Every four years the American public goes to the polls in hopes of electing a hero to the presidency, trying to find someone larger than life. But heroes are hard to find and sometimes they turn out to be villains. Senior presidential scholar Erwin Hargrove recommends that we shift our sights to electing an effective president instead, and here he shows us how to assess effective presidencies. To address the central question of whether presidents make a difference, Hargrove asks about the most important things each president attempted. He finds that much of the time, “eventful” leadership prevails, but that some presidents may be judged to be “event-making” for good or ill. As George W. Bush has demonstrated, event making leaders run great risks—sometimes challenging the Constitution—even as they attempt greatness. By contrast, effective presidents combine eventful leadership with a modulated sense of personal ambition. Hargrove examines this winning combination in light of historical context and a fine gauge of personal skills and attributes. Reviewing eventful and event-making presidencies of the last 50 years, Hargrove comes down on the side of effectiveness over the special effects of pyrotechnic presidencies like the current one.
- Uses an analytical framework to assess historical context, personal skills and attributes, and the ability to “make a difference” in each of nine presidencies.
- Four presidents are judged to be “event-making” leaders: Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush.
- Five presidents are assessed as “eventful” leaders: JFK, Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton.
- Whether event making or eventful, effective presidents today are less heroic than simply responsive to historical flows and contemporary currents.
- Event-making presidents run great risks—sometimes challenging the Constitution—even as they attempt greatness.
- As much a study of leadership as an analysis of nine presidencies, this book adds to our understanding in political science, history, and public administration and management.
"Erwin Hargrove, already known as one of our greatest presidential historians, has given us a truly seminal, fascinating, and brilliant analysis of our last nine presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, which is essential reading to understand modern American history. He provides a genuinely fresh way to measure these presidents, not by where they stand on the typical spectrum of great and near great to our worst presidents, but rather by their effectiveness in resolving national problems within the historical context they inherited. Indeed, by recognizing the dangers of presidents who seek greatness only to overreach and bring disasters upon the U.S. and the world, he sets clear standards for effectiveness. He sees four ‘event-making’ presidents since 1961, who have changed history, and five others who have been ‘eventful’, finding, ironically, that the former in many instances left a less positive legacy. His conclusion has a special message in today's world: ‘We need effective eventful presidents most of the time and should be suspicious to those presidents with ambitions to greatness.’ Many Americans would say ‘Amen’ to that finding."
—Stuart E. Eizenstat
Stuart E. Eizenstat was chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), and held a number of senior positions in the Clinton Administration, from US Ambassador to the European Union to Under Secretary of State to Deputy Secretary of the Treasury (1993-2001). He also served on the White House staff of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1967-1968).
“In this tightly written, jam-packed volume, a distinguished presidential scholar skillfully analyzes how and whether Kennedy through Bush 43 served effectively. Never shy about making judgments, Erwin C. Hargrove provides a stimulating, provocative, and comparative interpretation of the contributions of these nine presidents to a ‘healthy constitutional balance.’”
—Charles O. Jones, Hawkins Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Utilizing his considerable skills as both a storyteller and a political scientist, Erwin Hargrove reminds us that presidents who see themselves as heroes can be dangerous as well as heroic. Those who cope well with situations over which they have limited control do the day-to-day work a nation needs from a leader. This slim, conceptually rich book will be required reading for students of the presidency--and, one hopes, for would-be presidents.”
—Alonzo L. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University
Introduction: The Effective President
Chapter 1: John F. Kennedy: A Cautious Reformer
Chapter 2: Lyndon B. Johnson: A Force of Nature
Chapter 3: Richard M. Nixon: A Tragic Hero?
Chapter 4: Gerald R. Ford: A Good Man
Chapter 5: Jimmy Carter: The Engineer President
Chapter 6: Ronald Reagan: A Romantic with Vision
Chapter 7: George H. W. Bush: The Patrician
Chapter 8: Bill Clinton: The Politician
Chapter 9: George W. Bush: The Risk Taker
Conclusion: Presidential Leadership Revisited