No Thank You, Mr. President

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

Jackson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy have been the main reasons for what Arthur Schlesinger here admits has been his own past contribution to the “presidential mystique,” his notable infatuation with “strong” Presidents. Anyway, Nixon has chilled the affair but not killed it. To anyone well acquainted with Schlesinger’s fascinatingly partisan, tendentious, highly literary biographies of his favorite administrations, the texture of this new book, a book of course motivated by Nixon, will nevertheless come as a surprise. Schlesinger has read carefully in the literature about the separation of powers. His attack on Nixon comes wrapped in a more theoretical and seemingly even-handed consideration of presidential authority—by which we in Nixonland mean the excess of that authority—than I would have expected from that politically scrappy but, as a historian, old-fashioned hagiographer, whose many books and polemics on the Presidency will likely some day be read as a guide not so much to Jackson, Roosevelt, Kennedy as to the last-ditch liberalism of my generation.

The substantial opening of this new book takes the form of a historical review of the many controversies around the unprogrammed but inevitable extension of presidential power. But be not deceived. Nixon may look like the crisis in the drama of administration that Schlesinger retraces in this book (summitry has been his intellectual passion as a historian). But much as Schlesinger conscientiously tries to affirm the part that all Nixon’s predecessors played in making him possible, Schlesinger’s heart (very sagely) is not in this. Nixon comes out as a bad hat. Since Schlesinger does not believe that Nixon’s peculiar falseness can be accounted for by the “imperial” Presidency, he cannot prove it. And since Schlesinger is too much a historian of administrative elites and their manners, he cannot search out the responsibility for the phenomenon of Nixon in contemporary American society.

So what we get is a review of the presidential power that prepares us for Nixon but does not explain him, a brilliant summary of Nixon’s “revolutionary” excesses in the White House that does not get at the unconscious nihilism behind Nixon’s Boy Scout rhetoric, and a final prescription for a more sensible and balanced Presidency that interestingly (considering Schlesinger’s affection for politicians and his experience in the White House) has no relation to the violent economic interests that are already chewing up our future.

All our “good” Presidents (“good” because honest and capable minds, good because activists concerned for the public progress) have been strong, dominating figures and centripetal attractions for the American people. That was implied from the very first in the powers granted to the executive of a constitutional republic, by his necessary role as our most personalized figurehead—and by the respect for George Washington. Jefferson, the first stealthy and perhaps mightiest presidential empire-builder, understandably saw his constitutional powers rather more positively than he did his limitations. The extension of presidential authority followed from the uniqueness…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.