Book review: The president as parent -- consoler, protector or, sometimes, failure
"The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency" by John Dickerson (Random House)
Throughout our history, presidents have played a parental role for our large, diverse nation. George Washington was the humble founding father of our democracy, Abraham Lincoln was the determined father who suffered to protect the Union, and Franklin Roosevelt was the steady, fatherly hand that guided the country through the Great Depression and world war. Citizens referred to these men as national fathers during their lifetimes, and after.
Recent presidents found their strongest voices as reassuring parents for the country in moments of tragedy. They projected confidence, empathy and hope. Think of Ronald Reagan's eloquent address to the nation after the Challenger disaster in January 1986, George W. Bush's indignant visit to Ground Zero in September 2001, and Barack Obama's passionate rendition of "Amazing Grace" after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. Many citizens feel abandoned today because parental reassurance is completely lacking from our nation's current leadership.
Of course, the terrible failures of today are not entirely new. Numerous observers have described a deterioration in American national leadership during recent decades, evident in rising public dissatisfaction with government, and politicians in particular. Some commentators attribute leadership decline to the character of elected officials, and they have many obvious examples. Other writers blame the various constraints on contemporary presidents: Congress, interest groups, the media and the federal bureaucracy -- what polemicists derisively call "the deep state."
John Dickerson takes a third approach, echoing the analysis of current scholars. As a journalist, Dickerson has watched our recent presidents closely, and he has collected many fascinating details about their experiences in office. He has also read into the historical record to find relevant stories from the past. He argues that as the country has grown in size, power and complexity, the presidency has become overburdened with too many responsibilities and expectations. Dickerson quotes Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, who lamented: "The modern presidency has gotten out of control."
Dickerson offers a colorful mosaic of quotations from presidents and close advisers confirming Panetta's words. The demands on the nation's leader continue to multiply with each day, at ever-greater speed. And presidents are held responsible for events they do not control -- including foreign aggression, domestic policing, pandemics and especially the business cycle. Every word the president utters is analyzed in depth, often with malice. Everyone around the president wants something from him, making it very difficult to get honest, rigorous advice. "The job," Dickerson writes, "can seem beyond any one person."
Campaigns only make this problem worse. Dickerson has accompanied many candidates on the hustings, and he describes the pressures the candidates feel to act as superheroes capable of addressing every voter's needs, while maintaining ideological purity and serving powerful interests. To win, you have to be all things to all people, and you have to make it simple for voters. But the charisma-driven qualities of a strong campaigner run against the organizational acumen and levelheadedness necessary for a very complex office. If you try to do everything as president, Dickerson shows, you cannot accomplish anything. For this reason, presidents often find it difficult to transition from campaigning to governing.
Dickerson offers some useful tips for future presidents (and voters) in his conclusion, including more issue-focused campaigns, lower public expectations, better transition teams and, my favorite, a "balance between immutable beliefs and open-mindedness." Dickerson tells presidents to "act like Ben Franklin."
Well, yes, but how helpful is that? "The Hardest Job in the World" is very heavy (more than 450 pages) on anecdote and suggestion, but light as a feather on analysis. Reading the book is like listening to a conversation of parents complaining about how hard it is to manage. The stories are compelling, the reasons are many, and the solutions seem trite and impractical. You cannot tell voters to focus on issues, rather than personality, any more than you can order teenagers to put down their phones.
Wise parents and presidents spend a lot of effort examining the motivations and incentives for people to behave as they do. Effective parents and presidents seek to turn those motivations and incentives to their advantage. That is why many academic lectures have become podcasts and many political leaders have replaced long-winded policy addresses with sophisticated social media presentations. The challenges of leadership reflect deep and irreversible changes in society, and the opportunities come in leveraging those changes for a purpose. That is precisely what rigorous scholars of leadership, and the presidency, have studied for decades. Dickerson gives a cursory gesture to this work, and he offers little original analysis of his own.
And then there is a question of presentation. "The Hardest Job in the World" often feels like a collection of short television spots. In almost every chapter the author jumps from anecdotes about earlier presidents to later ones, and then back again. Sometimes, the paragraphs leap centuries in two directions. The sentences contain a barrage of glib phrases and mixed metaphors. Take page 82 as just one of many examples. In the space of four short paragraphs, Dickerson refers to "Green Lanternism," "a Tom Clancy novel," "a barrel roll," "a well-placed shot from his sidearm" and "magical properties" to describe presidential responsibilities. This prose has a gee-whiz quality, but it sends the reader spinning. What exactly is Dickerson trying to say and what is his evidence?
This raises a larger question about journalists, who are the predominant chroniclers of the presidency. They have a front-row seat, few as close and for as long as Dickerson. But are some journalists too mesmerized by the trappings of power and the larger-than-life personalities that occupy the White House? Are they recounting what they hear and see, but missing the deeper shifts in behavior and belief?
Dickerson comments repeatedly on how presidents perceive the expectations of their office, yet he never analyzes the shifting sources of those expectations in citizens, interest groups, foreign leaders and countless other actors. Can we really understand the presidency from close snippets alone? Isn't there a deeper historical context that is crucial to the current crisis of the office? Dickerson's book tells us about the daily parental struggles of the presidency, but not much more.