible and adaptive” once Mikhail Gorbachev comes on the scene.
Suri does his best to affect ideology-free dispassion. At least on the surface, he’s evaluating how his subjects wielded power, not their goals. Still, you do notice that the presidents who exemplify the presidency’s “Fall” comprise four Democrats and only one Republican, who gets off relatively unscathed compared to the others. Besides Nixon, another of The Impossible Presidency’s glaring GOP omissions is George W. Bush, who exemplifies both disastrous presidential overreach (as in our Iraq quagmire) and fumbling presidential inadequacy (as in Katrina) better than either Clinton or Obama.
But it’s the latter two who co-star in the final chapter, as if their tenures somehow represent two halves of the same botched presidency. How so? Well, both were “ambitious climbers” — actually a major point they have in common with George Washington, but never mind — and Toni Morrison did famously call Bill “our first black president.” Suri quotes that line as if it wasn’t regally fatuous nonsense. Besides, both were raised by strong mothers, the pretext for his peculiar — or, at the very least, peculiarly phrased — claim that “these two men feminized and blackened the presidency.” Suri even seems to blame them, not their political opponents, for “the destructive focus on the personal [that] undermined leadership.”
He also can’t resist the urge to be prescriptive, at whatever cost to his own frequent intelligence about the untidy way circumstance makes hash of such formulas. “After Donald Trump,” Suri writes, “improved national leadership will require remaking the office, the larger governance of the United States, and the expectations of the public.” The giveaway there is the abstract “will require,” without any clue as to what agency might create such a consensus. He’s just telling us what would happen if he ran the zoo.
“The office needs new boundaries,” he adds, contradicting his own book’s vivid evidence that transformations of the presidency result from dynamic individual temperaments, not institutional reform or popular pressure. As perceptive as The Impossible Presidency often is about the executive branch’s past, Suri’s guesses about the job’s future aren’t any better than anyone else’s — aside, maybe, from those of us who decided on Election Night 2016 that guesswork is a fool’s errand anyhow.
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