The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

The past two years have been enjoyable times for reading political history.  Watching the news and keeping up with current events is another story.  I have enjoyed reading the following political books during this past two years:

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman.  William Murray was a major political figure in Oklahoma history during the Twentieth Century, and for a time, he made it to the larger stage of American politics.  He vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932, but was beaten by a man named Roosevelt.

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt.  I really enjoyed this study of FDR’s religious faith.  He was a complicated figure, and FDR was impacted by God even though we might all find areas of glaring inconsistencies.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Ms. Goodwin is a well known and popular biographer of political leaders.  In this study, she parallels the lives and crisis of four Presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating and fun history, these men, like them or not, all had amazing stories leading up to and including their times in the White House

1917 Wilson, Lenin, and the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  This was a great book, but a disturbing one.  It left me disliking Woodrow Wilson more than ever.  I already disliked Lenin, but this just added fuel to that fire.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer.  This account of a literary figure and a political leader was quite good.  I love both men, but try to keep them at a distance.  The story here is not one that is flattering to Roosevelt.

Hamilton: An American Biography by Tony Williams.  Two things I remember about this book:  First, it is a good, brief survey and defense of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial of our Founding Fathers.  Second, it was the beginning of a social media (Facebook) friendship with the author Tony Williams.  I now have all of his books.

In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Bradley Birzer.  Andrew Jackson has fallen on hard times in American society.  His presence on the $20 bill is soon to disappear, and he is routinely trounced by many.  But this book gives strong reasons why we should not be so quick to dismiss the man.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft by Lewis Lehrman.  This book is a interesting look at the personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the two men responsible for leading the Allies during World War II:  Franklin Rooselvelt and Winston Churchill.  But it also describes those men, whose names are in every account of the two leaders, who worked alongside FDR and Churchill.

I wrote reviews on this blog for most of the books mentioned above.  Please search for those reviews if you want to know more.

My most recent read on Presidents and politics is also the best book I have read during the past two years on these matters.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott is published by the University of Kansas Press.

This book surveys a number of Presidents from the past to the present.  This is not, however, a mere survey of Presidential lives or biographical sketches.  Dr. Knott strongly contends that the model was established by President Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  A restrained and yet vigorous executive was conceived by Hamilton, and explained largely through his contributions to The Federalist Papers, and was executed through Hamilton’s mentor and boss, President Washington.

In contrast to Washington and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson pushed and prodded more toward a majoritarian style of leadership.  This entailed pandering to as well as discerning what the majority of the people wanted.  In part, this seems like part and parcel of what I tend to like about the early era of American politics. Wars rage between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.  These battles enlist historians, political theorists, political scientists, and the American public.  Many people may not realize how often they are reciting a Hamilton mantra or a Jefferson mantra.  The main thrust of our time is toward Knott’s view of Jefferson’s vision.

The main concerns that Knott has is toward a style of leadership begun by Jefferson and then extended in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and from there expanded even more by Twentieth Century Presidents Wilson, both Roosevelts, and finally President Trump.  In part, it is based on using the Presidency as a means of dealing with personal vendettas. Knott gives praise to some Presidents who normally get less acclaim on the grounds that they were more careful to stick to the most basic duties, the Constitution, and not public opinion.  Some of his choices here include John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Gerald Ford.

Part of the fun of this book is cheering and booing as Knott works his way through different styles of leadership.  His praise of Lincoln, while careful, was not satisfactory to me.  And I was really furious at his dealing with Andrew Johnson, but he marshalled enough evidence to make me cry “Uncle” at several points.  I will still credit Johnson with being on the right side of the battle against the Radical Republicans in Congress at the time with acknowledging that Johnson was not ever bit the racist Knott says he was.

The last part of the book focuses on more recent Presidents.  Patterns and expectations devolve upon the holders of that office.  More often than not, those patterns and expectations are derived from the examples of more popularity-based and programs-based Presidents.  All recent Presidents get a score card from their first 100 Days in office.  This goes back to when Franklin Roosevelt took office and he signed a flurry of legislative bills into law.  The time context–deep into the Great Depression–gave momentum to this activity.  But Presidents still get measured in comparison to that standard.

All Presidents have had enemies, and while the Nixon White House was condemned for its “enemies list,” such lists exist in every administration.  Some Presidents, those that Knott is most critical of, went after their personal enemies as well as those who opposed their programs.  President Jefferson famously and nobly said in his inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”  (Remember that Republicans of that time is the party that became the Democrat party in later years.) Shortly after taking office, however, Jefferson privately conveyed his wish to destroy the Federalist Party.  Andrew Jackson was the most vindictive man to hold office.  He entered office convinced that John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had wickedly delayed him four years in getting there.  In time, he became a bitter foe to John Calhoun and every person in Washington who snubbed Peggy Eaton.  Deep in his psyche, he was loathsome toward the British and the Bank of the United States.

In spite of his spite, Jackson did quite a bit of good, in my opinion, not Knott’s.  I confess to having sympathy with some of Jackson’s rage, having agreement with some of his policies, and having some of the same suspicions as he had.  I also confess to having some sympathy and support for the current President, Donald Trump.  But Knott’s concerns about President Trump’s style, language, work pattern, lack of knowledge of the job, and unpredictability really uncovered some of the same, but not articulated concerns I have.

I know that when the President is criticized in conservative and Republican circles, people respond with “But Hillary.”  Mrs. Clinton was not the only alternative people had in 2016, and I am not talking about the near comic line-up of third party candidates.  The actions that forced us to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were made in the cold snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and the myriad of primaries and caucuses along the way.  On that November election day in 2016, we were faced with two candidates who were prone to measure political actions by standards other than the Constitution, who were prone to vindictiveness toward enemies, who were quick to use harsh language describing those who disagreed, and who were bound to govern by appealing to their political bases far more than any moral compass.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a history study.  But it is not just a collection of facts or interpretations over the past.  It is a call for some rethinking and debating about what we will do with this office in the future.  Is the soul of the Presidency lost?  Certainly, no one is going to win an election by promising to do less and less and to simply try to carry out the Constitutional mandates rather than election mandates.

The first step will be for us to read this book and others like it.  Agree with Stephen Knott’s assessments or disagree or both.  Political thought, which almost never occurs in the daily news accounts and discussions, will take us down the road to restoring civility and sanity to the process.  Books like this one give me some hope that all is not lost.

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