about the Presidency: Documents and Essays from the Founding
to the Present,

edited by Gary L. Gregg
(Rowman & Littlefield 2005)

book cover imageThinking
about the Presidency
a critical need for professors and students of the presidency.
By blending the advantages of a solid textbook with those
of an engaging reader, Gary L. Gregg II pioneers a “third
way” of
examining the presidency: The combination of his own exceptional
insight into the presidency with a rich selection of classic
essays and original sources.

Education about the presidency should build upon a broad
base of historical understanding to liberate students from
the confinements of contemporary thought. Thinking about
the Presidency
achieves this objective. Gregg’s tour
de force
of presidential history, spanning from the
late 18th through the early 21st centuries, provides professors
and students with the necessary background to appraise the
appropriateness of contemporary thinking about the presidency.
Indeed, how can professors and students comment properly
about the presidency if they do not know where it came from?

Gregg’s new, but long overdue, book stands out as
a worthy competitor to the leading reader, The Presidency
and the Political System
, edited by Michael Nelson,
who writes in his Preface that “Timing matters
immensely . . . in a course on the presidency.” Courses
such as calculus and Spanish may require little or no revision
for many years, but frequent changes in the presidency require
presidency courses to follow suit. And so it is that in the
span of just a few years, Nelson’s reader is now in
its 8th edition. Its 550 or so pages of essays post a lineup
of scholarly experts on elections, Beltway politics, demographics,
leadership, media, and history, among other disciplines.
Additionally, it offers commentary on the current president’s
term and the issues of the day, including a focus on the
presidency at war and bureaucratic relations.

Nelson’s reader deserves high praise, but Gregg’s
book warrants special consideration. As a sturdy survey of
the latest currents of thought about the presidency, Nelson’s
book is ideal, but Gregg’s book enables professors
and students to think about the presidency in a larger and
more engaging historical context. Thinking about the
aptly describes Gregg’s
book. Of this he remarks: “Itsbasic premise is that
students taking courses on the presidency are in need of
encouraging readings that stimulate their own thinking about
the major issues of constitutional government in America
as well as readings that are most likely to encourage their
continued thought and exposition of the office in years ahead.”

In 542 pages, Gregg offers 39 classic essays and original
sources along with his own perceptive commentary, divided
into four parts, which cover (1) Origins and Development,
(2) Presidents and Government, (3) The President and the
Public, (4) and Leadership Evaluation. Besides all of that
he offers eight “Quick Fact Boxes” and eight “Constitutional
Context Boxes.” Of course, each part presents pertinent
bibliographic citations, and at the book’s end he provides
three thorough appendices on “Presidential Terms of
Office,” “Vice Presidential Terms of Office,” and “Presidential
Election Statistics.” And unlike many readers, Thinking
about the Presidency
features a helpful Index. Gregg
places each reading in its historical and theoretical context,
and presents stimulating questions for reflection.

Why does the reading of original texts differ from reading
secondary summaries, commentaries and conclusions of contemporary
scholars about those texts? Some might argue, not much. After
all, authors of original texts, such as Madison, Hamilton,
Jay, and Lincoln, merely tapped into the ideas of their times.
So why should we grant superior status to their work over
contemporary writings, which merely reflect biases of the
current age? Since each generation of writers succumbs in
significant ways to the spirit of its times, are the writers
of the old any better than writers of the new? Certainly
none escapes the zeitgeist. But because the zeitgeist differs
from generation to generation, each generation offers a different
perspective, but not without building upon the thinking of
preceding generations. In that, as Solomon said: “There
is nothing new under the sun.” Preceding generations
of thought constitute the building blocs of today’s
thinking. No generation is an island unto itself.

Classic essays and original sources exhibit the thinking
that produced today’s institutions. Consider, for example,
war-making power. In 1787 potentates, considered to have
divine legitimacy, ruled around the globe. For America’s
motherland, England, war-making power was the preserve of
the king, who could make war and send troops where he pleased,
constrained only by the possible need to acquire additional
funding from Parliament. Today, at least theoretically, Congress
possesses the constitutional power to make war, and the President,
the power to command the military. Practically, however,
that is not how it has worked out. Presidents have committed
troops in Iraq and many other places, in effect declaring
war without a Congressional declaration of war. We refer
to the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and others, but
the last time Congress actually exercised its power to declare
war occurred at the outset of World War II. So in a sense
we have come full circle. We cannot understand the present
without understanding the past, or put another way, the past
not only offers the best commentary on the present, but also
serves as the best predictor of the future.

Gregg believes that the enduring wisdom of the past should
guide the present and future exercise of presidential power
and that we can only discern this wisdom by fully considering
the fountainhead of today’s thinking. Thus, while using
some contemporary writers, he limits their number so as to
gain a better grasp of the wisdom of the ages. In “Historical
Perspectives on Presidential Power,” for example, he
describes the issue as “too important to leave to partisan
bickering and ideological agendas.” He turns to such
classic writings as those of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt,
and William Howard Taft to discern answers to this question: “What
is the good end of a presidency?” With the reflection
encouraged by Gregg comes the pondering of the “ought,” those
normative and value considerations about the presidency and
the exercise of presidential power, which prompt spirited

Nelson reveals three drastic shifts in presidential scholarship
over the past half century. The “savior” model
of a powerful president dominated thinking from FDR to Kennedy,
but the failures of the powerful Johnson and Nixon presidencies
produced the “Satan” model, which deemphasized
presidential power. After that, however, the inept Ford and
Carter presidencies fashioned the “Samson” model,
which reemphasized presidential power. Within 60 years or
so thinking about the presidency came full circle, leading
Nelson to conclude that a president with strength is the
historical standard of greatness.

But should it be? On that question Gregg’s book comes
to the front of the line. Rather than accepting the premise
that strength is the historical standard of greatness, Gregg
challenges readers to think deeply about whether strength,
in our particular context of limited government and separation
of powers, should be.

Substantively and pedagogically Gregg’s Thinking
about the Presidency
merits serious consideration
for adoption as a textbook on the presidency.

Charles W.
is Dean of Robertson
School of Government at Regent University. He is the
author of The Seven Laws of Presidential
2006), The Conservative Tradition
in America
(Rowman & Littlefield,
2003), and The Scarlet Thread of
Scandal: Morality and the American Presidency
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).