Presidents, Imperial And Otherwise

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Harrison soon fell ill, underwent a possibly fatal battery of treatments—bleeding, cupping, laudanum, opium, calomel, castor oil, patent powders, root cures, and shots of warm whiskey—and died just thirty days after his inauguration. No other President had ever died in office: “What! Soared the old eagle to die at the Sun?” wrote the journalist Nathaniel P. Willis, “Lies he stiff with spread wings at the goal he has won?/Death, Death in the White House?/0h never before/Trod his skeleton foot on the President’s floor.” That rattly tread would be heard a good many more times over the years, and The President’s House is filled with the sad details of mourning.

Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the modern Presidency—and virtually built the modern White House. It was he who hired Charles McKim to “restore” it, by adding the east and west wings, and when critics objected, he was characteristically unabashed: “Only a yahoo could have his taste offended,” he wrote, “and excepting a yahoo, only a very base partisan politician would complain of it.” (In fact, McKim’s haste to finish on TR’s frenetic schedule resulted in such slipshod construction that much of the work had to be redone in Harry Truman’s time.) No man delighted more in the Presidency’s potential for display than TR, who dressed the White House coachman in the livery of his late father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., complete with brass buttons incised with his initials, and decreed strict rules of etiquette even for those who accompanied him on his frantic gallops through Rock Creek Park: “The President will notify whom he wishes to ride with him. The one so notified will take position on the left of the President and keep his right stirrup back of the President’s left stirrup....Those following will keep not less than ten yards in the rear of the President....Salutes should be returned only by the President....”

It was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who introduced the phrase “Imperial Presidency” to describe what happens when the constitutional balance between presidential power and presidential accountability is upset. He returns to that all-too-frequently timely subject among many others in his rich new mix of essays, The Cycles of American History. It makes marvelous, challenging reading for anyone interested in who we are and what we have been.

When the White House was electrified, President Harrison wouldn’t let his family touch the switches for fear of electrocution.

For four decades now, as writer, teacher, sometime presidential assistant and political adviser, Schlesinger has been unabashedly engaged—with past events and current problems and the little-understood links between them. In the fourteen essays that make up this, his fifteenth book, he revisits ideas and themes that have interested him throughout his career: he argues again, for example, that American political life beats back and forth from conservatism to liberalism in a thirty-year rhythm. (If he’s right, a liberal should be back in the White House in 1989—’93 at the outside.) But he also traces how, in our relatively short history, we have gone from thinking ourselves merely a fragile if “exemplary experiment” to “mankind’s designated judge, jury and executioner”; sees the current debate over what to do about human rights abroad foreshadowed in an 1849 argument over whether to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Austria in order to display American sympathy with the Hungarian democrat Lajos Kossuth; bloodies revisionist historians of the Cold War and revisionist biographers of Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy—along with those who wish our government were somehow more like Britain’s. (He also makes a novel proposal of his own—that the Vice-Presidency be abolished in favor of a kind of ninety-day regency under the Secretary of State, to be followed by a new election.)

One may dislike any or all of his resonant opinions, but it is hard to fault either his easy command of the history with which be bolsters them or the combative wit with which they are often expressed: who else would think to summarize Aaron Burr as “a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history except for his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal”? And he remains healthily scornful of cant and sloppy writing: “We carelessly apply the phrase ‘end of innocence,’ to one or another stage of American history,” he notes. “This is an amiable flourish when not a pernicious delusion. How many times can a nation lose its innocence? No people reared on Calvin and Tacitus could ever have been very innocent. No nation founded on invasion, conquest and slaughter was innocent. No people who systematically enslaved black men and killed red men were innocent. No state established by revolution and thereafter rent by civil war was innocent.”

In the opening paragraphs of “The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?” the first—and to my mind the most compelling—of the essays included here, Schlesinger confesses his own liberal leanings, then cheerfully challenges those historians tempted to differ with him to be as forthcoming: “Let them betray their own biases.” He knows that history is an endless argument, and his keen pleasure in that idea seems undiminished by forty years of distinguished scholarship and eloquent advocacy.