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The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush
Fred I. Greenstein
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Price, 317 pages, ISBN 0-691-11909-0.

Hajer Ben Gouider Trabelsi
Université de Montreal, Canada

Being aware of the fundamental role American voters play in choosing the tenants of the White House, Fred I. Greenstein, in his book The Presidential Difference, sets out to instruct the American electorate in the hope of enabling them to choose the appropriate presidential candidate, in future elections. In order to do this, the writer provides us with an account of the presidencies of twelve American chief executives from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush. His accounts give us autobiographical details that have clearly shaped the personality of the president in question, and affected his presidency. One example would be the way having an alcoholic father made of Richard Nixon an emotionally handicapped president. It is also worth noting that the writer, in his examination of the presidential political psychology, focuses on the following skills in his analysis of the twelve American presidents, namely public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. In this survey, I intend to explore the structure of the book, and give an account of the potential readership the writer targets. Then, I will attempt to assess the way Greenstein deals with the issue of American presidency, focusing mainly on his objectives.

Although we tend to take the structure of books for granted when we are doing research for academic work, the elaborate and practical structure of The Presidential Difference does not fail to attract our attention. Indeed, flipping through the book makes it clear that through the conception of such an elaborate structure, the writer expresses his awareness of, and response to the qualitatively different needs of potentially different readers. This can be clearly seen through the fact that structurally the book falls into three major parts.

The first part, consisting of the fourteen chapters, provides an in-depth analysis of the presidencies of the twelve above-mentioned American presidents. This part seems to be targeting mainly, at least as far as the realm of academia is concerned, the “students of presidential leadership” [45], who are constantly referred to throughout the book. The needs of these researchers are, to a large extent, catered for through the first part, and the third parts of the book. The latter, which is entitled “Further Readings” and which extends from page 282 to page 301, will doubtlessly be of help and interest to the aforementioned type of readers, as it provides them with a well-commented, almost annotated bibliography, for each of the book chapters. This part gives the readers insightful, timesaving remarks about the major ideas discussed in the books included.

The second part of the book, entitled “Appendix” and extending from page 225 to page 264, may be of use to the above-mentioned section of the readership, as it may allow them to quickly locate certain important events, or get information about the cabinet members during the presidency of a given president. However, it seems, along with the synthetic, and summary-like chapter fourteen, entitled “Lessons from the Modern Presidency,” and with the evaluative parts at the end of each chapter* to be targeting ordinary readers who simply want to know about the achievements and failures of past American presidents, but who might not have enough time to go through the in-depth analysis, provided in the first part. But one would wonder, why should an average American be interested in such a book about politics? The writer himself provides an answer to this question near the end of his book, when he says that one of the objectives is to enable “members of the public who are able to place presidential contenders in a historical context …to make wiser electoral choices” [211]. It is presumably for these ordinary Americans whose votes shape not only the history of the USA, but also that of humanity—taking into account the global geopolitical scape in which we are living nowadays—that Greenstein provides this simplified access to positive, and negative traits of previous American presidents that should guide the electorate’s choice of a president.

Another major readership addressed directly, throughout the book, is that of presidents. For instance, “sources of warnings” [39] are repeatedly pointed out for them. Moreover, Greenstein emphasizes the attention American presidents must pay to lessons from previous US chief executives. This can be seen in the following sentence, “presidents who steep themselves in the record of their predecessors will be better equipped for their responsibilities as a result of doing so” [211]. Ignoring these lessons can only result in ruining the political career of the president in question. George Herbert Walker Bush illustrates this point fairly well, according to the writer. Indeed, paying no attention to the legacy of Reagan was a major cause explaining the defeat of Bush’s reelection campaign.

This book does not only give us a historical account of the different US presidents from FDR to present day George W. Bush. Rather, by examining the way the different US presidents in question, have tried to achieve their goals, Greenstein engages implicitly in constructing the ideal American president. After reading the book, the reader can easily imagine this model. The writer himself, however, acknowledges the fact that it would be impossible, in the realm of reality, to have such an ideal president who would be “a cognitively and emotionally intelligent public communicator, a capable White House organizer, and the possessor of exceptional political skill and vision” [222]. Even when we go back to the different accounts of the twelve American presidencies included in this survey, it is impossible for us to find a single American president having all the skills outlined at the end of each of the chapters, and referred to in the above-mentioned quotation. The ideal president against whom the American electorate should measure candidates would be an assemblage bringing together the vision and public communication skills of such virtuosic presidents as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan, the exceptional organizational capacity, intelligence of Eisenhower—strategic and emotional, and the political skill of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Given the fact that it is impossible to find a candidate that would have all these skills at the same time, the lesson Greenstein wants the American electorate to learn consists in voting for a candidate who would not be emotionally handicapped. In this sense, Americans must avoid voting for candidates who would bring to the White House other Johnsons, Nixons, Carters, and Clintons. The inability of the latter to control their emotions ruined their political careers.

Thus this book attempts, through its tentative account of the presidencies of twelve American chief executives from FDR to George W. Bush, to teach both the American electorate and American presidents. It provides material useful for both parties in their respective tasks of voting, and shouldering the presidential burden in the White House. Finally, it also targets different sections of the readership through its elaborate structure.

* This part consists of the following components: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.



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