William Leuchtenburg is one of our national treasures. At age 93, he continues to contribute immensely to American historiography. His latest offering, The American President - From Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, is an epic tome of over 800 pages, chronicling each of the 20th-century presidents and the evolution of the American presidency under their individual tenures. As Leuchtenburg says at the outset, the book, "explores how the American presidency in the 20th-century became a very much more powerful institution than it had ever been before, and how that aggrandizement was brought about by the men that inhabited the White House."
Leuchtenburg's style, throughout the book, is to present the facts as they are believed to have occurred; provide the reader with samples of the historiography from both sides of interpretation of those facts; and to then provide his own belief. It is a style that wonderfully encapsulates Leuchtenburg’s 60+ year career in historical research, and provides the reader with multiple opinions from which to draw.
According to Leuchtenburg, for most of American history the presidency has been presented as a, "continuous tale, with each succeeding administration adding another chapter. By contrast, I perceive a great divide - with the 20th-century presidency markedly different from what preceded it." Initially in his earlier scholarship, Leuchtenburg had cited the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt as marking the beginning of this change. Since then, however, Leuchtenburg has reassessed his thinking. While initially considering that, "the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939 during FDR's second term [had] produced the big fault line....In the years since my first volume appeared I have come to conclude that the disjuncture came not in 1933, or 1939 but in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley."
In looking at those men, Leuchtenburg examines the good and the bad. Examples of the former included times when, "Teddy Roosevelt battled vested interests to preserve the nation's domain, when Woodrow Wilson sought to create a New World Order, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted for the welfare of the impoverished one-third of a nation, when Harry Truman promoted the Marshall plan for a beleaguered Europe, when Lyndon Johnson called upon Congress to grant long-overdue recognition of the civil rights of African-Americans, when Ronald Reagan spoke so movingly to the sorrow over the Challenger disaster..." Of course, Leuchtenburg notes, "the dark underside of presidential power cannot be ignored. Too often, presidents have lied to us. Too often, they have wasted the lives of our children in foreign ventures that should never have been undertaken. They are both the progenitors and the victims of inflated expectations, and when they overreach, they should be checked."
I’m dividing these reviews as Leuchtenburg does by chapter, and will be issuing these over the ensuing days:
The work opens with the assassination of William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in September 1901. Leuchtenburg notes that, in some ways, it was odd that McKinley was even a target, as the presidency was still considered a minor position at that point. For example, as late as 1901 the president, "had no control over the budgets of cabinet officials who ran the major departments. They answered not to him but to chummy congressional committee chairmen with whom they had colluded."
Still, there are some who argue that McKinley should be considered - not the last of the 'irrelevant' 19th-century presidents - but as the first of the strong executives of the 20th century. They point to his success in the Spanish-American War as the first example of modern presidential authority. Leuchtenburg disagrees. "The reach of McKinley's tenure...fell considerably short of that of 20th-century presidents...Furthermore, he had only a tenuous grasp of foreign affairs, for he had never been abroad, and he was an active commander-in-chief largely because he had made such poor cabinet choices that he could rely upon neither his Secretary of the Navy nor his hopelessly incompetent Secretary of War"
Instead, Leuchtenburg argues, "McKinley made his greatest contribution to the growth of executive power inadvertently, when he took on Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate in 1900." In another of history's great ironies, McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, thought that by killing McKinley he was striking a blow against government. Leuchtenburg writes, "Instead, his violent deed put in place of McKinley a far more dynamic leader - the rambunctious, ambitious, pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt - a succession that significantly altered the course of the American presidency."
Roosevelt made it clear from the very beginning that his ideas on the presidency differed greatly from any of his predecessors, and did so publicly in his first annual address to Congress in December 1901. Of that address, historian H.W. Brands has written, "Whatever readers made of the portents of Roosevelt's message, there was no mistaking the tone. This wasn't McKinley speaking; this was someone new, someone self-confidently assertive, and someone with a far grander sense of the public purpose than anyone who had ever held the presidency."
Roosevelt demonstrated this early in his tenure by intervening in the Anthracite Coal Strike. Conservatives were shocked that a president would interject himself into a mediation between management and labor. Leuchtenburg writes that by settling the coal strike, "He prepared the way for future presidents to assert a right to intercede when a domestic conflict endangered the national interest....By becoming the first chief executive to exert the power of the national government - not to crush a strike but to bring about a fair outcome - Roosevelt added a new dimension to the presidency." Leuchtenberg argues that Roosevelt saw the government, "as a mediating force among all elements in society."
Another major mark on the presidency cited by Leuchtenburg was the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Leuchtenburg notes that, "the president converted the Monroe Doctrine from a warning to European powers against intervention in the Western Hemisphere into an announcement that the United States reserved exclusively to itself the right to intervene....a dangerous precedent of U.S. patriarchy had been set."
Roosevelt's friend and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, had a different view of the office - although Leuchtenburg says it would be wrong to put him in the category of 19th-century presidents who sought to minimize the position. Of Taft, historian Alan Brinkley has written, "He was a man of considerable intelligence, talent, and integrity. But he was temperamentally unsuited for the intensely political character of the presidency; and his uneasiness with the demands of the office seemed to evoke all his worst qualities - his tendency to procrastinate, his excessive legalism, even a kind of physical and intellectual laziness."
Yet, Leuchtenburg argues, Taft achieved many progressive goals: an eight-hour day for federal employees; a commission to explore workmen's compensation; and support for legislation to expand the authority of the Interstate Commerce Committee. Indeed, Leuchtenburg notes, "Taft launched twice as many antitrust suits in four years as 'trustbuster' Roosevelt had in nearly two terms."
Taft's view of the presidency was not strict constructionist but it also differed from that of his predecessor and his successor. While Taft acknowledged that a president could draw upon implied powers, and he found no fault with Abraham Lincoln's far-reaching actions during the Civil War, he also believed that, "our President has no initiative in respect to legislation given him by law except that of mere recommendation, and no legal...method of entering into the ...discussion of ....proposed legislation while pending in Congress. The true view of the Executive function is...that the President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied...There is no underfunded residuum of power which he can exercise because it seems to him to be in the public interest."
As Leuchtenburg concludes in this chapter on Roosevelt and Taft, "Taft was fighting a losing battle, because his successor [Wilson] had come to take a decidedly Rooseveltian view of the powers of his office."