The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton by William E Leuchtenburg - review by Tim Stanley

Tim Stanley

Sworn In, Worn Out

The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton


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This time next year, America will inaugurate president number forty-five. Does he or she know what they’re in for? William Leuchtenburg’s history of 20th-century presidents suggests that the office is a poisoned chalice. Only a lunatic or a masochist would drink from it. Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, is a little of both.

The American President is magisterial, befitting one of America’s greatest living historians. Each presidential portrait is detailed, witty and revealing; expectations are overturned. Calvin Coolidge was popularly dubbed ‘Silent Cal’ out of respect for a taciturnity that many Americans thought was a sign of modesty. In fact, he gave proportionately more press conferences than Franklin Roosevelt did. He just never said anything worth remembering. Coolidge spent as many as eleven hours a day napping and, when he bothered to get up, was horrid to his wife. ‘He refused to permit her to drive a car, bob her hair, smoke in public, grant an interview or voice an opinion on national affairs.’ Grace Coolidge, who once taught at a school for the deaf, escaped her purdah rather cleverly. When attending a lunch for female journalists, ‘she addressed the women for five minutes in sign language’.

Coolidge’s humble image was crafted by spin doctors. Nothing, it seems, is new: the modern complaint about the manufacturing of candidates is decades old. So, too, is the accusation that the president is a nincompoop. Dwight Eisenhower was adored by voters but journalists, according to Leuchtenburg, ‘depicted him as uninformed

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