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President's Day

February 20, 1997

Presidents hold a special fascination for Americans. Symbolic of great power yet beholden to the electorate, pressured by interest groups, and often constrained by a dissenting Congress, Presidents are alternately revered and derided. Over time, perceptions of the presidency have varied, reflecting changes in the national mood, the state of national and international affairs, and the character and conduct of individuals who have filled the office. A look back at some considerations of Presidents and the presidency that have appeared in the Atlantic through the years thus offers enlightening historical perspectives on the state of the Union itself.

  • "Mr. McKinley as President," by Henry B. F. Macfarland (1901)
    It is simply truth to say that he has met all the extraordinary requirements of an extraordinary period, and met them easily and well, and this is to say that he is a great President.

  • "The Presidential Succession," by Lucius Wilmerding Jr. (1947)
    If we admit that the Constitution, on the death of the chief executive magistrate, brings into the Presidency a person not contemplated by the people for that office, then we have our answer: the Constitution is defective in so far as it recognizes the possibility that the Presidency may be filled otherwise than by an election of the people.

  • "Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?" by Stuart Alsop (1972)
    President Nixon's testing time ... may be in the presidential election months which lie immediately ahead. Indeed, his time of testing may have started already. If so, it will be interesting to see whether this strange man can bring himself to realize that the point of the game is not always only to win.

  • "The President and the Press," by David Wise (1973)
    When the President of the United States wants network time, he calls up and gets it. Or he has one of his assistants call. Not only Lyndon Johnson, but all recent Presidents have had a consuming interest in television.

  • "Presidential Power," by Judge Charles E. Wyzanski (1975)
    No reader can fail to learn how powerful, how almost arbitrary, and, indeed, how potentially dangerous is the role of the President of the United States in foreign affairs.

  • "Political Morality and the First Family," by Claiborne Lee Bell (1976)
    The reform that is needed is obvious: The President's spouse, as well as the President, must be elected by the people.

  • "The Passionless Presidency," by James Fallows (1979)
    Carter's willful ignorance, his blissful tabula rasa, could -- to me -- be explained only by a combination of arrogance, complacency, and -- dread thought -- insecurity at the core of his mind and soul.

  • "The In-Box President," by William Schneider (1990)
    Bush seems paralyzed by two fears -- the fear of being called a wimp and the fear of creating controversy. Our greatest tragedies as President, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were haunted by deep personal insecurities. They kept polls in their pockets and made lists of enemies. Bush seems nowhere near that level of paranoia or vindictiveness. But he has been described as "ill at ease ... in his own skin," and that is not a good sign.

  • "The First Postmodern Presidency," by Steven Stark (1993)
    In the new age of fragmentation, when it's tougher to assemble a mass following, virtually all colossal entities and authority figures of the old age have seen their prestige and power recede. . . . The once all-powerful national megaphone of the presidency competes with many amplified voices in a diverse, atomized culture.

  • "The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys," by Steven Stark (1994)
    After all this, and an Administration that made the elevation of style over substance into both a zeitgeist and an ideology, not only the hanging out with Sinatra and Marilyn was inevitable; so was the eventual arrival of someone like Ronald Reagan.

  • "A Talk With Bill Clinton," by James Fallows (1996)
    All around a President are people looking at their wristwatches, a photographer snapping official mementos of the meeting, someone recording every word the President utters in interview situations, and a variety of other assistants whose interest in the visitor begins and ends with whether he or she will get out of there on time.

    Also see:

  • Flashback: "Washington and Lincoln."

  • "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist" (1996), by Conor Cruise O'Brien -- a controversial critique of one of this country's cherished icons.

  • "Counterpoints" (1996), by Jefferson scholar Douglas L. Wilson -- a response to Conor Cruise O'Brien.

  • "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue" (1992), by Douglas Wilson

  • More articles about politics and the presidency

  • The Flashbacks archive.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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