Thursday, October 31, 2019

Stephen F. Knott's "The Lost Soul of the American Presidency"

Prior to accepting his position at the Naval War College, Stephen F. Knott was Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He also served for seven years as an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at the United States Air Force Academy. His books include The Reagan Years; Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth; Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency; At Reagan’s Side: Insiders’ Recollections from Sacramento to the White House; Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics; and Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America.

Knott applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book briefly discusses the destructive presidency of Andrew Johnson and contrasts it with the underrated presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, who along with Abraham Lincoln, took halting, but nonetheless significant steps toward fulfilling the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Andrew Johnson was motivated by racism and resentment, lacked any sense of magnanimity, and practiced the politics of divisiveness. In short, Johnson, one of the most prominent demagogues to hold the office, was patently unfit for the job of president. By glimpsing at page 99, the reader would get a partial sense of the gist of my book, which traces the descent of the presidency into an office frequently inhabited by demagogues like Johnson. Flattering the majority and ostracizing an unpopular minority is standard practice for demagogues, as is the absence of magnanimity and humility in their character.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a clarion call for the restoration of the founders presidency. The president was to serve as a head of state who stood above the partisan fray, representing the entire nation. The president would act as a check on public passions, prevent the tyranny of the majority, and promote the rule of law. But today we prefer presidents who are "passionate" and excite their "base" by practicing, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “the little arts of popularity.” This is a complete reversal of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. Throughout our nation’s history, this type of presidential leadership imposed costs on racial and political minorities -- a phenomenon utterly predictable to the founders, who would have warned that a president’s primary obligation was to the rule of law, to the Constitution – not to public opinion.

The American presidency envisioned by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton was to serve as a source of national pride and unity. Instead, the office has devolved into a force for division and discord. The manner in which presidents conduct themselves affects the entire body politic. Presidents can choose to unite or divide, to appeal to something higher or practice "the little arts of popularity." But presidents cannot do this alone. The effort to restore the presidency will require Americans to move beyond the parochial, beyond the immediate, and reject the siren call of those who appeal to their base instincts. It will be difficult to recover the lost soul of the American presidency, but we can take solace from the fact that the past offers an alternative to the debased presidency of the present.
Learn more about The Lost Soul of the American Presidency at the University Press of Kansas website.

--Marshal Zeringue