William Leuchtenburg

The American Presidency: A Half Century Later

VTR Date: April 20, 2006

William E. Leuchtenburg discusses The American Presidency, his area of expertise.


GUEST: William Leuchtenburg
VTR: 04/20/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your Host on THE OPEN MIND. I said those words for the first time just 50 years ago in May, 1956. Indeed, I said them on that first OPEN MIND program and the second as well, just across the table from the same guest who joins me today, a half century later, to discuss the same subject, the American Presidency.

Now Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, William E. Leuchtenburg, known best for his books and other commentary on American history, particularly our twentieth century Presidents, is past President of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Historians.

But, coming back to the first days of THE OPEN MIND, truth is that my historian guest and I had met long before that time. A dozen years before, in fact, when as a undergraduate at Columbia, I was head of the Young Peoples Division of New York’s Liberal Party. And Bill Leuchtenburg was our dynamic Executive Director, taking leave from his own graduate studies at Columbia, with the two of us doing our darndest back then in 1944, to make certain the Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term as President. He was.

And as a most distinguished American historian, not any longer a political organizer, Professor Leuchtenburg has since written a good deal about FDR and about the American presidency, which leads me to ask my guest what strikes him most about then and now, about what’s remained the same and what’s changed the most concerning the American presidency. Bill, what stands out?

LEUCHTENBURG: Well, I wrote a book some years ago, Dick, called In the Shadow of FDR, it was originally from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. It’s gone through several new editions and it’s now to George W. Bush. And I think you can still see the monuments of the New Deal in America … the Social Security Act, the SEC, and the, the physical monuments as well. But the spirit of Liberalism that you and I knew in 1944 in the age of FDR, I’m afraid has long since dissipated and one sees very little of it in Washington today.

HEFFNER: What’s your assumption about those other, more tangible things, though .. that they will survive?

LEUCHTENBURG: I think they’re going to, to survive. I had an interesting experience a few years ago, Dick. I was invited to Moscow to speak to members of the Putin government about the New Deal. They know that they don’t want to go back to Stalinism, but they also find going cold turkey to a free market economy, isn’t the path either.

And the New Deal is a kind of halfway house that interests them very much. And I arrived there planning to give the afternoon talk and found that the keynote speaker in the morning couldn’t make it and I was to give the keynote address. And it was … I had no notes, it was snowing heavily, I couldn’t get to any library, so I had to figure out what to say.

And I told them that if they, they came to the United States, and if they came to LaGuardia Airport, or if they came to the airports in Washington, or, or Cleveland, and if they drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway or the, the Skyline Drive, or if they took the Chicago subway or they went to Fort Knox, or the football stadium at LSU, or all away across the country, through the shelter belt to the great dams in Bonneville and Grand Cooley, they would be going to institutions, to monuments, to artifacts that the New Deal had built. And that it’s very much with us today.

HEFFNER: But the spirit, you feel …

LEUCHTENBURG: The sprit … we keep on .. the last chapter of that book is called “Waiting for Franklin D.” And a lot of us have been waiting for Franklin D. for a long time now and know that the politics of the 1930s, of the Great Depression can’t be replicated.

But we would hope that that kind of a sense of concern for social justice, of a more humane society is going to be born again. I haven’t given up hope that that’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: Why not? What would … what would give birth to it again, Bill?

LEUCHTENBURG: Well, I, I think if you were to look at the situation in America in 1929, or even as late at 1932 when FDR campaigned, you would not have anticipated the New Deal.

Roosevelt himself, although he spelled out some of what would happen, the Tennessee Valley Authority, some aid to the unemployed, there was no indication that the great enterprises of the New Deal, of the Roosevelt era were going to be born in that spring of 1933. So, I’m not impatient about expecting that there’s going to be a revelation that can see at the very moment. I think it will catch us by surprise when it comes.

HEFFNER: But you know, what you’re saying reminds me very much of what has been said at this table … strike that, not at this table … after a program is over, so frequently, for those people who have sat where you’re sitting now and for some reason or in some area or other … are saying “aye de me” are, are distressed about what’s happening at the moment. Only afterwards, when we’re off the air …


HEFFNER: And I say, “What’s going to change it?” What they say is another great war, or more likely, another great depression. Now are you suggesting that the bad times that brought about the New Deal are going to be the only things that can bring about another New Deal?

LEUCHTENBURG: Oh, I surely wouldn’t say that. And bad times, even if they were to occur, don’t necessarily have to have the kind of outcome that they had in the, the New Deal. One certainly didn’t have that in the, in the three or four years of Herbert Hoover’s Presidency. And elsewhere in the world, one found not merely Conservative governments as say with Baldwin’s in England, but Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, quite apart from the fact that anyone of Liberal persuasion is not going to wish a depression on this country with all of the suffering that would ensue.

Similarly wars, sometimes bring about a, a birth of government activity as they did in World War I, the creation of a World Labor Board. They helped bring about women’s suffrage in the Untied States. But it’s also, wars have a very baleful effects. Particularly in the area of civil liberties.

HEFFNER: Ah. Well, you mention civil liberties and I, I would point now to what I consider your optimism about a resurgence at some point of that New Deal spirit. Ah, what about the question of Presidential authority. Now you and I know that the people who went to the Trans Lux to hiss FDR …

LEUCHTENBURG: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … gave expression to the notion that this man was a dictator. The Great Dictator. Presidential power … we now have in the White House someone who talks about making the decisions … he makes the decisions … understandably. We have someone in the White House who disturbs so many people in terms of the power of government and its expansion. Didn’t that happen under FDR? Didn’t it happen under Lincoln? Didn’t it happen under Woodrow Wilson? Didn’t it happen under all those heroes of ours?

LEUCHTENBURG: It did, but not in quite the same way.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEUCHTENBURG: I am now writing a history of the American presidency that is commissioned by the Annenberg Foundation and Oxford University Press is, is going to publish. And I’ve been struck by the extent to which what you’ve just said is, in fact, true.

That you have uses of executive power that are highly autocratic under Jefferson, to a very great degree under Lincoln, through the stress of war with the suspension of habeas corpus under Wilson in World War I and under other presidents.

And there are certainly regrettable things that happened under FDR. Most notably the internment of Japanese Americans. But one has a sense in the Bush Administration on, on … in Bush’s own mind and in those of any number of the people around him that there is no constraint on Presidential power at all. That these other presidents had a sense that in the last run they were accountable.

Lincoln, after taking action on his own in 1861, before Congress was convened, reported to Congress that July and asked for its approval.

Probably the most far reaching thing that FDR did was his Labor Day Address in 1942 when Congress wouldn’t give him the kind of price controls he wanted … he said, “I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway”. But with the understanding that I’m going to surrender this authority as soon as peace returns, which, which he did. That just doesn’t seem to be the spirit in Washington today.

HEFFNER: Why do you think that’s the case. It’s fascinating to me to hear you say that because so many times I’ve wondered in the middle of, of my despair about the present occupant, and deep concern about this matter of Presidential powers, as I listen to the Attorney General give expression to the notion that essentially there are no limitations, or I’ll just keep quiet about it.


HEFFNER: What accounts, in your estimation, for that? A change in public understanding of our governmental structure?

LEUCHTENBURG: No, I don’t think so. I think what’s, what’s happened is that the present Administration is often described as a Conservative Administration. But it’s not truly Conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. This is a radical Right group with a sense of, of … it’s almost of a coup de tat, and particularly in the field of foreign affairs and is very, very worrisome.

I was … one of the things I was thinking about, Dick, is … when we first talked fifty years ago, what the atmosphere was of our concern about the presidency then and what it is today. The concern in 1954 was that the President, Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t active enough. He wasn’t moving toward using the powers of his Presidency on behalf of civil rights against Joe McCarthy; on behalf of various social welfare programs.

Now our concern is that the President is all too active and there has to be some way of circumscribing his powers.

HEFFNER: Bill, you say, “our concern”. It is your concern, it is my concern. Perhaps we didn’t … not “perhaps”, we didn’t elect President Bush in 2000, but we did, fairly handily in 2004. And his expression of the power of the Presidency was well known by that time. We weren’t blind or blind-sided in 2004, as perhaps we were in 2000.

Ah, and I come back to the question as to whether Americans themselves, whether he is not giving us, not just what we deserve, but what we can understand and appreciate because our understanding of the limitations that you say those previous Presidents had placed upon themselves, the limitation upon the extension …


HEFFNER: … of power. We don’t learn very much about that any more. You and I must have both been in civics classes. I was. You must have been, too, as a boy. Do you think Americans, by and large, understand what it is that you’re saying about the power of the Presidency?

LEUCHTENBURG: I don’t think so. And on the other hand, I wouldn’t go back to a Golden Age of our civics classes together, when people did have that understanding. It’s very hard to find any time in American history where the country was deeply concerned about civil liberties. Bush’s popularity today is fallen to a new low. But it’s largely because there’s a sense that the programs he’s advanced, the policies that he’s advocated from Iraq to the way that Hurricane Katrina was handled, are failures.

There’s very little sense that his decline in the polls is the result of a feeling that there are widespread violations of civil liberties; that’s not true now and hasn’t been true in the past.

HEFFNER: Well, does that mean … I come back and I don’t mean to push upon you my own thinking here … but doesn’t that mean … my grandson has a radio program at school called “The Progressive Mind” because when he asked me if he could use “The Open Mind”, I said, sure …


HEFFNER: … but I’ll sue you.

LEUCHTENBURG: (Laughter) Right.

HEFFNER: So get a title of your own. He puts words in people’s mouths, I tell him. And I don’t want to do that to you. But doesn’t that mean that we don’t give a damn or enough of a damn as a people?

LEUCHTENBURG: Oh, I think so. And I’m afraid that’s … I said that’s been true for, for a considerable time now. Civil liberties have never been values that, that people have felt as ardent about as they have felt about a standard of living, or national security. That having been said, there, there are opinion makers in this country who have … and organizations that have flourished for a long time now.

You must remember there was no American Civil Liberties Union before the era of, of World War I. There are editorial writers, there are scholars, there are journalists, there are people in television who do care. Deeply. About civil liberties. And Presidents have to be responsible to what’s been … or, or conscious of the influence of what’s been called “the chattering classes”.

And you and I are both “chatterers” and if we chatter often enough and loudly enough, I have some confidence that we’ll have some influence.

HEFFNER: That is that conflict between majoritarian rule and minority rights, I guess, that our old friend, Henry Steele Comanger used to …

LEUCHTENBURG: Who, who, who … yes, who was my mentor at Columbia, indeed.

HEFFNER: But what differentiates us then? Where is, where are the better angels?

LEUCHTENBURG: Of, of … well, they, they … better angels has a sense of deies ex machina that I’ve tried never to put my, my hopes on. It’s rather … I think that when institutions, what Ken Galbraith used to call “countervailing power” … if the countervailing powers are strong enough, then presidents are forced to back away from, from their greatest excesses. The … what I think is discouraging at the moment is the lack of willingness in Congress, and this has been true for some time now, to use the powers that the Constitution vests in, in Congress to serve sufficiently as a countervailing force.

Similarly, one can’t be very sanguine about the composition of the United State Supreme Court today. There have been times when the Supreme Court has served as a, as a balance wheel. When, just to take a single instance, the Supreme Court unanimously, in US against Nixon curbed the powers of Nixon at the time of the Watergate crisis, despite the fact that several members of the court had been appointed by him.

It’s less likely now that this court is going to serve as a check on Presidential power, but we’ll see, when some of these cases that are now making their way toward the court, are, are resolved.

HEFFNER: Then the phrase … for you … “last best hope of mankind”. What does it mean?

LEUCHTENBURG: Ah. Well, I guess it … the meaning for me is that … for me is that … if I look back as I’m now doing in writing this history of the Presidency on two centuries of the institution, I can see all kinds of flaws in it and other democratic institutions.

But I also have a strong feeling … and one that compares it to what has happened elsewhere in the world. It’s not a bad record and there are many highlights along the way.

And maybe, maybe I’m overly optimistic, dick, but I’m not convinced that those highlights belong altogether in the past. I think … if, if not that the best is yet to come, some good things are yet to come.

HEFFNER: Well, then I wondered, in this, in this … as I’ll indicate with my question … whether you, as a scholar, of American history and now writing your book on the Presidency, whether there is some fundamental change that you wish we would make Constitutionally?

LEUCHTENBURG: Well, I, I’ve asked that … I have a folder that says “Conclusion” and I assume that I will have something to say. And, in truth, I can’t think of a single institutional change. One matter that one often hears aired is to get away from the Electoral College and that I can believe may very well be a useful reform. But I see no prospect that that’s going to happen.

And our experience with certain kinds of institutional changes in, in the past … the Initiative, the Referendum and Recall, often not worked out the way we have … the sponsors hoped at the time. So I doubt institutional change is, is what’s going to, to bring about an, an improvement. It’s rather going to have to be somewhere in the political realm.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEUCHTENBURG: By that I mean, the, the outcome of the mid-term elections here in, in November is our first best hope of a, of a chastening effect on the present Administration and then the Presidential elections two years later.

HEFFNER: But you feel that you wouldn’t advocate … the look at the Initiative and the Referendum and other do-good reforms, nothing like that. And the Electoral College change doesn’t particularly stir you.


HEFFNER: Parliamentary … more of a parliamentary form of government. That, too.

LEUCHTENBURG: Well, I remember when … I first started out … I was teaching, not history, but, but government … political science at Smith College and there was a, a strong movement associated with people like the political scientist John Snyder at Wesleyan. A move toward more responsible party government. And I was very interested in that as, as … at the time, but as the years have gone by, I’ve been less and less persuaded that parliamentary institutions can be imported into this kind of American political culture, or even if it were a good idea that’s at all likely to happen. And I try not to, to chase after illusions.

HEFFNER: Well, Bill, among your colleagues in the profession, my sense is that you reflect a general acceptance of the notion that we’re not going to find nirvana in that kind of Constitutional change. That you’re reflecting that attitude.

LEUCHTENBURG: I, I think so. You, you don’t hear very much about it. I can … over the last several years, I remember once reviewing a book for The Washington Post by Ted Sorenson who called for a six year term for the Presidency. Quite apart from the fact that I wasn’t especially taken by that idea, I don’t hear talk about that anymore. This doesn’t seem to be one of those “yeasty” times where all kinds of, of new thoughts are rising.

HEFFNER: And when we sit at this table at the 100th anniversary of The Open Mind, what do you think … and I ask the same question and we just have two minutes left … a little less … about what’s happened between then and now. Do you see prospects for the American Presidency that are particularly different from what’s happened over the past 50 years?

LEUCHTENBURG: Well, someone once said that the definition of an optimist in the twentieth century is some one who thinks that the future is uncertain.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

LEUCHTENBURG: That we’re … that we are not pre-doomed to, to misfortune. But if one thinks of the … of nuclear proliferation, if one thinks of the expansion of population pressing on resources, it’s, it’s in many ways a scary prospect. But we’ve had scary prospects in the past.

HEFFNER: Which is a good way to say thank you for joining me again fifty years later, William Leuchtenburg.

LEUCHTENBURG: And I look forward to fifty years from now, Dick.

HEFFNER: Good. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.