Books on the Presidency I’ve Studied

In college and grad school, these were some of the books we studied on the presidency:

  • David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, on the origins of the Vietnam War. How did the smartest advisors to the president, who had graduated from the best schools in the country, make such poor decisions in Vietnam? How did Presidents Kennedy and Johnson make such poor decisions?
  • George Reedy, Twilight of the Presidency. A former presidential assistant to Lyndon Johnson questions the validity of decisions made by presidents who have become increasingly insulated and protected from the voice of the people.
  • Arthur Schlesinger, Imperial Presidency, published in 1973 during the height of the Watergate scandal. The book may have contributed to Nixon’s impeachment as a way to restrain the over-reach of presidential powers, particularly in relation to war powers. The War Powers Act was passed in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto, requiring the president to consult with Congress before committing troops on foreign soil. The book may also have contributed to the stylishly humble presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
  • James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. This book was very popular in the 1970s, particularly after Barber’s book seemed to predict the forced resignation of Richard Nixon due to “bad character.” Barber hoped to design a system whereby presidential character could be predicted. He went on to predict that Jimmy Carter would be an “active positive” president like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, while Ronald Reagan would be a “passive positive” president like William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.

“Character is the force, the motive power, around which the person gathers his view of the world, and from which his style receives its impetus,” Barber wrote. “The issues will change; the character of the president will not.”

The two most important features of a president’s character, Barber wrote, was whether a president was active or passive, and whether he viewed his job in positive or negative terms. He divided presidents into¬†four distinct personality types. As The New York Times reported, “active-positive presidents brought energy and enjoyment to their work, included Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman,” Dr. Barber wrote. “Passive-positives, like William Howard Taft, were compliant and superficially cheerful. Passive-negatives, like Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower, were sullen and withdrawn, viewing the office as a burden.

“The most dangerous type, Dr. Barber wrote, was the active-negative. Though energetic, such men were also joyless, inflexible, compulsive and domineering, with “a strong bent for digging their own graves.” In this category he listed Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon.”

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