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Our President, Our Selves
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Our President, Our Selves
A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government, Sean McCann. Princeton University Press, 2008.
Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, Dana D. Nelson. Duke University Press, 2008.
Madison's Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy, Peter M. Shane. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
The Presidents We Imagine: Two Centuries of White House Fictions on the Page, on the Stage, Onscreen, and Online, Jeff Smith. University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

I went to Barack Obama's inauguration. I did not have a ticket, so I would have seen and heard more if I had stayed at home in North Carolina. But I had experienced the Bush II years as a coup d'état, as the seizure of the government by a dangerous cabal. I wanted to stand as a witness to the restoration of the proper relation between me, as citizen, and the national state. The occasion did not disappoint. It was not the ceremony itself or Obama's speech that made me glad I went. It was the experience of solidarity with the crowd, of the almost giddy well-being that we all felt while exchanging silly smiles and high fives with strangers in the shadow of the Washington Monument. That Obama is half-black and that the fellow-feeling in the crowd conspicuously crossed racial lines only heightened the sense that I was experiencing what America could be if my (our?) deepest fantasies came true.

After reading the four books reviewed here, I felt chastened. My feelings and hopes on that day not only repeat time-worn clichés in American history, but, if Dana Nelson, Peter Shane, and Sean McCann are to be believed, undermine the possibility of true democracy in these US. In their view, "Presidentialism," the increasing power of the executive branch plus the tendency of citizens to look to the president to transcend the petty squabbles and difficult negotiations of politics, alienates sovereignty from the people to a potent figure from whom we expect/demand redemption. We passively cede power to this charismatic leader, abrogating deliberative democratic processes.

Jeff Smith takes a more benign view of the (to him) inevitable creation of narratives that feature the president as protagonist. Those stories reflect our hopes and fears, but he does not sit judgment on some of those imaginings as less legitimate or more harmful than others. He is more interested in how presidents [End Page 232] attempt to live up to those stories. Life imitates art in his rollicking, always informative and often fascinating, account of over two hundred years of such story-telling. George W. Bush attempted, rather pathetically, to be the warrior president portrayed in Tom Clancy's novels. Americans have wanted their president to be all kinds of things and Smith catalogues that variety without making huge claims about the coherence of what people desired at any particular historical moment or the deep political ramifications of those desires. Smith, oddly enough, comes across as not very interested in politics. Yes, these stories have real effects, but he never registers those effects as power that actually shapes people's circumstances, opportunities, or resources.

Nelson, Shane, and McCann are more tendentious. They each document (without much variation) what has become a fairly standard narrative of the rise of executive power. With a nod to Andrew Jackson, these accounts figure Lincoln is the first strong president through his assumption of extraordinary war powers, but Congress reasserts its dominance in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Progressives are responsible for the twentieth-century cult of the strong leader who, with the help of disinterested professional experts, can cut through the corruption and special interests that make Congress ineffectual and a blocker, rather than enabler, of necessary reforms. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson explicitly theorize the president as embodiment of the people's will and of a national interest that transcends the factions represented in Congress. Franklin D. Roosevelt cements the transformation that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson initiated. Nelson and Shane do attend to the growth of executive power in the context of the post-World War II national security...