Making friends with our presidents

The president of the United States today sends troops to fight in distant lands for long periods, enters into binding agreements with foreign powers, and takes other extraordinary actions, all without prior approval from Congress.

Presidential candidates promise to reverse their predecessors’ agreements on the first day they take office. And they confidently promise to take other dramatic and costly actions unilaterally on that same first day.

We have come to expect, even demand, such power plays from our presidents. So it is fair to ask what explains the enormous growth of presidential power from its lowly state in the late 19th century to the imperial presidency of today.

Earlier this month, North Carolina’s 93-year-old presidential historian, William Leuchtenburg, gave us a response to this question in the form of his latest book, “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.” That book follows the expansion of presidential power during the 20th century, showing how it grew in periods of reform to respond to domestic challenges and during the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the war on terror.

Reviewing the new book in “The American Scholar,” Michael Sherry writes that Leuchtenburg “is perhaps today’s greatest presidential historian, and not of the presidency as some insular realm, but as it intersected with national life, which makes this book also a history of the nation in the 20th century.”

Not surprisingly, Leuchtenburg’s answer to the question about the growth of presidential power is not a simple one-liner. In fact it is a big 800-pager. That might be bad news for readers of other books, but this author’s great story-telling gifts and a long lifetime of thoughtful study make each instructive page a pleasure.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, himself a great storyteller, explains Leuchtenburg’s gift better than I can. “This is a riveting narrative, written by someone with a deep knowledge of the presidents and our complicated country. It seems an almost effortless work, but, of course, it’s not. William Leuchtenburg has spent the better part of a century studying the mechanics of this republic and the men (so far) charged with leading it. The result here is a fast-paced, dramatic literary achievement that will be around and used for centuries.”

Critics of Barack Obama’s use of executive agreements to bypass Congress on the Iran-nuclear arms and last week’s Paris climate deals can blame Teddy Roosevelt. When the Senate refused to ratify a pact in 1905 with Santo Domingo, he simply made an executive agreement with the same terms. Later he explained. “The Constitution did not explicitly give me power to bring about the necessary agreement with Santo Domingo. But the Constitution did not forbid my doing what I did.”

Woodrow Wilson also expanded the role of the presidency, but surprisingly, according to Leuchtenburg, “he conducted a minimalist operation in the White House.” Wilson’s chief of staff was his only staff, “save for employees such as clerks.”

“With no speechwriters and very little technical support, the president had to handcraft documents. On an old portable typewriter, he banged out diplomatic notes to be sent over the signature of the secretary of state.”

Both Wilson, during the First World War, and Franklin Roosevelt, during the Second, took extraordinary actions as commander-in-chief that resulted in increased power for the office.

However, both of them got congressional authority before committing troops in those wars. But, Leuchtenburg writes, “after Truman’s unilateral action in Korea, the power vested in Congress alone to declare war became almost a relic.”

Important as understanding the origins of increased presidential power was to me, the book’s exploration of each president’s background, character, and family kept me turning the pages and, at the end, made me believe that I knew each of them as a close friend.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.
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