Kings in the White House

Jan 20 2005

By Richard Greene
BBC News

The US president is now as powerful as a monarch, according to a new book by an American professor published to coincide with the start of George W Bush’s second term.

Does Bush really give a damn what the New York Times thinks of him? Roosevelt did

Stephen Graubard
Even powerful mid-century presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognised checks on their authority, says Stephen Graubard, who is old enough to have attended Roosevelt’s last inauguration in 1945.

But since Ronald Reagan, the powers of a president and his “courtiers” have become increasingly untrammelled, Professor Graubard told BBC News.

“He is not totally unchecked but his power is immense,” he says of recent presidents, several of whose closest advisers – including Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy and Zbigniew Brzezinski – he has known personally.

Bush is not the only president Graubard criticises
“FDR worried all the time about other authorities who might try to inhibit his plans. This man [George Bush] knows nobody is going to check him.

“He has been made ridiculous by certain films, but does Bush really give a damn what the New York Times thinks of him? Roosevelt did.

“A king claims certain prerogatives. He is under the law but he has immense discretion in what he can do, especially in foreign affairs.”

The age of Reagan

The great early-20th-Century writer Henry James may have dubbed Theodore Roosevelt “Theodore Rex”, but meant it as a joke, the author says.

Today’s patriotism is a legacy of the 40th president, Graubard says
In his book, The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to George W Bush, he divides the 20th Century presidency into three eras.

The White House became extremely powerful under such towering figures as the two Roosevelts – Theodore and his cousin Franklin – Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman, he says.

It was much weakened in the 1960s and 1970s but starting in 1980, Reagan restored to the institution all its previous grandeur and more again, the historian argues.

That we have never lived in such dangerous times is – to use a four-letter word – crud

Stephen Graubard
“We are living in the age of Reagan,” he says, adding that George W Bush – who begins his second terrm on Thursday – governs very much in the mould of the 40th president.

Mr Bush’s displays of patriotism echo Reagan’s, he says. And he accuses both of a tendency to inflate the dangers the United States faces.

Few compliments

“That we have never lived in such dangerous times is – to use a four-letter word – crud,” he says, referring to Mr Bush’s claims about the scale of the threat posed by terrorism.

“When you stop and think of our situation in 1942 – those were dangerous times,” he says.

Graubard has known several top advisers to presidents personally
But if Professor Graubard is critical of the current President Bush, he is hardly more complimentary about other recent presidents, Republican or Democrat.

He describes George HW Bush as a stiff patrician who tried and failed to imitate Reagan’s style, and says Bill Clinton’s over-arching concern was with self-preservation.

He dismisses Jimmy Carter as “the one real non-entity in the book”.

Even the highly-regarded John F Kennedy “didn’t have great domestic or foreign policy achievements”, he says, while Lyndon Johnson may have been “the greatest domestic reformer of the century”, but was a failure in foreign policy.

And although Richard Nixon came to the White House knowing more about the job than any previous incoming president, Professor Graubard says, “he was a terrible human being”.

Stephen R Graubard, now retired, has been assistant professor of history at Harvard and professor of history at Brown University. The Presidents is published by Allen Lane in the UK and by Basic Books in the US, where its title is Command of Office.

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