NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the veteran political journalist and 60 Minutes correspondent, a deep dive into the history, evolution, and current state of the American presidency, and how we can make the job less impossible and more productive—featuring a new post-2020–election epilogue
“This is a great gift to our sense of the actual presidency, a primer on leadership.”—Ken Burns
Imagine you have just been elected president. You are now commander-in-chief, chief executive, chief diplomat, chief legislator, chief of party, chief voice of the people, first responder, chief priest, and world leader. You’re expected to fulfill your campaign promises, but you’re also expected to solve the urgent crises of the day. What’s on your to-do list? Where would you even start? What shocks aren’t you thinking about?
The American presidency is in trouble. It has become overburdened, misunderstood, almost impossible to do. “The problems in the job unfolded before Donald Trump was elected, and the challenges of governing today will confront his successors,” writes John Dickerson. After all, the founders never intended for our system of checks and balances to have one superior Chief Magistrate, with Congress demoted to “the little brother who can’t keep up.”
In this eye-opening book, John Dickerson writes about presidents in history such a Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower, and and in contemporary times, from LBJ and Reagan and Bush, Obama, and Trump, to show how a complex job has been done, and why we need to reevaluate how we view the presidency, how we choose our presidents, and what we expect from them once they are in office. Think of the presidential campaign as a job interview. Are we asking the right questions? Are we looking for good campaigners, or good presidents? Once a candidate gets the job, what can they do to thrive? Drawing on research and interviews with current and former White House staffers, Dickerson defines what the job of president actually entails, identifies the things that only the president can do, and analyzes how presidents in history have managed the burden. What qualities make for a good president? Who did it well? Why did Bill Clinton call the White House “the crown jewel in the American penal system”? The presidency is a job of surprises with high stakes, requiring vision, management skill, and an even temperament. Ultimately, in order to evaluate candidates properly for the job, we need to adjust our expectations, and be more realistic about the goals, the requirements, and the limitations of the office.
As Dickerson writes, “Americans need their president to succeed, but the presidency is set up for failure. It doesn’t have to be.”
60 Minutes correspondent Dickerson (Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History) takes an evenhanded and insightful look at the evolution of the American presidency. He lists the myriad, and often contradictory, roles played by modern-day presidents and argues that the demands of the office have evolved far beyond what the founding fathers intended. The problem is compounded, Dickerson writes, by the disconnect between what the public and the media expect of presidential candidates ("impulsive, winner-take-all displays of momentary ash") and the qualities actually needed to do the job well ("restraint, deliberation, and cooperation"). He explains that presidents weren't expected to immediately travel to scenes of natural disasters until 1965, when LBJ visited tornado victims in Indiana and hurricane victims in Louisiana, and provides perspective on Trump's norm-shattering by contending that the job became "almost impossible" long before he took office. Dickerson's proposed fixes include assigning most ceremonial duties to the vice president and choosing candidates based on their ability manage "black swan" events. Drawing on illuminating interviews with former White House officials and presidential historians, Dickerson packs the book with intriguing arcana and colorful quotes, including LBJ's comparison of the presidency to a "hootchie-kootchie show." This entertaining history rises above the political fray to cast even the most maligned chief executives in a new light.