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Volume 44, Number 3 (Summer 2006)

No Samson?

Thinking about the Presidency: Documents and Essays from the Founding to the Present,
edited by Gary L. Gregg (Rowman & Littlefield 2005)

Charles W. Dunn

book cover imageThinking about the Presidency fulfills a critical need for professors and students of the presidency. By blending the advantages of a solid textbook with those of an engaging reader, Gary L. Gregg II pioneers a “third way” of examining the presidency: The combination of his own exceptional insight into the presidency with a rich selection of classic essays and original sources.

Education about the presidency should build upon a broad base of historical understanding to liberate students from the confinements of contemporary thought. Thinking about the Presidency achieves this objective. Gregg’s tour de force of presidential history, spanning from the late 18th through the early 21st centuries, provides professors and students with the necessary background to appraise the appropriateness of contemporary thinking about the presidency. Indeed, how can professors and students comment properly about the presidency if they do not know where it came from?

Gregg’s new, but long overdue, book stands out as a worthy competitor to the leading reader, The Presidency and the Political System, edited by Michael Nelson, who writes in his Preface that “Timing matters immensely . . . in a course on the presidency.” Courses such as calculus and Spanish may require little or no revision for many years, but frequent changes in the presidency require presidency courses to follow suit. And so it is that in the span of just a few years, Nelson’s reader is now in its 8th edition. Its 550 or so pages of essays post a lineup of scholarly experts on elections, Beltway politics, demographics, leadership, media, and history, among other disciplines. Additionally, it offers commentary on the current president’s term and the issues of the day, including a focus on the presidency at war and bureaucratic relations.

Nelson’s reader deserves high praise, but Gregg’s book warrants special consideration. As a sturdy survey of the latest currents of thought about the presidency, Nelson’s book is ideal, but Gregg’s book enables professors and students to think about the presidency in a larger and more engaging historical context. Thinking about the Presidency aptly describes Gregg’s book. Of this he remarks: “Its basic premise is that students taking courses on the presidency are in need of encouraging readings that stimulate their own thinking about the major issues of constitutional government in America as well as readings that are most likely to encourage their continued thought and exposition of the office in years ahead.”

In 542 pages, Gregg offers 39 classic essays and original sources along with his own perceptive commentary, divided into four parts, which cover (1) Origins and Development, (2) Presidents and Government, (3) The President and the Public, (4) and Leadership Evaluation. Besides all of that he offers eight “Quick Fact Boxes” and eight “Constitutional Context Boxes.” Of course, each part presents pertinent bibliographic citations, and at the book’s end he provides three thorough appendices on “Presidential Terms of Office,” “Vice Presidential Terms of Office,” and “Presidential Election Statistics.” And unlike many readers, Thinking about the Presidency features a helpful Index. Gregg places each reading in its historical and theoretical context, and presents stimulating questions for reflection.

Why does the reading of original texts differ from reading secondary summaries, commentaries and conclusions of contemporary scholars about those texts? Some might argue, not much. After all, authors of original texts, such as Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Lincoln, merely tapped into the ideas of their times. So why should we grant superior status to their work over contemporary writings, which merely reflect biases of the current age? Since each generation of writers succumbs in significant ways to the spirit of its times, are the writers of the old any better than writers of the new? Certainly none escapes the zeitgeist. But because the zeitgeist differs from generation to generation, each generation offers a different perspective, but not without building upon the thinking of preceding generations. In that, as Solomon said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Preceding generations of thought constitute the building blocs of today’s thinking. No generation is an island unto itself.

Classic essays and original sources exhibit the thinking that produced today’s institutions. Consider, for example, war-making power. In 1787 potentates, considered to have divine legitimacy, ruled around the globe. For America’s motherland, England, war-making power was the preserve of the king, who could make war and send troops where he pleased, constrained only by the possible need to acquire additional funding from Parliament. Today, at least theoretically, Congress possesses the constitutional power to make war, and the President, the power to command the military. Practically, however, that is not how it has worked out. Presidents have committed troops in Iraq and many other places, in effect declaring war without a Congressional declaration of war. We refer to the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and others, but the last time Congress actually exercised its power to declare war occurred at the outset of World War II. So in a sense we have come full circle. We cannot understand the present without understanding the past, or put another way, the past not only offers the best commentary on the present, but also serves as the best predictor of the future.

Gregg believes that the enduring wisdom of the past should guide the present and future exercise of presidential power and that we can only discern this wisdom by fully considering the fountainhead of today’s thinking. Thus, while using some contemporary writers, he limits their number so as to gain a better grasp of the wisdom of the ages. In “Historical Perspectives on Presidential Power,” for example, he describes the issue as “too important to leave to partisan bickering and ideological agendas.” He turns to such classic writings as those of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft to discern answers to this question: “What is the good end of a presidency?” With the reflection encouraged by Gregg comes the pondering of the “ought,” those normative and value considerations about the presidency and the exercise of presidential power, which prompt spirited debate.

Nelson reveals three drastic shifts in presidential scholarship over the past half century. The “savior” model of a powerful president dominated thinking from FDR to Kennedy, but the failures of the powerful Johnson and Nixon presidencies produced the “Satan” model, which deemphasized presidential power. After that, however, the inept Ford and Carter presidencies fashioned the “Samson” model, which reemphasized presidential power. Within 60 years or so thinking about the presidency came full circle, leading Nelson to conclude that a president with strength is the historical standard of greatness.

But should it be? On that question Gregg’s book comes to the front of the line. Rather than accepting the premise that strength is the historical standard of greatness, Gregg challenges readers to think deeply about whether strength, in our particular context of limited government and separation of powers, should be.

Substantively and pedagogically Gregg’s Thinking about the Presidency merits serious consideration for adoption as a textbook on the presidency.

Charles W. Dunn is Dean of Robertson School of Government at Regent University. He is the author of The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2006), The Conservative Tradition in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), and The Scarlet Thread of Scandal: Morality and the American Presidency (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

Posted: March 20, 2007

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk

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