How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency. By Saladin M. Ambar. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 184 pp.
If only Saladin Ambar's small, elegantly written book was available years ago. I needed it when, as a Fulbrighter lecturing in Asia, I was again and again asked to explain how and why we Americans regularly advanced provincial politicians--governors with no experience in national government or international matters--as potential chief executives of the most powerful nation on earth.
I did what I could. I explained the career paths to the presidency created by the federal nature of the American political and governmental systems. I talked about the intergovernmental aspects of national domestic policy. I suggested that the governance roles and administrative responsibilities of a state chief executive were far more analogous to the president's than those of a national legislator. But if I had this book, I would have been able to say with confidence: "Governors are not only rightly considered for the job; they created it in its modern form."
Ambar identifies five elements of the modern presidency for which he finds roots in the legacies of governor/presidents: assertive legislative leadership, the use of party dominance as a presidential resource, sophisticated media management, an embrace of the role of chief administrator of the government, and a commitment to executive-centered governance (p.5). He finds the Tilden-Hayes presidential election in 1876 to be a watershed moment, the first time that the two major parties' presidential nominees were both sitting governors. "Tilden and Hayes helped spawn a new thinking in executive leadership," he writes, "positioning the American governorship as a popular and characteristically 'honest' executive institution for democratic reform" (p. 32). Grover Cleveland (also a former mayor, of Buffalo) was storied for his use of the veto and his willingness to exercise national power on his own authority; he provided the governor/ president bridge to the Progressive Era.
Progressive theory joined populism (direct democracy) and the emerging corporate model (governor/president as chief executive) to recast the elected executive as tribune of the people. This was, of course, a stark alternative to then prevalent legislative- and party-centered government, defended as constitutionally prescribed. At the state level, to effect their vision, progressive reformers changed...