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Wall Street Journal

 

Five Best : Fred Siegel on books about presidential administrations

September 06, 2008

By Fred Siegel

1. The Kennedy Promise
By Henry Fairlie
Doubleday, 1973

The unfinished Kennedy administration, according to Henry Fairlie, cursed its successors by promising far more from politics than it can deliver. Kennedy, by dint of his grace, style and at times nearly messianic rhetoric, presented himself as a superman who could transcend the limits of politics and set an example for the nation—if not the world—in arts and letters and even fashion. Zealous yet cool, Kennedy carried this off, or seemed to, with a sense of irony. His unironic young followers came to believe that knotty problems like poverty, ignorance and armed ideological enemies abroad could be defeated if only the American president possessed sufficient �lan and will. It is a pity that Fairlie, a British journalist who died in 1990, is not with us today to assess the Barack Obama phenomenon.

2. Memories of the Ford Administration
By John Updike
Knopf, 1992

Never mind the title of this John Updike novel: The presidential administration that he is interested in is that of James Buchanan, from 1857 to 1861, not Gerald Ford's in the 1970s. Updike's protagonist, historian Alfred Clayton, is working on a Buchanan biography when he is asked by an organization of historians for his thoughts about the Ford years. Clayton begins musing on his crumbling personal life during that time—and he considers the parallels between his failing marriage and Buchanan's inability, as a natural compromiser, to preserve the Union on the eve of civil war. Buchanan is perhaps best known as one of America's worst presidents, but Updike presents a sympathetic portrait of a middling man swallowed up by the passions that surround him.

3. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics
By N. Gordon Levin
Oxford, 1968

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson, observing the strikes, riots and air of revolution stirring in much of the world, exclaimed: "We are running a race with Bolshevism and the world is on fire." An embarrassment to many contemporary liberals, and mocked as na�ve by foreign-policy realists, Wilson's liberal internationalism, argues N. Gordon Levin in "Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution," was a reasoned answer to the challenge of Leninism. Wilson's push for "a capitalist- internationalist system of free trade and liberal order" was not only an alternative to both a revival of European imperialism and the threat of Bolshevik-inspired social upheaval, it aligned very well with America's national interests.

4. The Perils of Peace
By Thomas Fleming
Collins, 2007

The British might have been defeated at Yorktown in 1781, but America's success in the following years was hardly assured. As Thomas Fleming shows in his engaging "The Perils of Peace," the fledgling nation's future was imperiled in the 1780s by the absence of a strong executive. The exhausted and bankrupt U.S. government could have easily collapsed, not least because the series of men who served as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled"—a nearly powerless leadership position created by the Articles of Confederation—were unable to pay the country's increasingly mutinous army. Ben Franklin, facing outright hostility from his fellow Americans as he tried to negotiate a loan from France, warned that the British King George III, who saw Yorktown as only a minor setback, "hates us . . . and will be content with nothing short of our extirpation." Fortunately, Fleming explains, the British didn't realize how weak we were.

5. Beyond the New Deal
By Alonzo L. Hamby
Columbia, 1973

A great deal has been written about the right-wing fears of communists infiltrating the U.S. government early in the Cold War. Alonzo L. Hamby's "Beyond the New Deal" is a counterpoint, describing the irrational liberal obsession with a possible fascist takeover of America in the late 1940s. Franklin Roosevelt's liberal coalition had been held together by the shared struggles of the Great Depression and World War II. But with peacetime and the economy's revival, the special interests that had been harnessed to the New Deal began fighting with each other; liberals worried that fascists would take advantage of the disarray. The liberals blamed President Truman, the "little man" in the White House, for being too much of a small-town provincial to pursue the statist agenda that they saw as the only bulwark against incipient American fascism. But as Hamby shows, Truman—who distrusted liberal elites and business elites alike—was simply attuned to the needs of the country, not to the fretting of his critics.

 

 
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