Tales of Misadventure and Triumph
By Jim Cullen
Palgrave Macmillan / 234 pages / $24.95
"It is not possible to elect an empty suit president of the United States," claims Jim Cullen. But George W. Bush, he suggests, comes pretty close: a "failed oil man guilty of dubious financial manipulation," Bush has been "a disastrously bad president - among the worst the United States has ever had." A teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, Cullen worries that in the aftermath of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, the "rising generation, whose parents inherited a deep sense of skepticism about established authority," will succumb to passive despair about their nation's future.
To provide tangible and legitimate sources of inspiration "amid abundant evidence of failure," Cullen has written Imperfect Presidents. All of America's leaders, he acknowledges, were fallible. But their miscalculations were "far from random." Every president exhibited character traits that got him into trouble. But more often than not, Cullen believes, the behavior revealed evidence of honesty or inner strength. Or the president proved willing and able to set aside, for the good of the country, a deeply embedded characteristic or philosophical conviction.
The book examines the fumbles, foibles and faux pas of 11 presidents, and the more constructive - and heroic - actions that followed them. Cullen retells oft-told tales: An ideologically rigid Thomas Jefferson sets aside his strict construction of the Constitution to purchase Louisiana from Napoleon; an impatient Theodore Roosevelt launches dozens of antitrust cases and settles the anthracite coal strike; a deft (and devious) Franklin D. Roosevelt prepares a heretofore isolationist nation to enter World War II; Gerald R. Ford, a Boy Scout and a blunderer, pardons Richard M. Nixon and ends the national nightmare known as Watergate.
Unfortunately, Cullen's analysis is superficial - at times presenting myth as history. Cullen's Chester A. Arthur, for example, is a profile in courage. A Republican Party hack who had been collector of the port of New York, the most lucrative patronage position in the United States, Arthur was elected vice president in 1880. With the assassination of James A. Garfield, he became president. Arthur then broke with the "Stalwart" wing of his party and supported civil service reform. His actions, Cullen concludes, revealed his "fundamental integrity - and his ability to grow in office." As president, he decided "that good government mattered above all else - including the chance, however remote, for a future in presidential politics."
It's a good story. But it isn't true. Arthur never abandoned his preference for a partisan civil service or his skepticism about competitive examinations. His endorsement of reform was a political necessity, made after public pressure intensified following revelations that Garfield's assassin was a "disappointed office-seeker" and his party was defeated in the congressional elections of 1882. Moreover, the legislation he signed was so watered down it covered only 10 percent of federal jobs. Arthur's civil service policy, John Hay quipped, was to "gobble all the vacancies for his particular friends and to talk reform at every gobble."
Sometimes Cullen exaggerates presidential virtues. The impeccably austere George Washington may have displayed emotional vulnerability when he fumbled with his spectacles and told officers in the Continental Army who were demanding back pay, "I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Or he may have defused an insurrection with a bit of theater. And Ford was not nearly the paragon of integrity and transparency Cullen makes him out to be.
Cullen also embroiders presidential vices. Lyndon B. Johnson did not "at best" view racial equality as a means to enhance his own power. Nor did he push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress merely because "he sensed that the political winds were blowing that way." Cullen presents no evidence that Bill Clinton delegated his health care initiative to Hillary as "payback" for his marital infidelities. And his assertion that the president refused to "take a more moderate" approach because he needed to appease his wife is, at best, a distortion of the proposal he made and the alternatives available to him.
Cullen's book ends, surprisingly, with his conviction that "[i]t doesn't finally matter who the president is." More important in a democracy is what presidential behavior people accept and what decisions they support. It's a noble and naive conceit, not at all sustained by the evidence in the book - or the political realities all around us.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.