- - Monday, October 16, 2017



By Jeremi Suri

Basic Books, $32, 344 pages

Jeremi Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas, is author/editor of eight previous books, numerous newspaper and magazine pieces, and a popular guest on television talk shows.

His writing is energetic and evocative, and his positions are presented vigorously, with a conviction common among most of his academic peers today — namely, the election of Donald Trump is a national disaster.

What’s to be done? Stripped of all the rhetorical bells and whistles, the extreme academic liberal solution seems to boil down to reinventing and restructuring the presidency so that electing a Trump, who’s spoken of in the most illiberal terms imaginable, can never happen again.

That won’t be easy. Part of the problem is that out in the country, things really don’t seem all that bad. All the indicators are up; and the economy, in fact, is humming in a way that we haven’t seen for some time — perhaps since the Reagan days, although Mr. Suri would take exception to that. While he does give Ronald Reagan credit for taming the Russian Bear, and perhaps averting war, he believes he reversed some of the great “gains” of LBJ’s “Great Society” programs (which is precisely what he was elected to do).

In charting the course of the presidency, Mr. Suri divides his book into two parts, “The Rise” and “The Fall.” The Rise begins with an examination of the presidency of George Washington, “the father figure for a young republic,” moves through Jackson, “who brought the presidency to the people,” Lincoln, who “transformed the Union from a political arrangement among rival regions into a sacred whole”; and Theodore Roosevelt, who “converted the presidency into a wellspring of progressive reforms at home and aggressive military strength abroad.”

Mr. Suri’s Rise ends with FDR at the summit, from which “Roosevelt created a modern presidency that organized a complex society behind his vision. He did more than any other leader in American history.”

From there it’s all downhill. The Fall begins with JFK, gains momentum through the Reagan presidency, for which he has few good words; snowballs through Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (two well-meaning men, Mr. Suri believes, whose “legislative accomplishments were infrequent and small” because of conservative Republican obstructionism; and culminates in the political avalanche that gave us President Trump and what Mr. Suri sees as the end of the presidency.

This angst seems somewhat premature, since probably at the time of the writing Donald Trump was still settling in. But one suspects it’s less than his potential performance as chief executive that causes liberal existential despair. The presidency has become too complex for one man to manage, Mr. Suri argues — and especially so if that one man is Donald Trump.

“After Donald Trump, improved national leadership will require remaking the office. The long rise and short fall of the nation’s highest office opens an opportunity to redesign it for a new world.”

“A single executive is just not practical,” he writes, and suggests we might consider “dividing domestic and international authorities, as the French political system does, or dividing policy leadership from head of state responsibilities,” as the Germans do. (France? And how will that play with the Deplorables?)

“The founders wanted a single executive, but they never anticipated the range of challenges and responsibilities the modern officeholder would confront. A single executive for an enterprise as gargantuan and labyrinthine as the United States has become anachronistic.”

Perhaps. But imagine the confusion, to say nothing of political fury, the restructuring and redesign of our political system would cause (Mr. Suri seems to suggest that liberal academics be involved in the redesign), with a president and a prime minister elected at different intervals. This division of roles envisioned by Mr. Suri could, as he suggests, “open time in the president’s crowded calendar for deeper deliberation around crowded issues.”

Perhaps. But it could be argued that the 1930s and ‘40s were perhaps the most complex, crowded and chaotic decades in our nation since the Civil War years. Yet with a much smaller bureaucracy and fewer advisers, FDR and then Harry Truman managed to maneuver us through them, with President Eisenhower, who gets minimal mention here, successfully building on their accomplishments through the 1950s.

Perhaps, in the end, instead of dreaming of radical restructuring, it would be well for liberal academics, caught in the emotional throes of acute Trumpitis, to take a few deep breaths, exercise some “deeper deliberation,” and just choose a better candidate next time round.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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