‘The Hardest Job In the World: The American Presidency,’ by John Dickerson
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I could forgive you for not realizing that 2020 is an election year. Running for the office of President is often exciting, full of last-minute surprises like who the running mates will be (and how many of them can see Russia from their house) to whether the votes will even count if alleged improprieties take place. The Presidential campaign is ready-made for drama. But what about when the dust settles and the best man or woman takes up residence in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? As John Dickerson explains in his new book, the reality of Presidential power can often be less dramatic, and more frustrating, than what we imagine it to be.
The Hardest Job In the World: The American Presidency is the latest book by Dickerson, a 60 Minutes correspondent and longtime reporter on all things Presidential. In witty and informative prose, Dickerson chronicles some of the little-known stories from some of the forty-five men who’ve occupied the highest office in the free world and how they’ve dealt with crisis and political struggle alike. Some presidents, like LBJ and FDR, have been able to massage their opponents into either backing legislation or going along with their policy decisions; others, like Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and even Donald Trump, have found the going not as easy nor as fruitful.
In examining some of the hardest moments in various Presidents’ terms, Dickerson illustrates that the position of “leader of the free world” doesn’t come with a rubber stamp to get everything done. Sometimes you run into a figure as reluctant to work with you as Mitch McConnell. And sometimes you have too much on your presidential to-do list to give proper attention to what is really important.
Dickerson breaks up his book into three sections, the first dealing with national security (which the author argues is the most important aspect of a president’s job), the second with campaigning, and the third with the current occupant of the office and the ways he’s left the office permanently changed. Whatever your opinion of Trump, his eventual successor, of either part, will have to address many of the actions he’s taken while in office.
Dickerson talks about Trump not just because that happens to be the current President, but also because Trump’s unconventional style and purpose have made it impossible to imagine a return to the days when a President restrained himself from acting or saying whatever he wanted. George Washington, to cite one example, would be as dull a Twitter follow as anything, while FDR’s fireside chats were the forerunner of Trump’s almost hourly appeals to the base.
Sometimes a President has to know when to act, but as Dickerson points out, he also needs to know when to sit back and let the situation unfold. But the role President depends upon public perception as much as it does reality. A President who waits too long to act risks coming off as a Carter during the Iran Revolution, or a George W. Bush during Katrina. Campaigning means juggling conflicts between what a candidate says they’ll do and what they actually do after election. The whims of a Congress that may or may not work well with the chief executive, even if they’re of the same party, affects the actual ability of the President to enact signature legislation.
In our hyperpartisan era, we eulogize the relationship between Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan because we know we’ll never see anything quite as photo-friendly as their sometimes fraught, but never “nasty”, policy exchanges. A President is not a king, Dickerson says, able to make policy at will. But a President who understands this can work well with others, if he knows how to play the game.
In November, we’ll pick someone to lead us through the next four years, and the campaign, already unpleasant, will likely become toxic by the time Election Day rolls around (or by the time I finish typing this sentence). John Dickerson argues that whoever wins will have a tough road ahead, and their job will be made harder if we don’t acknowledge the distance between what we think the job entails and what the reality is. No West Wing moments will ever square with the reality of the hardest job in the world. But paying attention to the truth of the job will serve us better than the fiction we like to believe.
(Random House, June 16, 2020)