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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2004 / 23 Kislev, 5765

Michael Barone

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Burdens of proof |
Only 42 men have held the office of president of the United States since George Washington first took the oath 215 years ago. Hundreds have run for the job, and millions have daydreamed about it, but only those few have reached the goal. The experience of being president, presidents themselves have suggested, can be understood only by those who have done it. Hence, the unlikely friendships among presidents of different parties: the long correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman's recruitment of Herbert Hoover to help reorganize the government, the mutual affection of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the recent handsome tributes of the George Bushes to Bill Clinton

No one has shaped the office of president more than the man who first held it and for whom it was designed. George Washington assumed leadership of a new nation of only 4 million largely confined to the Atlantic Coast. But he had faith in his vision of a continental nation, one that would take a leading role in the world. He believed in "energy in the executive," as Alexander Hamilton put it, but he also believed in limits on power. He refused the title of "king" and left office voluntarily after two terms.

Many Americans saw Washington in person, leading the Revolutionary Army or on his travels around the nation. Today, in a country of 295 million, few Americans ever see a president up close and personal. But we have come to know our presidents in other ways. In the early years, Americans met their presidents through the printed word and in paintings and cartoons. With the invention of photography by the 1840s, Americans came to know their presidents through photographs, and later through newsreels and television. In a celebrity culture, the president is the biggest celebrity of all, and we know, or believe we know, his strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, his family members, even his dog.

And we watch our leader shoulder the burdens of an office whose holder can take no vacation from his responsibilities. Americans have seen great wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, visibly age in office, then be struck down just at the moment of victory. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, highly talented politicians, assumed the air of beaten men after struggling with the war in Vietnam and the scandal of Watergate. More recently, we have seen baby boomers Clinton and Bush grow grayer before our eyes.

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If every presidency has been shaped by Washington, every president has also shaped the office in his own image. Jefferson, a poor speaker, refused to deliver addresses to Congress, instead courting politicians over lavish dinners and fine wine. Andrew Jackson, used to military command, assembled his own highly political "kitchen cabinet." Early presidents had little in the way of staff; James Polk's chief aide was his wife. Lincoln walked over to the War Department to get telegraphed battle reports. Now, the West Wing, built by Theodore Roosevelt, can house only a fraction of the White House staff.

A matter of style. Different presidents have had different management styles. Franklin Roosevelt cultivated ambiguity and delegated the same job to multiple appointees; Dwight Eisenhower set up a military-type staff that vetted each issue methodically. Clinton was seldom on time and rewrote speeches at the last minute; George W. Bush tends to show up early and keep to schedule.

The presidency brings out hidden strengths and hidden weaknesses. Polk and Truman came to the presidency as little-known and cranky partisans. But each showed determination and creativity, Polk in winning the Mexican War and expanding the nation to the Pacific, Truman in clinching victory in World War II and challenging the Soviet Union. James Buchanan and Hoover came to the presidency after distinguished public careers. But neither could handle the crises handed him: Buchanan could not settle the issue of slavery in the territories, and Hoover could not end the Great Depression.

Americans have come to expect a lot of their presidents, more perhaps than any man can deliver. We say that the president runs the country, but in practice, presidents have trouble running large parts of the government. We hold the president responsible for the economy, even though he has few economic levers at his command. We expect the commander in chief to lead us to victory in war, and then we complain when we think he is micromanaging the military.

And we tend to think of the president as the personification of the nation he leads. Few other democracies combine the position of head of government and head of state. We do, and some of the bitterness of our politics--the divisions over the Civil War, the class warfare of the Depression, the "values" politics of today--springs from the conviction of many Americans that this or that president does not really represent their country. Yet as we look back at our presidents, we see them less as partisan politicians than as national leaders, who in different ways have helped develop the strengths and virtues of our nation.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone