Gene Healy: ‘Early American Political Culture Held that Anyone who Seemed to Relish the Idea of Wielding Power Couldn’t Be Trusted with it. No Longer’

George W. Bush Library Dedication

It Doesn’t Matter If Campaigning For President Is Fun

healyGene Healy writes:

….There was a time, however, when we approached presidential selection with the sobriety a serious choice demands. In a penetrating 2003 article, The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office, political scientist Richard J. Ellis explains that Americans used to look for a very different demeanor when assessing potential presidents.

“You’d never catch that guy grinning, nor, prior to the twentieth century, any of the others.”

‘My God: what is there in this office that any man should want to get into it?’

“In the beginning,” Ellis writes, “the presidency was envisioned not as an office to be enjoyed, but as a place of stern duty.” In fact, “one would be hard-pressed to find a single president between George Washington and Grover Cleveland of whom it could be said that he appeared to have fun in the exercise of presidential power.”

[Read the full text here, at thefederalist.com]

Early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. Our first president set the standard for presidential bearing: “dutiful and reluctant.”

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“Over the course of the twentieth century, thanks in part to the two Roosevelts, cultural norms shifted, even as the executive branch grew radically in size and power.”

As Washington put it: “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.” Or, as Cleveland once moaned, “My God: what is there in this office that any man should want to get into it?”

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“Presidents today are supposed to take pleasure in the job. Those who dislike or at least complain about it are assumed to be psychologically suspect.”

— political scientist Richard J. Ellis

Throughout the nineteenth century, the public norms surrounding political power mandated a “low-energy” campaign, in which the candidates “stayed home in dignified silence, ready to serve if called by the people.” Even Andrew Jackson, the first candidate to style 51BZC+zfo3L._SL250_himself the champion of the popular will, refused to hit the hustings: “I meddle not with elections; I leave the people to make their own president,” he said.

[Order Gene Healy’s book “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power” from Amazon.com]

You’d never catch that guy grinning, nor, prior to the twentieth century, any of the others. In the popular images of nineteenth-century presidents, Ellis writes, “it is difficult if not impossible to find an exuberant or smiling president.”

Enter the Self-Styled Larger than Life

Over the course of the twentieth century, thanks in part to the two Roosevelts, cultural norms shifted, even as the executive branch grew radically in size and power. “Presidents today are supposed to take pleasure in the job,” Ellis writes, and be happy warriors on the campaign trail. “Those who dislike or at least complain about it are assumed to be psychologically suspect.”

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This Day in History, Oct. 14th 1912: Theodore Roosevelt Survives Assassination Attempt

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“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

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On this day in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot while making a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Roosevelt, who served as President from 1901 to 1909 was attempting to run for a third term for his Bull Moose Party. He lost the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He was shot by John Schrank, a mentally disturbed saloon keeper, who claimed he was told to kill Roosevelt by the ghost of former President William McKinley Read the rest of this entry »


This Day in History: Sept. 14, 1901: Theodore Roosevelt is Sworn in as President After William McKinley is Assassinated

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On this day in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States upon William McKinley’s assassination.  Roosevelt was 42 at the time, making him the youngest President until John F. Kennedy.

McKinley, who had been extremely resistant to accepting security measures, was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz about a week earlier in Buffalo, New York.  Afterwards, Congress assigned the Secret Service the duty of protecting the President.

[a preview video of McKinley’s assassination from Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts]

Photo: Assassination of President McKinley. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


The Media War Over JFK: Was His Presidency Conservative, Liberal, or What?

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination.REUTERS

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination. REUTERS

Howard Kurtz writes:  The media are awash in Jack Kennedy tributes, specials, documentaries, books and essays, conjuring up how he lived and how he died. There is an enduring fascination with Camelot, the myth enshrined after his death, and with the myriad theories and counter-theories about Lee Harvey Oswald and that awful day in Dallas.

But a partisan battle has also erupted over this question: Was Kennedy really and truly a liberal?

Why, one might ask, does this question still have resonance? Is it just a way to transpose the politics of 1963 to our 21st-century era of constant political warfare?

Sure, but it goes deeper than that. Although Kennedy’s accomplishments were meager in his thousand days, he retains a powerful hold on our imagination. This is in part because he was cut down in his prime, creating a sense of a dream unfulfilled. And though he was a lifelong Democrat, each side wants to claim his legacy.

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