Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Theory of Interesting Presidents

Stanley Cutler says that "of all the presidents in the last 50 years, it is Nixon that’s the most interesting." Is Nixon more interesting than LBJ? I'm not sure. I would say, however, that I find Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan to be the most fascinating postwar presidents.

Which suggests a theory of interesting presidents: the partisan presidency makes for less interesting presidents. Generally, the partisan presidency began to form as early as the Carter years, but really didn't pick up steam until the Reagan administration; it's pretty much fully formed, I would say, by George H.W. Bush's presidency.

The idea would be that partisan presidencies are much less likely to take on the shape of the president's personality. So Barack Obama or George W. Bush might be just as inherently interesting as John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, but it just doesn't matter as much; what they do as president is much more a function of party than presidential personality.

To be sure: even now, personality (and skills, and other president-specific traits) certainly can matter. But less so, perhaps, than they did when party was less important.

Is this theory correct? I have no idea. Reagan doesn't quite fit. And it's certainly very possible that my sense of the presidents who are interesting is highly subjective -- or, that it might be influenced by other things that have nothing to do with party. It's certainly also possible that the three I find most interesting really are, in some sense, the most interesting -- but that it's just random luck that two of them served during the peak of the personal presidency.

So, who do you think were the most interesting postwar presidents?


  1. LBJ & Nixon: Absolutely.

    To my mind Reagan is less interesting than Truman, about on par with Eisenhower

  2. Can I distinguish between interesting man and interesting President? JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Clinton seem to me to be the most interesting men, which almost equates to the most psychologically twisted. No sane man would want to be President, but those four were a bit weirder than the others.

    As for your partisan presidency theory, are you thinking only of domestic affairs? Do you see Presidents as equally impacted by party positions in foreign affairs?

  3. I equate "interesting" with "effective," perhaps because I am interested in individuals who personally push through an important agenda item against significant opposition. Something that radically alters the domestic landscape, and probably ends their career. For this reason, I think LBJ takes the cake for his work on civil rights legislation.

    I don't find Nixon interesting at all, because most of the big things he did were about cementing his personal hold on power. I don't think that whatever he left behind, that had value to the country, was all that important to Dick.

    For example, everybody talks up ending the police action in Vietnam and establishing a talking relationship with China as significant accomplishments of his. I agree they were very important steps for the country. If Dick thought that they might end his career, however, he would never had even contemplated them.

    Given how much a person has to sacrifice to become president, they become much more interesting to me if there is something they want even more than that.

  4. For me its LBJ, especially with reading Robert Caro's books on him. Also find Truman an interesting president, although can he really be classified as post-war, given when he came to power? Although I am finding Nixon more interesting given your Watergate series!

  5. Its a great question, because "interesting" can cut so many ways. Two are: a) most compelling backstory (i.e. most interesting biography) and b) most compelling personality (i.e. most interesting tv guest).

    Interestingly (!), the modern President with probably the most fascinating biography is the same one whose tv interview compels you the least: GHW Bush.

  6. Don't know if this is helpful, but from my lengthy study of presidents in fiction, it's clear that JFK and Nixon are the two who have been most often written about or re-imagined in novels, films, plays, parodies, etc. In fact they lead by a long way.

    1. With JFK, clearly it's a nostalgia or alt-history thing. But what is it about Nixon? What fascinates me about him is actually his fiction-making: like, the paranoia, the perennial sense of having been outrageously humiliated and the perennially burning impulse towards revenge, the weird obsessions with racial and ethnic stereotypes -- these are all him more or less making stuff < strike >up< /strike > fit these patterns he's already decided describe the world and describe his life. And he just gets tangled up in his own web, he does clever things and bizarre self-sabotaging things and he doesn't trust anyone else as to which is which, they all have their own reasons that aren't his ... It's poignant. Like the Renaissance idea of classical tragedy, that the protagonist has one central character trait that explains most of the good and most of the bad he does.

      Another (?) thought: IIRC the most prominent response to JB's argument that imperial presidency is a sort of self-repairing problem, because you can't get away with it for that long, was: you don't need to get away with it for that long to do serious damage. People have offered the same two sides in re: the great epistemic closure debate of '10. I wonder whether part of Nixon's allure might be the way he seems to argue for both sides of that question.

      Maybe that's just another way of saying people like a morality tale, which is undoubtedly also true. But there are lots of big scandals, and even a few Presidency-defining, era-marking scandals, and they haven't turned their Presidents into tragic heroes. Maybe some people think of LBJ that way with Vietnam.

      I also am not sure what's interesting about Reagan. Maybe you had to be there.

    2. The fascinating thing about Reagan was that he was simultaneously a very successful human being and, well, someone with an odd connection with reality.

      You want to read the Garry Wills book (even if you're only marginally interested in Reagan...there's so many great bits in it) and Michael Rogin's "Ronald Reagan, the Movie."

      Also, I get to link back to my piece:

    3. You could certainly explain artists' interest in Nixon in terms of his outsize novelistic character traits. He seemed to have inner depths -- those various elements the classicist mentions -- in a way that Ike and Reagan didn't. Yeah, Watergate brought all this to the fore, but it had already caught the attention of writers before that: in nonfiction, there was Wills' Nixon Agonistes in 1970, and in fiction/parody, Philip Roth's Our Gang in '71, when Roth was fresh off Portnoy's Complaint.

      As to JFK, I don't know. The point of interest for artists there doesn't seem to be his inner depths. It seems more like he represents some Grand Ideal of the presidency (or, ideal president of a Grandly Idealized Era), simultaneously handsome, charistmatic, tough and just generally "fab." Yeah, it lends itself to alt-history; interesting example: James Silver' 2000 Naked Presidents, in which JFK and Clinton switch historical destinies (JFK is outed as a womanizer, Clinton becomes the beloved martyr when Timothy McVeigh shoots him).

  7. How much of this is a current artifact of available private material?

  8. I'm publishing a book review of an edited volume on the Obama presidency, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly. It opens with the following sentence:

    "It undermines Maureen Dowd’s entire reason for existence, but one can construct a perfect good model of the Obama Administration with no reference at all to the personality of the chief executive."

    I don't think you could do that with, say, Nixon.

  9. I think Nixon and LBJ interest us, in part, because they were so good at some aspects of the presidency (Nixon's sheer intelligence & foreign policy acumen, LBJ's legislative wizardry & interpersonal skills), and so bad at others.

    Ike was a fine president, but a little boring -- he was competent at pretty much everything a president must do. His flaws were mostly the result of his limited ambition -- his mediocre record on civil rights, for example. Carter was a failed president, but in a boring way -- he just wasn't very good at the job.

  10. Supreme Court justices have gotten boring, too, in the era of the partisan presidency. Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor mostly just seem like a generic Republican and a generic Democrat, respectively.

  11. I was recalling the film "Born Rich" from 10 years ago, where Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, turned his camera on the lives of fabulously wealthy heirs such as himself. The most poignant scene is early in the film, when a frustrated Johnson tells his father that he wants to do something important with his life, to which his dad replies that the only thing that matters for the boy is not to screw up the family fortune. Helpfully, the dad adds that his son should find a hobby. Maybe stamp collecting.

    I was recalling that scene in the context of the Bushes, and the curious way that father and son, though both blueblood heirs of famous national politicians, had such different pre-Presidential lives. Father = impressive. Son = pretty much charged with just not screwing up the family name.

    There's a generational thing with the Bushes, but it seems to me a power thing as well. When families (whether the monied Johnsons or politically-dynastic Bushes) get too powerful, their denizens become basically caretakers. Perhaps the same thing can be said for ideologies too.

    Which could explain the dull boredom of the current partisan POTUS or SCOTUS or similar insitutions.

    1. That generational sequence is a known thing; I've heard it associated with the Patriarch Isaac. In the key events of his time and of his life, Isaac is passive: he's born, and Hagar and Ishmael are displaced; he's bound and not quite sacrificed; when he sees Rebecca, whom his father's slave(?) has brought from the other side of the river for him to marry, he loves her and is comforted for the death of his mother; he goes blind and is manipulated by his wife and son into spreading his legacies in unanticipated directions. He's just letting the things that happen around him, happen -- things done by Sarah, Abraham, the slave Eliezer, Rebecca, Jacob. But it seems that that's all he has to do or is supposed to do. Abraham and Jacob take journeys. Isaac is always "meanwhile, back at the ranch..."

      That line of thought leads to the hope of a dynamic generation to come. "Born Rich," otoh, leads to utter despair about everything that it's possible to become pessimistic about. (The ones whose families have taken wealth for granted for a long time -- the Europeans -- are remarkably more guiltless about their worthlessness than the young American men, and mock their aspirations to "work" and "make a difference" or "give something back." *shudder* American exceptionalism 1, centuries-long maintenance of traditions 0.) Take your pick.

    2. I've heard that GHWB always expected Jeb to be the one to follow in his footsteps. And that as dementia takes his mind, he sometimes forgets that it was GWB who actually succeeded to it.

      When you consider the toll that favoritism can take on a family, a thought like this makes GWB a more tragic figure. Too bad we all had to suffer for it.

    3. That's a great point about Isaac, classicist, truly timeless. I've been thinking about Neil Young a bit, as a while ago I caught him at the back end of a three-way set opened by Social Distortion, whose Mike Ness got the birthday nod yesterday.

      Neil Young is arguably unique in rock history for putting forth his best work (Rust Never Sleeps) subsequent to his career-spanning retrospective (Decade). IMO, the best song from Rust Never Sleeps is Thrasher, which I assumed was sort of a counterculture lament.

      Its not though. Its a lament against the boredom of being a powerful icon, from a newly-minted Hall of Famer.

      But me I'm not stopping there, got my own row left to hoe. Just another line in the field of time. When the thrashers come and I'm stuck in the sun like dinosaurs in shrines, then I'll know the time has come to give what's mine

    4. Don't want to get to far into this, but there's another interpretation of Isaac -- that making a good home and being an good son, husband, and (sort of) father are valuable, too. After all, plenty of things that Sarah, Abraham, Rebecca, and certainly Jacob do are highly problematic at best. Isaac does perhaps misbehave in favoring one son over the other, but not as badly as Abraham or Jacob does, and he's tricked by Jacob -- but who isn't? But, you know, he doesn't pimp out his wife or steal stuff or anything.

    5. JB -- yup yup! he's an institution builder, a stabilizer, not a person who effects great change. Important role -- just that it is also true that lots of stuff happens to him and his family that he doesn't control or even much affect.

    6. There's a generational thing with the Bushes, but it seems to me a power thing as well. When families (whether the monied Johnsons or politically-dynastic Bushes) get too powerful, their denizens become basically caretakers. Perhaps the same thing can be said for ideologies too.

      But the caretakers can really crap on a family's name if they are so inclined. Just look at Evan Bayh and Mitt Romney.

    7. Sorry for the perseveration, but it occured to me today there is another rock masterpiece that postdated a compilation: the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, released one year after the period covered by the compilation Hot Rocks (the Stones' topselling album).

      I don't know if anyone ever compared Rust Never Sleeps and Exile on Main Street, but they really are both Jamie Johnson-type albums. You can totally see the boy staring vacantly, ostensibly at his nascent stamp collection, but really into his personal abyss, and jamming to the iconic bookend to RNS: "Its better to burn out, then it is to rust". Or getting down with the groovy topicality of "Let it Loose" on Exile.

      Come to think of it, it would be pretty cool if a fellow like GWB had a secret yen for those two albums as well.

    8. One could make an argument for Blood on the Tracks, released three years after Greatest Hits, Volume 2. I thought it was a safe assumption that the Beach Boys had managed to get a greatest hits out before Pet Sounds, but turns out they missed by two months. Fortunately, once they started releasing career spanning compilations, they never stopped - wikipedia lists 38 of them, by my count, although I guess some of those are b-side compilations or whatever.

      King of America, Blood & Chocolate, and Spike were all post-greatest hits. YMMV.

      Saturday Night Fever was released some four years after Best of the Bee Gees Volume 2, and around eight years after Best of the Bee Gees.

      Ah, I thought of one...and yeah, this has got to be a winner. Both Thriller and Off the Wall were preceded by The Best of Michael Jackson. You're not going to top that.

    9. Yeah Blood on the Tracks works. I don't like the Michael Jackson examples to the extent the topic is "angsty artist facing the banality of antiseptic fame". MJ was what, 19, when Off the Wall was released? That's Justin Bieber. Surely he didn't feel it like that.

      I *really* like the Beach Boys example, though, so much that I'll overlook the timing. I like it because Pet Sounds is mostly so different from the Beach Boys canon; if the problem with Sonia Sotomayor is that she represents a "late era sameness" in a liberal justice, then Pet Sounds is wonderful for being so much the opposite of what the Beach Boys usually did.

      Finally, on the Elvis Costello albums: sure those are 'good' albums postdating a greatest hits, but afaict no one puts them ahead of, say, This Year's Model or My Aim is True.

      I resisted earlier, but if we're going to include "impressive, if not greatest" post-collection albums, then here's a shout out to Echo & the Bunnymen for 2005's Siberia. Its not Ocean Rain, but its pretty damn good.

  12. Within days of taking office Reagan had placed conservative monitors - all previously chosen and organized - into every sensitive office of government.
    Something Nixon would never have dared to do.
    That was the real beginning.


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