- - Tuesday, November 12, 2019

As an aide to three presidents who has spent more time in the real West Wing than in watching the TV series of the same name, I find myself in melancholy agreement with the basic premise of Stephen Knott’s “The Lost Soul of the American Presidency”:

“The American president was intended, at least in part, to serve as the nation’s chief of state, as its symbolic head, not a partisan leader. An office envisioned by George Washington and others as a source of national pride and unity has devolved into a force for division and discord.”

Additionally, he states, “presidential candidates have exaggerated the powers and potential of the office for the last one hundred years, assisted by a cadre of scholars and biographers who embrace the notion of what became known as ‘presidential government.’ And, truth be told, the American people fall for this pitch almost every four years.”

Nunes to 'definitely' take legal action after phone records disclosed in impeachment report
Michael Bloomberg says his live-in girlfriend would be 'de facto first lady' if he wins election
Franklin Graham calls on nation to pray for Trump as impeachment effort gains speed

A distinguished presidential historian, and an admirer of ideals articulated by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the Federalist Papers — and by George Washington’s moral and ethical example as our first president — Mr. Knott chose a prophetic passage by Hamilton in the Federalist Papers for his title quote:

“A dangerous ambition … often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people … [O]f those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

In this meticulously researched and eloquently reasoned book, the author shows how early the rot set in. Even as he served in George Washington’s Cabinet, Thomas Jefferson was using government funds to bankroll gutter journalists attacking Washington in demagogue terms as a tyrant who harbored “monarchical” designs. Jefferson, always something of a parlor revolutionary, glamorized mob action in the bloody French Revolution, declaring that, “rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”

This from a man who kept one of his slaves as a concubine and who ran like a rabbit and went into hiding when British forces raided Virginia while he was governor there during the Revolutionary War. 

As Mr. Knott sees it, underneath his refined, intellectual veneer, Jefferson was actually the founding demagogue who set the stage for the cruder populist manifestation of Andrew Jackson, a minimally-educated backwoodsman whose demagoguery was less subtle but also less hypocritical.

From there on out, with too few ebbs and too many flows, the office of the commander-in-chief morphed into panderer-in-chief, with a tendency to govern by opinion poll and manipulation of the mood of the moment.

This is, indeed, lamentable. But the change in the nature of the presidency as America grew, the franchise extended, civic culture declined and “diversity” (i.e. divisiveness) replaced assimilation as our social holy grail, may be more of a lagging than a leading indicator. Now that the “popular” press, radio, film, television and the Internet have completed our conversion from sober constitutional republic to volatile global village — with villagers bombarded by cynical appeals to “presidential” in the best sense of the word.

Perhaps the last man to come close to fulfilling that ideal was Dwight Eisenhower. Like Washington, he had proven his mettle as an inspiring military patriot rather than as a career politician. Four other 20th century  presidents who embodied some of the ideals articulated by Mr. Knott were William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, all men of personal modesty and humanity with high ethical standards and no obsession with political power. 

Unfortunately, two of the four — Taft and Ford — suffered defeat at the hands of preachy, self-righteous egotists (Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter) very much in the demagogic mold. As for the current tweeter-in-chief, while Donald Trump is the stylistic embodiment of the kind of presidential rabble-rouser that Mr. Knott fears and loathes, he may be more of a symptom  than a cause of the disease.

Ironically enough, “demagogue” Trump is well on the way to stocking the federal bench with constitutional appointees who could prove a bulwark against the incursions of blustering, bullying executive and legislative demagogues of both parties for decades to come.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Stephen F. Knott

University Press of Kansas, $39.95, 290 pages

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide