Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: Failures of the President: From the Whisky Rebellion and War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs and War in Iraq

Book Review: Failures of the President: From the Whisky Rebellion and War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs and War in Iraqby Thomas Craughwell with H. William Phelps

I was recently asked to review this book by the publisher, who has also provided the excerpt posted below.
The first thing you will notice about this book is the cover, which has George Washington with an egg on his face. While the book starts with this bit of humor, it is a serious attempt to look at the places were the US Presidents have made mistakes and what the consequences of these mistakes are. The authors state they do not want to “bash” any president and overall, I would say they have succeeded. The book looks at the incidents and their consequences and while where the president had his problems are clear, it is not incendiary.

The book is divided into chapters by “failure.” While some presidents do not appear in this book, most are featured just once (Carter and Nixon both had the “pleasure” of appearing twice). The division of this book makes it very useful for teachers as each chapter could offer an excellent lesson about the incident and how the president dealt with as well as what went wrong. It would be a great exercise for students to look at a problem facing a US president and how things can go wrong, sometimes even with good intentions. Presidents, just like everyone else, make mistakes in judgment.

Each chapter begins with some background material and then the incident is explained in depth. At the end of the chapter, the authors try to wrap up what went wrong and what the long term consequences of it were for the United States. Often incidents are only discussed by the immediate consequences, but this work tries to bring in some long term repercussions, like the precedent set by the internment of the Japanese Americans in the 1940s that could affect us in the era of the Patriot Act.

In the introduction, the authors start with the idea of the fifty year rule and how opinion of a president often changes over time. While they begin with this, they certainly do not follow it, instead going all the way to George W. Bush and the current war in Iraq. Since the US is only 200 odd years old, some leeway in the fifty year rule would be understandable, but I think trying to tackle a current administration was not the best decision. The previous chapter, on Reagan and Iran-Contra, is much more acceptable as it is now twenty years in the past and so there is some distance from the incident. Given the authors’ own comments on how opinion changes over time as well as the very polarized opinion of the war, I think that the authors should have put this chapter on the back burner for a few decades.

In their introduction, they also made the case why they left out the Clinton scandal. The authors argue that the Clinton scandals, while embarrassing, were not damaging to the United States. I would argue that they should have been left out, just not for the reasons they mention. I think they should have left it out because it is too recent. I do think we are starting to see some repercussions from this, but I’m going to put them on hold for another decade (I am being good here on heeding my own advice).

My final criticism of this book is that there are no in text citations. In my opinion, all research-based works need to have in text citations. The authors do provide some “suggested reading” at the end, organized by chapter and that is certainly helpful, but simply not enough. While this book is intended for a wider audience than historians, it should still have citations.

All that said, some of the chapters are exceedingly well done (I especially liked the chapters on the Pullman Strike and the attempt to annex Santo Domingo) and provide excellent fodder for historical discussion. I found the middle chapters – on lesser known presidents and incidents – to be the most interesting and useful. Some of the topics (Watergate certainly) have been overdone, but some of these earlier topics are due for some redress. While the well versed presidential reader will enjoy the book, I see it as most useful to the novice as it takes the time to provide the necessary background to each incident allowing someone who knows little about the “failure” in question to delve into the topic. I think teachers will also find it very helpful in providing good lecture material and a great opportunity to look at presidential decision making.

1 comment:

M said...

"Since the US is only 200 odd years old, some leeway in the fifty year rule would be understandable, but I think trying to tackle a current administration was not the best decision."

Jennie, I agree with you. Who knows how historians will regard President Bush in fifty years? What ultimately happens in Iraq may decide that. However, bashing the President sells books so how could the author have left this out? Had this book been written in 1865, I have no doubt Lincoln's handling of the American Civil War would have been included as well.