Presenting The Presidents

A major new installation at the Smithsonian Institution explores the nation’s biggest and most important job

On November 15, just a week after the first presidential election of the new millennium, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History will open an ambitious new exhibition, “The American Presidency.” The 7,000-square-foot show will cover all 41 past American Presidents and will be organized thematically, not chronologically. Its sections will include “Presidential Campaigns,” “Inaugural Celebrations,” “Life at the White House,” “Assassinations and Mourning,” “The Media and the Presidency,” and “Life After the Presidency.”

 
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How Smart Should A President Be?

Smarter than stupid, of course; but does the intellectual tradition that began with the century suggest there is such a thing as being too smart for the country’s good?

The century now ending opened with a political situation that is both unusual and recurring: Intellectuals were somewhat firmly in the saddle. From 1901 to 1921 the White House was occupied by three authors—Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Taft and Wilson were ex-professors to boot. One of the powers of the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, was another author-professor.

 
 
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“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”

Jack Kennedy came into the White House determined to dismantle his Republican predecessor’s rigid, formal staff organization in favor of a spontaneous, flexible, hands-on management style. Thirty years Bill Clinton seems determined to do the same thing. He would do well to remember that what it got JFK was the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.

In early October of 1963, Rep. Clement Zablocki, a Wisconsin Democrat, led a House Foreign Affairs Committee fact-finding delegation to South Vietnam. Invited to the White House when he returned, Zablocki told President John F. Kennedy he thought that removing President Ngo Dinh Diem would be a big mistake, unless the United States had a successor in the wings. Remember Cuba, Zablocki said. “Batista was bad, but Castro is worse.” Read more »

Presidents On Presidents

They’ve all had things to say about their fellow Executives. Once in a great while one was even flattering.

John Adams said Thomas Jefferson’s mind was “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” Ulysses S. Grant said James Garfield did not have “the backbone of an angleworm.” Theodore Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete.” Wilson called Chester Arthur “a nonentity with sidewhiskers.” Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt “No guts!” Read more »

How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?

The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose

Has the press gone too far?” is a question that has been asked more frequently in this presidential campaign than any other. At a time when politicians are being canvassed on their love lives, their acquaintance with marijuana, and the originality of all their sayings, the question seems to answer itself. The “character issue” has become, in many people’s eyes, a hunting license. The prey are intimidated even when they are not eliminated, made to seem vulnerable, “on the run” instead of running for office.Read more »

In Praise Of Pierce

He had all the right qualities. Only the time was wrong.

It’s been a long time since anyone put in a good word, or in fact any kind of word at all, for Franklin Pierce. I am a New Hampshire man who lives not far from the house where the fourteenth President was born and who therefore grew up, so to speak, beneath his paling shadow. From such a position I would like to take this opportunity to rearrange the perspectives now distorting or, indeed, obscuring the nature of his career. Words from Samuel Butler will serve as a text for my remarks.Read more »

When Presidents Tell It Their Way

Only ten of our forty Presidents have written accounts of their time in the White House. Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith is the latest addition to that short shelf, and James Buchanan was the somewhat unlikely creator of this rare literary form. But as the welcome new Da Capo Press edition of his autobiography reaffirms, Theodore Roosevelt remains its most vivid and vigorous practitioner. Read more »

Why We Were Right To Like Ike

Thirty years after judging Eisenhower to be among our worst Presidents, historians have now come around to the opinion most of their fellow Americans held right along.

Critics charged that Ike was spineless in his refusal to openly fight Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Early in 1952, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower confided to a friendly Republican politician why he was reluctant to seek the Presidency: “I think I pretty well hit my peak in history when I accepted the German surrender.” Read more »

I. The Hour Of The Founders

In which a President fails to fulfill his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” And a reluctant Congress acts.

EXACTLY TEN YEARS AGO this August, the thirty-seventh President of the United States, facing imminent impeachment, resigned his high office and passed out of our lives. “The system worked,” the nation exclaimed, heaving a sigh of relief. What had brought that relief was the happy extinction of the prolonged fear that the “system” might not work at all. But what was it that had inspired such fears? When I asked myself that question recently, I found I could scarcely remember.Read more »

Presidents Emeritus

The ex-Presidency now carries perquisites and powers that would have amazed all but the last few who have held that office

What should be done with exPresidents? William Howard Taft once remarked that perhaps the best way to handle a former President was to chloroform and ceremonially cremate him when he left office, in order to “fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.” Taft did not insist on this ritual for himself, however, accepting instead a professorship at the Yale Law School when he finished his presidential term, and later serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

 
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