The Evolution of the Modern Presidency: An Interview with Gene Healy

book cover imageThe University Bookman is pleased to offer this exclusive interview with Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute. A widely-published writer on the modern executive, he has just published The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. The book traces the evolution of the office from national executive to therapist-cum-savior. Healy offers a strong critique to this development, based in the nation’s republican tradition, and argues for a more modest role for the president. Especially in this presidential election season, as candidates from both major parties present solutions to every conceivable national (or, for that matter, local) problem, the book provides a refreshingly contrarian view.

Where did you get the idea for the book?

Originally I’d thought about doing a post-9/11 Imperial Presidency book, but the focus soon became a lot broader, which is good because there havebeen a number of good books on the Bush presidency—Charlie Savage’s Takeover, for example. But I don’t think there’s another recent book that’s as relentlessly cynical about the modern presidency as a whole. Sometimes I think I should have called it “The Futility of Hope.”

What’s wrong with the way the media and academics portray the president?

Our pundits and professors tend to prefer presidents who dream big and dare great things, even when they leave wreckage in their wake. That’s one reason why the execrable Woodrow Wilson routinely makes the top-ten list, and his successor Warren G. Harding—who pardoned many of Wilson’s political prisoners and helped usher in the Roaring Twenties—routinely finishes last. But this is perverse. A healthier political culture would value the “do-nothing” presidents and recognize the merit in presiding over peace and prosperity without screwing it all up.

What caused the transformation of the president from an officer executing the laws passed by Congress into the person responsible for America’s economic and spiritual ills?

There are any number of factors that played a part: changes in broadcast technology, America’s rise to superpower status, economic changes that contributed to government growth throughout the West. But too often we overlook the role of ideology. Ideas have consequences, as Richard Weaver reminded us, and ideas pushed by the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century helped give us the presidency we have today. “We are the first Americans,” a young Woodrow Wilson wrote, “to hear our own countrymen ask whether the Constitution is still adapted to serve the purposes for which it was intended; the first to entertain any serious doubts about the superiority of our institutions as compared with the systems of Europe.”

The Progressives hated the Madisonian system of checks and balances and the modest presidency envisioned in the Constitution. They sought to replace those features of our national charter with bold dynamic leadership concentrating power in the executive branch. Herbert Croly described Teddy Roosevelt as “a sledgehammer in the cause of national righteousness.” That was the vision of the office that drove the Progressives. By taking advantage of the three great crises of the early twentieth century—WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII—they gave us the presidency we have today. Unfortunately, judging by the rhetoric of the modern presidential race, we’re all Progressives now.

Where have conservatives been in this process? You indicate that some forms of conservatism—especially neoconservatives in recent years—have adopted president-worship.

I have a section in the book called “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency.” In it, I talk about how from its inception, the modern conservative movement was built on skepticism toward the heroic vision of the presidency. Conservatives in Congress helped pass the 22nd Amendment limiting presidential terms. Conservatives associated with Buckley’s National Review: James Burnham,Wilmoore Kendall, and, of course, Russell Kirk—distrusted presidential activism. They associated it with New Deals, New Frontiers, and Great Societies. Even Barry Goldwater condemned the idea of the heroic president in terms that would get Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to call for you to be transported to Guantanamo Bay. But a number of factors, including the Emerging Republican Majority and the neoconservatives’ rise to prominence, caused conservatives to forget their heritage of skepticism toward presidential power.

You have a great section on the enormous explosion of the staff and pomp surrounding the executive office. Is this harmful for the person of the president as well as republican government?

Absolutely. I have a chapter in the book that, borrowing from Hayek, is called “Why the Worst Get on Top . . . and Get Worse.” One of the reasons they get worse is the surreal, judgment-warping atmosphere that dominates modern White House life. Well before the presidential staff had metastasized into the army of sycophants that surrounds the president today, Calvin Coolidge recognized the danger: “It is difficult,” Coolidge wrote in his 1929 autobiography, “for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are surrounded by worshippers . . . They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming arrogant or careless.” It’s only gotten worse, of course.

What should the president spend his time doing?

Bowling, golfing, and wielding the veto pen between naps. I don’t claim that that’s a blueprint for political success, however.

The book is a great read, and filled with anecdotes about the presidents. Do you have a favorite presidential story?

I tend to prefer bizarre and horrifying presidential anecdotes, rather than those that underscore the alleged nobility of the “chief.” Here are two from Chapter 8 of the book:

Incensed by press criticism about the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson acted out in ways that caused some of his closest aides to question his sanity. In a private oval office meeting in 1967, asked by a reporter why America was in Vietnam, LBJ unzipped his fly, wagged the presidential member at his audience, and exclaimed “This is why!” . . . .

Richard Nixon’s aides also had many occasions to worry about the boss’s sanity. As Watergate boiled to the surface, secretary of defense James Schlesinger began to fear a Wag the Dog incident, and “directed all military commands not to accept any orders from the White House without his personal countersignature.” One of the incidents that prompted Schlesinger’s concern was a story from the spring of 1974, reported to him by OMB official Joseph Laitin:

I was on my way over to the West Wing of the White House to see Treasury Secretary George Shultz. I’d reached the basement, near the Situation Room. And just as I was about to ascend the stairway, a guy came running down the stairs two steps at a time. He had a frantic look on his face, wild-eyed, like a madman. And he bowled me over, so I kind of lost my balance. And before I could pick myself up, six athletic-looking young men leapt over me, pursuing him. I suddenly realized that they were Secret Service agents, that I’d been knocked over by the president of the United States.

Shocked, Laitin cancelled his meeting and went back to his office to call the defense secretary. “I sat there stunned . . . and I thought, you know, that madman I have just seen has his finger on the red button.”

Alas, I’ll probably never be invited to sit next to Doris Kearns Goodwin on a Sunday morning network gabfest.