The president of the United States at any given moment personifies to the world no less than to the American people the nation's power, purpose, and prestige. Taken together, the acts of the thirty-nine men who have occupied the presidency constitute the story of the national political leadership of the country during the nearly two centuries since the creation of the office. These men each emerged out of the bewildering chaos and conflict of their day by some fortuitous or unexpected turn of the wheel of history; for despite youthful dreams of reaching the White House, no youth can lay out and follow a sure road to it. Yet regardless of the contingent circumstances that bring presidents to power, they manage magically to become the symbols of the people's hopes and expectations. More fully than the nation is aware, presidents reflect the public temper that elevates them to office; and the people, time and again, discover in the man in the White House the qualities that their condition seems to demand.
Possibly only through the working of such reciprocal feeling was Abraham Lincoln metamorphosed from Honest Abe, a well-meaning but unknown politician, into a revered Father Abraham, defender of the Union and the voice of the loftiest American ideals. Possibly only through such an interaction between the leader and the led did Franklin D. Roosevelt, a victim of polio, unable to walk unaided, bring succor and reassurance to a paralyzed nation striving to go to work and be normal again.
The advent of television in the same period as the rapidly expanding scope of presidential duties brought the people into closer contact with the president than the Founding Fathers could have imagined. And despite the lengthening line of the presidents and the frequent turnover in the White House in the last twenty years, each president still gives his name to an era, however brief it may be, because every chief executive exhibits to the country and to his time a distinctive way of conducting affairs and puts his stamp on the urgent problems of the day. The crises, foreign or domestic, that can convulse an administration may leave a president's reputation damaged or even in ruins; but the institution of the presidency survives, and every inauguration is a rite of renewal for it, besides being a fresh starting point for struggle and risk.
Presidents have always known that they stand at the center of public interest and attention, scrutinized relentlessly and without mercy, because in return for the rewards and honors of the office the people expect the president to be constantly available and visible. Presidents are aware, too, that while their leadership can manifest itself in an infinite variety of forms, in the final analysis it consists in discerning the will of the people and recognizing that the severest test of a chief executive comes when what the people desire and what they seem to require do not coincide. The most tumultuous episodes reverberating through these articles revolve around this truth—and they give the book, like its immense subject itself, its ultimate unity.
The terms and conditions of the presidency did not spring to life full-blown. Indeed, of the eight amendments added to the Constitution since 1919 all but one of them concern the presidency in one way or another—leading to the conclusion that Americans are still tinkering with their proudest public office. Even so, George Washington launched it with a self–conscious eye for what it could become. He understood that every step he took as the first president in the history of the world might set a precedent for his successors. And every one of the men who have followed him has recognized that he must serve its traditions at the same time that he relishes the opportunity to make his own mark. James K. Polk, for instance, the herald of a new foreign policy, at his inauguration in 1845 presented to the women guests as a memento a folding fan showing on its ten blades likenesses of the ten presidents who had preceded him. And Richard Nixon, one of the most partisan of the Republican chiefs, setting forth on his first term, quoted with admiration in his inaugural address some words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, once anathema to Republicans.
All the men discussed here are connected together forever by the singular role they had in the life of the nation: in common they knew the majesty of serving as captains of the ship of state. Calvin Coolidge, who is hardly famous for quotations chiseled in marble, may nevertheless have expressed best of all what that majesty is. The presidency, he wrote, "does not yield to definition. Like the glory of the morning sunrise, it can only be experienced—it cannot be told." The price for such exaltation is the burden and responsibility that the office imposes. "To be president of the United States," Harry S. Truman explained with characteristic directness, "is to be very lonely, very lonely at the time of great decisions." Herbert Hoover, the Depression president, who walked the floor at night in distress over the country's problems, told an audience: "In the Middle Ages it was the fashion to wear hair shirts to remind oneself of trouble and sin. Many years ago I concluded that a few hair shirts were part of the mental wardrobe of every man. The president differs from other men in that he has a more extensive wardrobe."
Weighed down or exalted, presidents know that their tenancy of the White House is specifically limited in time, a remarkable fact that the nation has taken for granted. The occupant must depart when his term is over. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were barely speaking to each other on the general's inauguration day, and Andrew Johnson was meeting with his cabinet even as Ulysses S. Grant, his successor, was about to take the oath of office. Yet in both cases, as in every one of the other transitions of presidential power, the incoming chief found no impediment to assuming the reins of authority. John Adams, the first "successor" in the presidency, comprehended the significance of the peaceful changeover from Washington to himself—and he wrote about it to Abigail, his wife: "The sight of the sun setting...and another rising (though less splendid), was a novelty." The novelty is no more, but the significance for free people abides.
The degree of detail with which the history of the presidency is known will be impressed upon every reader of these essays. No other group of chiefs of state is so well documented from its beginning to the present. Because presidential policies may be probed exhaustively and their ramifications explored to the limit, there are no significant presidential secrets. The files in the repositories throughout the country, moreover, including the growing number of presidential libraries, are open to the idle curious as well as to the serious researcher.
The articles in this book are the products of such unfettered access to the sources. The authors are professional historians or political scientists, each a specialist on the president of whom he writes. Each comes with a ready awareness that the individual presidency he is placing under review is part of the larger stream of American history, with all its drama and pageantry. The essays may be read for the light they shed on the individuals starred by fate to occupy the unique office of president. They may also be read for the illumination they provide on the most sublime subject of modern history: governance under the constitution of the world's oldest and most successful republic.
HENRY F. GRAFF
Columbia University, November 1984