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TheModern American Presidency,1945-1974: ABibliographical Essay Colin Gordon Elusiveand indistinct lines separate the study of the past from the study of the present, the detachment of the scholar from the bias of the participant, and the subjectivity of current events from the objectivity of history. The poverty of sources confronting medievalists is a problem equalled only by the overwhelming wealth of source material confronting students of recent history.Historians of the twentieth century find themselves sifting through thecinders of societal and political events which are still smouldering; some ofthe coals remain too hot to examine, and the fire of the present can neither besafely ignored nor approached too closely. The study of the modern American Presidency is an effective illustration of these dangers. Direct observation of, or participation in, the course of post-World War II political history provides both the greatest potential for detailed, comprehensive analysis, and the greatest potential for emotional biasand preconception. Many of the writers whom I will cite feel it necessary to distance themselves from events (I voted for Stevenson in 1956, but. .. ; I worked in the Johnson White House, but. ..)1 or to preface their studies withoften hollow claims of objectivity. The posturing is largely unconvincing . Successive studies of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixonadministrations concentrate upon either substantiating or correcting the vehemence of criticism and the excesses of praise contemporary to each period. Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 1985,425-441 426 Colin Gordon An overviewof the secondary literature covering the post-war Presidency is unavoidably an exercise in selection rather than summary-an exercise less in what to include than in what to discard. 2 The public's appetite for contemporary political and "great man" histories has been satiated with a cornucopia of popular, journalistic and academic accounts of all aspects of presidential leadership. (It has been noted that, as of 1977, over seven hundred books had been published on John F. Kennedy and his family alone.)3A concentration upon scholarly literature would dismiss the majority of these works out of hand. The works which remain have been chosen for the merit and source of their arguments, for their contribution to. a given school of thought, and for their historical methods and value. Authors have not been restrict~d to the academic community. Often the journalist proves a better and less hesitant analyst of recent events. The emphasis is upon the strength of the author's sources, the credibility of his analysis, and the contribution of this analysis to a balanced historical understanding of the period.4 Before examining the literature on specific administrations, it is perhaps necessary to offer a cursory survey of broader and more abstract viewsof "The Presidency." These viewsunavoidably seep across the border between political science and history, and indeed social scientists of all persuasions have proved anxious to impose theoretical patterns, models and values upon the nature of executive leadership. These views can be roughly separated into those favoring either a strong or a limited Presidency. The leading proponent of the strong Presidency is James MacGregor Burns, who wrote his first biography of the strong New Deal leadership in 1956and has worn Roosevelt-tinted glasses eyer since. The call for increased presidential power, strong party leadership and discipline, and a check on the diffusionoflegislativepowers is repeated implicitly in Burns's biographies of Roosevelt and Kennedy and in his textbook approaches to American government,5 and is flogged explicitly in his political tracts The Deadlock of Democracy (1963)and Uncommon Sense (1972).Burns's argument is echoed with slightly less enthusiasm by Louis Koenig in The Chief Executive. Bert Cochran has criticized this tendency to "panegyrize" the Presidency, 6 and his point seems well taken. Both Burns and Koenig have been forced to backpedal furiously from their earlier writings in the aftermath of the presidential war in Southeast Asia and the slow implosion of the Nixon administration. In a prefatory apology to the latest edition of his text, Koenig hopes that "a Presidency of strength can be reconciled with democratic values."7 In a post-Watergate forum, Burns bravely swallowed and said, "it [the abuse of power] isessentially a problem of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 425-441
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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