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Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents by Robert  Dallek

Presidential historian Robert Dallek maintains there are five categories by which to measure an effective president. While noting that these categories "are not intended to be the last … word on how to succeed in the White House," Dallek nevertheless points out that it is striking how each of these elements "has been present and absent in the leadership of the most and least effective chiefs." Dallek is professor of history at Boston University and author of books on Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevent and John F. Kennedy.

This passage is excerpted from Dallek's book, Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents. New York: Hyperion, 1996, ppxx-xxi. (2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2001.) Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

…Two hundred years of our country's history suggest that five qualities have been constants in the men who have most effectively fulfilled the oath of office. First, every successful president has had vision, insight, or understanding: a clear idea of where he wished to lead the nation in its quest for a better future. However illusory some of these dreams have been, whether for a harmonious nation or for America's Manifest Destiny to expand across the continent and out into the Caribbean and the Pacific, a clear and comprehensible grand design has been central to every significant presidential advance. Second, the most successful of our chiefs have also been great realists or pragmatists -- politicians who understood that politics was the art of the possible or that the road to proficient leadership was through a sensible opportunism or flexible response to changing conditions at home and abroad.

Third, presidential gains have depended on the consent of the governed: presidents without a national consensus for major policies touching people's everyday lives are politicians courting defeat. Fourth, the best of our presidents have always recognized that leadership required a personal connection between the president and the people, or that the power of the Oval Office rests to a great degree on the affection of the country for its chief. From Washington to Lincoln to the two Roosevelts and, most recently, Reagan, the force of presidential personality has been a major factor in determining a president's fate. And fifth, a corollary to conditions three and four, presidents need credibility -- presidents who are unable to earn the trust of their countrymen are governors who cannot govern and lead.

While vision, pragmatism, consensus-building, charisma, and trustworthiness may be considered discrete categories, they are in fact inextricably linked: each of these political practices connects to and builds upon the other. No president has distinguished himself simply by being a visionary, or a good practical politician, or a charming, trustworthy reflector of national views. Though the chapters that follow elaborate on how the presence and absence of each of these elements in various administrations has made a difference in advancing the national well-being, it would be reductionist to suggest that any of them stand alone. Can there be consensus without vision or political compromise? Can there be trust without popular appeal or vice versa? Like history itself the elements of presidential effectiveness form a seamless web. And like the scientist in his laboratory, we isolate each of them only for the sake of closer study. Taken as a whole, I hope they will demonstrate why and how past presidents have served the nation well and ill and how a fresh attempt at understanding them can advance the cause of enlightened leadership in the years ahead.

The White House at the end of the twentieth century is as removed from Washington's day as the jet plane is from the horse and buggy. The global responsibilities a chief executive faces today dwarf those his counterpart encountered in the 1790s, as does his impact on the economic and social life of the nation. Nuclear weapons, electronic communications, and national and international responsibilities compel presidents to think and act differently from their early predecessors in the office. But, as the examples in the following chapters demonstrate, the elements of compelling leadership have largely remained unchanged. Washington and Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, TR and Wilson, FDR and Reagan, are continuing models for effective performance in the White House. Future presidents will not find a formula for greatness in their actions, but they will gain some wisdom from remembering the accomplishments of their most effective antecedents. History offers no surefire solutions to current dilemmas, but it can provide guidelines that future chiefs ignore at their peril. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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