Putting the Presidency on a Diet

You don’t have to be a small-government conservative to welcome a hard look at the abuses of the presidency and those men who refrained, in the main, from augmenting their authority.

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
President Coolidge and his wife. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

By Amity Shlaes, With a New Preface by George Will
Harper, 592 pages

‘A Man of Iron: The Turbulent life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland’
By Troy Senik
Threshold Editions, 384 pages

‘President McKinley: Architect of the American Century’
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 624 pages

‘The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding’
By Ryan S. Walters
Regnery, 320 pages

The history of presidential biography, dominated by Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Kennedy, has skewed toward what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency.” The office itself has taken on powers and prerogatives not dreamed of, it is safe to say, in the philosophy of the Founding Fathers.

After all, presidents don’t get mentioned until Article 2 of the Constitution, which prescribes and limits a range of actions that obligate the office holder to work closely with Congress — though how closely is a matter of interpretation.

Unlike Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Jackson’s decision to ignore a Supreme Court decision, the Roosevelts’ sweeping expansion of the federal government, presidents like Harding, Coolidge, and McKinley have been more circumspect in exercising presidential authority.

In a new preface to Amity Shlaes’s acclaimed Coolidge biography, George Will observes: “Until 2013, having an interest in Coolidge, never mind admiring him, was regarded as either an amiable and harmless eccentricity, or as a symptom of political philistinism.” Coolidge was thought to be dull, lazy, and boring.

Will calls ours a “confessional age” in need of Coolidge’s “aptitude for brevity”: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” Coolidge, then the Massachusetts governor, said during the 1919 Boston police strike.

Ms. Shlaes is part of a school of biographers who are reassessing figures such as Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding, and William McKinley. You don’t have to be a small-government conservative to welcome a hard look at the abuses of the presidency and those men who refrained, in the main, from augmenting their authority.

In “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland,” Troy Senik notes that the president refused to exercise his patronage power to advance Democratic Party hacks. He opposed the effort to take advantage of a weak Hawaiian monarchy and the pretexts of American imperialists who wanted to annex it. 

In “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century,” Robert W. Merry shows that this unassuming man achieved positive results by pursuing methodical, incremental change, though disasters like the war in the Philippines eluded his control, and America’s global reach and significance were not quite what the cautious McKinley had in mind. His openness to the public cost him his life when an assassin got close enough to press a gun against the president’s chest.

The rehabilitation of President Harding is probably the most daring entry in this downsizing of the presidency, though it had begun with John Dean’s short biography in 2004, part of Arthur Schlesinger’s American Presidents series.

In “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding,” Ryan S. Walters acknowledges Dean’s revisionist work and announces: “I am simply trying to restore Harding to what he once was in the eyes of the American people: a beloved president.”

Harding wins the prize for attracting dismissive adjectives: lazy, licentious, an amiable dunce, a vapid and corrupt political hack. Yet what he has in common with Coolidge and McKinley is a becoming modesty. The canny Harding, as Mr. Walters has it, realized the nation had had enough of Woodrow Wilson’s grandiosity that did not make the world safe for democracy.

What Americans needed, Harding believed, was good humor and tolerance. His record in helping African Americans get federal jobs contrasts with President Wilson’s segregationist policies. Harding met with African-American leaders, spoke up for minorities, and supported a Jewish state.

Disagree with the conclusions of these revisionist biographers all you like, yet you won’t take much away from their achievement in the realm of biography, which counts on the biographer to see individuals holistically and not just as the embodiment of political principles.

Of course biographers have biases and agendas, but what we want to know is the biographical subject, the intrinsically important individual, whatever his opinions and policies, his successes and failures, may be. 

Mr. Rollyson is at work on “Making the American Presidency: How Biographers Shape History.”

The New York Sun

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