Stephen Skowronek: Presidential Leadership in Political Time

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Listening to Jon Meacham made me want to review Stephen Skowronek’s book that I read a number of years ago for a workshop.  Skowronek combined and revised five individually presented essays (written from the early 1980s to 2006) into this 2008 volume entitled Presidential Leadership in Political Time.  His basic thesis about political time reduces personality and style as secondary factors in defining a presidency and rather focuses the study of presidential leadership on “what its capacities are and how it operates in political circumstances variously configured” (xi).  While Presidents obviously exist in different historical times, Skowronek argues there are parallel moments in political time, which he defines as:

“the medium through which presidents encounter received commitments of ideology and interests and claim authority to intervene in their development.  Political time has a narrative structure.  Presidents bid for authority by reckoning with the work of their predecessors, locating their rise to power within the recent course of political events, and addressing the political expectations that attend their intervention in these affairs” (18).

Skowronek also explains in this first chapter of the book (“The Presidency in American Political Development: A Third Look”) that there have been numerous attempts to study the presidency in American political development:

  1. During the Progressive era around the turn of the 20th century, people looked to the presidency as the branch of the federal government best suited to serve the needs of the people.
  2. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate investigations, scholars began identifying the modern presidency as the “imperial presidency” (a phrase first used by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.).  This period of disillusionment swung the pendulum back to Congress as the body most capable of reining in excessive power and moving the democracy forward.
  3. Skowronek’s third look at the presidency takes this form:

“It attends to the peculiar ways in which the presidency operates politically, to the different sorts of political contests it sets up over time, and to their typical political effects.  It offers thereby some insight into the sequence of political change unfolding in our time” (5).

The third essay (“The Politics of Leadership at the End of the Twentieth Century”) provides an analysis of the structures of political authority.  Skowronek identified the political configurations of these structures based on whether the president is affiliated with or opposed to the “dominant ideological and programmatic commitments of the era” and whether the commitments of the regime at the time of the president’s rise to power are vulnerable or continue to hold out “credible solutions to the problems of the day” (85).

Among recent presidents, Skowronek identified Jimmy Carter for the politics of disjunction, Ronald Reagan for the politics of reconstruction, George H.W. Bush for the politics of articulation, and Bill Clinton for the politics of preemption.

  • Affiliation with a vulnerable regime leads to an “impossible leadership situation” because the president can neither repudiate nor embrace their political inheritance, thereby tending “to plunge the nation deep into a crisis of political legitimacy” (90).
  • Candidates who oppose vulnerable incumbents set themselves up for what Skowronek identifies as “the situation that has traditionally proven the most favorable to political mastery in the American presidency” (93).  These are the great repudiators.
  • Presidents who come to power affiliated with a resilient regime tend to become orthodox innovators, “pledged to continue work on an agenda that was his rightful inheritance” (99).
  • Preemptive leaders “are far less beholden to their political allies than are orthodox innovators or late-regime affiliates, far less constrained by standards of doctrinal purity or by the expectation of acting in ways consistent with established part priorities.  What sets preemptive leadership apart is just this: It is not designed to establish, uphold, or salvage any political orthodoxy; it is an unabashedly mongrel vision, an aggressive critique of the prevailing categories and a bold bid to mix then up” (106).





Jon Meacham: What History Tells Us About the Future

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I had the opportunity this week to hear Jon Meacham deliver a lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History.  He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, and he has also profiled FDR and Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

In his lecture, Meacham identified four characteristics of great political leaders:

  • Curiosity.  He pointed to presidents such as FDR, JFK, and Jefferson as avid readers and intellectually curious leaders.  Look no further than Jefferson’s study of Enlightenment thought and its incorporation into American political life.
  • Candor.  He looked to the Great Depression and World War Two for leaders who were willing to talk to their constituents about the gravity of the situation without sugar-coating it.  FDR referred to it as shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, and Churchill certainly followed this pattern in handling the devastation of attacks on the British Isles.
  • Humility.  Great leaders have the ability to admit their mistakes and learn from them — despite the “ambient narcissism” that is a part of the political process.  Meacham pointed to JFK, who after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs contacted Eisenhower for guidance and by following his advice charted a positive end to the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
  • Empathy.  Meacham argued that empathy doesn’t have to be the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” kind of understanding.  He explained George H.W. Bush demonstrated empathy at the end of the Cold War by not using the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a photo opportunity that would help him politically while also being quite damaging to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in a tenuous position with the hardliners in the Communist party.

Ultimately, Meacham believes that “character is destiny.”  But that’s not to say he prefers studying only great people — instead, he suggested we can learn more from the sinners than the saints.  His closing words of hope were, “We can move forward.”  He reflected on the founding of our nation by flawed people — many of whom were slaveowners, for instance — but yet they came together to form a more perfect union.  To those who might question his highlighting of flaws, he countered that overly romanticizing the past actually does an injustice to those you mean to lionize.

Meacham explained his tests for determining the worth of studying a particular subject:

  • Is there a hole in the popular conversation about this person?
  • Is there a scholarly argument to make?
  • Are there new materials to be studied?  (Here’s how archivists can help the Meachams of the world!)

Meacham referenced the open letter he wrote to President Trump before his visit to the Hermitage in March.  Because Trump is fond of likening his leadership to that of Jackson, Meacham pointed out some of his traits that Trump would be wise to emulate:

  • Jackson valued the advice of people with experience in governmental and military affairs.
  • Despite his dislike of elements of the national government (e.g., the Second National Bank), Jackson believed our democratic system had to be preserved at all costs.  This meant both compromising on certain issues and also directly courting the understanding and support of his most ardent opposition (the nullifiers in South Carolina).

In his talk, Meacham also explained that Jackson always fired the second shot — never being the one to begin an attack and instead being in a perfect position to respond.  Jackson also understood his own vices (see humility above).


What Ansel Adams Could Teach Archivists

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I recently had an opportunity to view an exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Although I’ve been a fan of his work for some time, I appreciated learning more about his notion of visualization.  In an interview he explained that “the creative work is the internal event that happens inside your mind when you see the photograph.”  He credited Alfred Stieglitz as a model for the idea of seeing in the mind’s eye:

“I come across something that excites me, I see the picture in my mind’s eye, and I make a photograph, and then I give it to you as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.”

Adams did a lot of his work under the auspices of the National Park Service, so many of his photographs are available at the National Archives.

I believe the process that Adams followed could be useful archival work.  Too often it seems we dive into projects and hope for the best without having any notion of what we hope to see as the culmination.  While we can’t mandate what records cross our thresholds, we can try to be more proactive about how we handle the records we’ve already received and how we perceive our responsibilities to gather and preserve the stories of today for tomorrow’s users.  Although this would undoubtedly be seen as too interventionist by many, in keeping with concepts such as the documentation strategy, I think archivists should think carefully about how we reach out to people who are currently creating records and provide more guidance about how best to create and maintain records of events occurring today.  If we choose to avoid this role, I see two things happening — either the records are lost from history and/or archivists lose our voice as others step in to provide advice on managing the predominately digital records that are currently being created.

Don’t forget about Clay

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For some reason this week I feel compelled to turn to the pages of history.  While some have suggested that Andrew Jackson was the key to preventing the American Civil War, I would like to throw the name of his contemporary Henry Clay into the ring.  Clay spent decades in service to the federal government in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams.  He earned the nickname of the Great Compromiser due to his involvement with three agreements that postponed the Civil War:

  • Missouri Compromise: brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with the rest of the Louisiana Territory below the 36°30′ line open to slavery
  • Compromise of 1833: resolved the nullification crisis begun when South Carolina defied the federal tariff by gradually reducing the tariff rates to prevent its secession
  • Compromise of 1850: adeptly ushered a set of 5 bills through Congress by breaking up the omnibus bill and instead getting each section to vote in favor of the elements they supported, thereby getting the entire package enacted:
    • California entered the Union as a free state
    • established popular sovereignty for the remaining territory won during the Mexican War, meaning the residents would be able to determine whether the territories would practice slavery
    • the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia
    • resolved the borders of Texas and the federal government took over its debt
    • enacted a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act to counteract the work of abolitionists who had been helping slaves escape to the North

In his February 5-6 speeches to garner support for the Compromise of 1850, Clay concluded with these words, captured in the Appendix to the Congressional Globe:

“I conjure gentlemen–whether from the South or the North, by all they hold dear in this world–by all their love of liberty–by all their veneration for their ancestors–by all their regard for posterity–by all their gratitude to Him who has bestowed upon them such unnumbered blessings–by all the duties they owe to themselves–by all these consideration I implore them to pause–solemnly to pause–at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.

“. . . I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Henry Clay died in June 1852.

For his part, here are some of the actions and events that shaped the uneven legacy of Andrew Jackson:

  • Fought against the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
  • Defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812
  • Invaded Spanish Florida and fought against the Seminole Indians
  • Owned slaves on his Tennessee plantation the Hermitage
  • Advocated for the power of the “common man” in politics
  • Vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the U.S. as a means of fighting economic privilege
  • Authorized the Indian Removal Act
  • Refused to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) that denied Georgia authority over tribal lands belonging the Cherokee
  • The combination of the prior two actions set the stage for the forced removal of Cherokees to the west of the Mississippi River that became known as the Trail of Tears after more than a quarter of the Cherokee population died during this journey.

Jackson died in June 1845.

The Civil War began in April 1861.