The Presidents Q & A

 Each election cycle, our presidential campaigns seem to get nastier? Why is that so?

Well, I think I’d question the premise that campaigns are really any nastier now and that civility used to reign. Campaigns were often nasty, and personal. When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828 opposition newspapers wrote that both his wife and his mother were prostitutes. Teddy Roosevelt called his former advisor William Howard Taft a “fathead” and a “puzzlewit” during the 1912 election. I’m not sure what a puzzlewit is, but it wasn’t nice. Thomas Jefferson haters spread rumors that a slave was mother to his children—but that accusation turned out to be true, although it took almost 200 years to find some solid proof.

Is your presidents book for those who know little about the presidents or for presidential history buffs?

It works for both groups. We provide an overview about the presidents for newcomers, but we also hunted down lesser-known anecdotes for the buffs. Most presidential history buffs don’t know that George Washington loved to dance and liked to gamble too. They don’t know that Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking so much that scholar Joseph Ellis called him one of the “most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history.” They don’t know that Bill Clinton’s biggest regret was not his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

What was Bill Clinton’s biggest regret?

He regretted not doing anything about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. When he visited Rwanda in 1998 and met with those who had survived the genocide, he called it “the most emotionally searing point” of his presidency.

How is your presidents book different from others?

Well, instead of writing encyclopedic entries, we zoom in on interesting narratives that reveal something about the presidents, the institution, or the times. Each page is a mini-essay, or more often a short narrative. Instead of including everything FDR did as president, we write about how he reacted to public pressure—and the political threat from Huey Long—to enact his Social Security bill. Instead of listing Harry Truman’s lack of qualifications for the presidency, we tell of his panic after he finds out FDR died. Instead of just summarizing the night Lincoln was assassinated, we include a page about the things Lincoln was carrying when he died.

We also have fun topical chapters in the back third of the book, exploring the presidents who were the best writers, or peacemakers, the ones who protected civil rights, had the best post-presidencies, or who were the most scandalous.

Which president was the best writer?

Jefferson not only penned the Declaration of Independence, but he wrote roughly 19,000 letters and received 26,000. That’s someone who likes to write. I’d put Obama in the top tier. FDR was a great communicator. Lincoln wasn’t bad. In fact, one of the stories I tell is the day that included the best presidential speech and the worst presidential speech in American history. It was the day Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, his “with malice toward none, with charity for all” address that Frederick Douglass called a “sacred effort.” But before Lincoln delivered his speech Andrew Johnson got up, embarrassingly drunk, slurring his words until he was convinced to end his speech early. But when asked who the very best presidential writer was, I say half in jest that it was Theodore Sorensen, who wrote every speech JFK is remembered for—and played a heavy role in the writing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.

But Andrew Johnson was vice president at the time . . .

That’s right. He delivered his speech when he was vice president, but he’d become president a few weeks later at which point he went on to become the man many consider the worst president of all time. His choice as VP has to be Lincoln’s worst decision as president.

Was Johnson the worst?

He’s a contender. So are Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and although I’m going to get in trouble for this one, I’d say George W. Bush. But we’ll need some time to judge that one.

Why do you need more time?

Because you need the perspective time provides. Harry Truman had horrible approval ratings when he left office, but he’s now considered one of the top tier presidents. Eisenhower was considered a do-nothing president by many of his contemporaries, but his reputation has risen with time. To be fair to the Bush family, I would say—and I write about this, too—that George H. W. Bush is one of the most under-rated presidents. He did great things for the environment, he showed courage in raising taxes, which probably saved the economy, and he oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union masterfully. He also pushed for the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s a damn good record for a one-term president.

What about Warren G. Harding? Isn’t he considered the worst?

I think his faults are over-rated. Yes, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and had a knack for picking corrupt cabinet members, but he wasn’t corrupt. He also freed political prisoners that Woodrow Wilson had thrown in jail for opposing World War I. He was also the only postwar president in American history to cut federal expenses below prewar levels. If a modern president pulled that off, I think a lot of Americans would applaud him or her.

By the way, what was Lincoln carrying when he died?

One thing he had on him was a news clipping that quoted John Bright, a British Commoner, who thought that Lincoln was one of the greatest men who ever lived. It was well worn. You can imagine Lincoln pulling it out when prospects of a Union victory looked bad.

What big lessons about the presidents will readers come away with?

Well, as you read through the arc of one president after another, it becomes clear that success on domestic issues depends on the support they have from the people, including Congress. The ones who got the most done domestically—probably FDR and LBJ—had huge party majorities in Congress. Without that support, presidents can’t do much. I’d also say that their power in foreign affairs has only grown larger, especially considering they have usurped the right to declare war from Congress. I find it a bit scary that one person has that power. I think readers will also come away with a sense that these powerful men were ultimately very human, with grand ambitions and tragic flaws, and foibles large and small.

So who was the greatest president?

As the historian Eric Foner once said to me, it depends how you judge them. If you judge presidents by whether they win wars, then Washington, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR top the list. If you judge them by the prosperity they’ve encouraged, you have to move Calvin Coolidge and Bill Clinton up the list. If you judge them by their character, Washington gets a higher rank, as does Grover Cleveland, as honest a politician who ever held the office, and so does Jimmy Carter. Most consider Carter’s presidency a failure, but the work he did after he left office fighting disease and defending democracy has to give him one of the best post-presidencies of any president. And he was a peacemaker while in office, which makes him stand out as well.

Who were the other peacemaker presidents?

Surprisingly, three ex-generals who knew the human price of war—Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower—worked hard to avoid war, and succeeded. Washington caught hell here when he refused to go to war with France against England. John Adams also should get credit for keeping the United States out of a European war. Grant refused to take over Spanish colonies such as Cuba by force, something that William McKinley would do later in the Philippine-American War. The first thing Eisenhower did upon coming into office was to end the Korean War. I also think Kennedy was moving toward becoming a peacemaker and would have achieved détente with the Soviet Union if he’d lived. In fact, when Kennedy was assassinated, Nikita Krushchev cried.