Friday, April 22, 2005

Strong Presidents: A Theory of Leadership. - Review

Strong Presidents: A Theory of Leadership. - Review. This is a book review by William G. Shade. It was published in the Fall 1998 issue of Historian.

From the review:

Roughly stated, this book presents a theory of "belatedness" drawn from the literary critic, Harold Bloom, who argues that poets have a problem, which Abbott believes is applicable to presidents; that is, they are forced to define themselves and their actions in relation to their predecessors. The "strong" presidents are the "poetic" presidents, who overcome or, at least, confront their "strong" predecessors. Even in Washington's case of "firstness," he had to create the genre.

The "strong presidents" of the title are those one might expect from reading such recent lists as that compiled by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., although Abbott has his own idiosyncratic approach, focusing on eleven presidents. In contrast to what one would expect from the book's title, he categorizes them not in terms of "strength," but in a slightly different way that mutates as the story unfolds. He says there are three groups but produces five. Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are "monumental strong presidents." Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Kennedy are "spirited presidents." Jefferson and Reagan are "minor poets"; while the "failed poets," but nonetheless "strong presidents," are Wilson, Hoover, and Nixon.

But in this book, categories come and go, and the basic concepts of the "belated presidency" and "strong presidents" are each treated by Abbott in an accordion-like fashion. His terms, concepts, and theory are so much his own word game that the reader cannot independently apply them to any real case. If it were a true theory this one should be applicable to every president, and the reader should be free to contest the author's choices. How might one use this theory to elucidate problematic presidencies that are not treated here, such as those of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, and James Madison, who by all odds should have been among the greatest of American presidents?

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