Neustadt's study of presidency: apt update of a valuable book

January 27, 1991|By Stuart Rochester






Richard E. Neustadt.

Free Press.

371 pages. $22.95. Thirty years after his much acclaimed and influential work on the theory and practice of presidential leadership, Richard Neustadt has produced a new edition that re-examines and elaborates on his earlier concepts in the light of the subsequent experience of Presidents John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. It is a reflection of both Mr. Neustadt's discerning analysis and the eternal verities of American presidential politics that his arguments seem as valid and timely today as they did in 1960.

His original treatise -- the eight chapters of which are reprinted in the new edition virtually untouched -- appeared as the Eisenhower years sputtered to a shaky close, the country seemed to be adrift without compass or confidence, and historians already blinded by the Kennedy mystique were delivering a devastating indictment on Ike's laid-back, caretaker stewardship.

The nation as a whole, and in particular its liberal intellectual elite -- Mr. Neustadt among them -- embraced the notion that activism in government and charisma and forcefulness in a chief executive were desirable qualities.

Ensuing developments, of course-- the Vietnam War, Watergate and disillusionment with the Kennedy-Johnson reform program -- would arouse an opposite concern about overreaching, arrogant and transgressing presidents; what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., referred to in 1973 as "the imperial Presidency," as symbolized by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Watergate was a personal tragedy that sealed the demise of the "strong" Franklin Roosevelt-Kennedy-style presidency and restored to favor a less intrusive but also much crippled and humbled and less vital executive -- to wit, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and now George Bush.

Mr. Neustadt is no more enamored of high-profile than low-profile presidents. What impresses him are presidents who can wield power effectively and legitimately, and he would count among that group types as disparate as the two Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy (although his record remains a matter of conjecture since his tenure was so short), Eisenhower (on occasion), and Reagan (although his inadequacies finally came to roost in the Iran-contra controversy). The exercise of presidential power is crucial to the healthy functioning of the U.S. political system, Mr. Neustadt maintains, because of the inherent institutional weakness of a chief executive who is constrained by an array of checks and balances, and by having to accommodate many different constituencies (partisan political allies, the citizenry at large, bureaucratic interests, nternational clients, etc.).

In one of his new chapters, Mr. Neustadt concedes that recent evidence demonstrates that Eisenhower was a stronger and more effective executive than previously thought, and that his adroit deflection of pressures to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu was nothing short of masterly. Still, Mr. Neustadt finds no virtue in Ike's "hidden hand" presidency, or in the general being "above politics," just as he finds no harm necessarily in FDR's reveling in political manipulation.

With the increasing chaos of American politics -- the weakening of party ties, the proliferation of special-interest groups, the persisting pattern of one party controlling Congress and the other the White House-- Mr. Neustadt believes our presidents face more hurdles, and opportunities for leadership, than ever. Unfortunately, judging from the missed chances, self-inflicted wounds and failure to translate personal popularity into political clout, the record of our modern presidents hardly inspires optimism. "The Presidency is no place for amateurs," Mr. Neustadt avers, and finding men (or women) with commanding authority and the disposition to seek and use power is not something we ought to fear but rather devoutly wish for.

Mr. Rochester is a historian with the Department of Defense and the author of two 20th century histories.

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