The joy of power: changing conceptions of the presidential office.

Author:Ellis, Richard J.
 
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In the closing weeks of his presidency, Bill Clinton consented to an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine. "I love this job," the president told Wenner, "and I love the nature of this work.... I got to deal with politics, policy, and governing, the three things that I really loved" (Interview 2000, 2993). But for the Twenty-second Amendment, Clinton confessed, he would have gladly run again (ibid., 2992). "I've had a good time. I've enjoyed it" (ibid., 3002). "Even in the worst times-the whole impeachment thing--I just thank God every day I can go to work. I love the job. I've always loved it" (ibid., 3018). Clinton's effusiveness may be distinctive, but his positive assessment of the presidential job is typical of contemporary presidents. Presidents today are supposed to take pleasure in the job. They tell the press and the American people how much they are enjoying it. They smile on cue for the camera and joke with reporters. Those who dislike or at least complain about it are assumed to be psychologically suspect. Political scientist James David Barber (1972) built a well-known theory of presidential character on the premise that psychological health could be measured by whether a president enjoys the exercise of political power. Unlike most political science theories, Barber's received widespread national attention, particularly after Nixon's self-destruction and resignation seemed to vindicate his prediction that Nixon's active-negative character could end in a presidential tragedy. One of the defining signs of Nixon's psychological pathology was that while in power he did not seem to enjoy himself. After Nixon's resignation, the press took Barber to heart and began regularly to ask presidents about whether they were enjoying themselves.

President Gerald Ford, as he neared the halfway point of his first year in office, was invited by White House reporters to "tell us a little bit about how you like the job." Ford responded, "Well, I think I have said several times that I enjoy the challenge of the job. It is not an easy one, but I enjoy the day-to-day responsibilities" (Public Papers ... Gerald Ford: 1977-82, January 21,1975, 71). Later in the year, reporters tried again, quoting Thomas Jefferson's famous description of the presidency as "splendid misery" (less often recalled is that Jefferson made the comment four years before he was elected president) and again inquiring how he was enjoying life in the White House. Ford reassured the American people that

my family as well as myself enjoy living here. It is a magnificent home, of course. It can get a little lonely at times. It is big, but there are so many wonderful things here that you can enjoy. It is a super place to live. (Ibid., August 7, 1975, 1120) Six months later, at a public forum in New Hampshire, the president was once again asked if he liked his job. Ford gushed,

I really enjoy the job. I enjoy the challenge. I get up every morning--I can't wait to get to the office. [Laughter] That's true, that's true. I thoroughly enjoy it.... I like the job, and that is why I am a candidate, and that is why I would appreciate your support next Tuesday and on November 2. (Ibid., February 19, 1976, 116) Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, was faced with the same questions and gave the same answers. Only six weeks into his term, Carter sat down for a question-and-answer session with a group of prominent editors, publishers, and broadcasters. At the close of the session, Carter emphasized not only how hard he worked but how much he enjoyed it.

I'm learning. I'm studying. I'm enjoying the job. I get over here every rooming at the latest by 7 o'clock. And I ordinarily go home in time for supper at 7, and then I spend 2 or 3 hours at night working and studying and reading. It's not a laborious thing for me because I really enjoy it. (Public Papers ... Jimmy Carter: 1977-82, March 4, 1977, 290) At a meeting with members of the Advertising Council halfway through his first year, Carter was asked if he was happy in his new job, and the president again enthused, "Yes, I enjoy my new job very much" (ibid., June 22, 1977, 1148). As domestic and international problems mounted and his approval ratings plummeted, Carter continued to insist he enjoyed the job.

Acknowledging he had "great burdens on my shoulders," he told a "get out the vote" rally in Duluth, Minnesota, "I asked for them, and I enjoy my job" (ibid., November 3, 1978, 1952). In a nationally televised interview with Bill Moyers shortly after the midterm election (in which the Democratic Party had fared poorly), the president was asked whether he agreed "with one of your predecessors that [the office is] a splendid misery." Carter, who revealingly attributed the quotation to Richard Nixon, was quick to deny the suggestion that he did not like the job. "No, I've not been miserable in the job.... As a matter of fact, in spite of the challenges and problems and, sometimes, disappointments and criticisms, I really enjoy it' (ibid., November 13, 1978, 2016). At a fund-raising dinner the following fall, Carter acknowledged his job was complex, difficult, and sometimes lonely, but he reiterated that "I enjoy serving in the highest and greatest elective office in the world" (ibid., October 24, 1979, 2020). A year later, during the closing months of the campaign, Carter returned to this theme. Despite the crises and the occasional loneliness, Carter emphasized, "I really like the political life and enjoy every day that I'm President" (ibid., October 2, 1980, 2051). Whether Carter actually enjoyed every day of his job as much as he claimed, he appeared to feel compelled to tell people that he was having fun, presumably because, like Ford, Carter understood the question was really an ersatz psychological test and that the correct answer was that he enjoyed the job.

At one level, Carter's and Ford's insistence that they liked their job is a consequence of the popularization of Barber's (1972) theory, specifically a desire to avoid being identified as an active-negative president in the Nixon mold. (1) To focus on the effects of the dissemination of Barber's theory, however, is to miss the profound cultural shift that has occurred in understandings of the presidency. In other words, Barber's emphasis on positive affect toward the job as a sign of psychological health is itself a symptom of deeper cultural changes that have occurred since the presidency's creation.

This article explores the dimensions and timing of this cultural change in presidential attitudes toward the office. In the confines of a single article, it is not, of course, possible to investigate each and every presidency. Instead, I have selected for close examination those presidents between George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt recognized as great or near-great presidents in any one of three well-known presidential ratings (Schlesinger 1949, 1962; Murray and Blessing 1983). This selection criterion yields eight presidents: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt. In addition, I examine the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, which has done so much to shape modern conceptions of the presidential job.

"The Shackles of Power"

In the beginning, the presidency was envisioned not as an office to be enjoyed but as a place of stem duty. Presidents were not shown smiling in public. Their images were invariably stem and serious. None of our early presidents professed to enjoy the job, and none actively campaigned for the post. They were there only out of a sense of duty to the nation. They preferred, they said, to be home on the farm.

The model of the dutiful, reluctant presidency was emphatically established by the nation's first president, George Washington. Prior to becoming president, Washington repeatedly expressed his reluctance to assume the presidency; once in office, he complained bitterly about the burdens of the office and talked frequently about his desire to retire from public life and return to his beloved Mount Vernon. "Nothing short of an absolute conviction of duty," the new president explained to the English writer Catherine Macaulay Graham, "could ever have brought me upon the scenes of public life again" (Twohig et al. 1987-, 4:552). Public criticism frequently prompted Washington to remind anyone near at hand that he would gladly trade the presidency for the peaceful life of a private citizen, "under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig-tree" (Abbot 1992-97, 1:87). When he was mocked for bowing rather than shaking hands at his Tuesday afternoon levees, for instance, he protested that his "stiffness" at these receptions should be ascribed

to the effects of age, or to the unskillfulness of my teacher, [rather] than to pride and dignity of office, which God knows has no charms for me.... For I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe. (Twohig et al. 1987-, 5:526) As his first term came to a close, associates pleaded with Washington to serve a second. Washington informed an insistent James Madison that

my fondest and most ardent wishes [are] to spend the remainder of my days ... in ease and tranquility. Nothing short of conviction that my deriliction [sic] of the Chair of Government ... would involve the Country in serious disputes respecting the chief Magestrate ... could, in any wise, induce me to relinquish the determination I have formed [to retire from the presidency]. (Hutchinson et al. 1962-, 14:310) Eventually, Washington was persuaded that duty required him to consent to a second term, but Washington impressed upon his friends that he did so with the greatest reluctance and at great personal sacrifice. He served as president, Washington reminded people, not because he liked the trappings or exercise...

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