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Choosing the Chief

ISSUE:  Winter 1980
Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. By James W. Ceaser. Princeton. $20.00.

The faith which the Founding Fathers reposed in a free press and education was not based on hopes for permissive journalism or for a string of crossroads colleges, but rather the two in combination were expected to produce an enlightened citizenry capable of upholding their republican trust. Somehow in 1979 we have the First Amendment protecting pornographic movies and an education system that graduates high school seniors who can neither read nor write. No wonder that in such a time the political scientists are aghast at the results produced by what the nation’s founders considered a foolproof way to elect the country’s best man as its president.

Harvard-trained James Ceaser’s book is part of the avalanche of presidential literature touched off by the assassination of a Harvard-trained president. By and large, our political scientists have not been the happiest of men when they have dissected our presidency. For most of them, the office created at Philadelphia in 1787 was an ill-digested, last-minute remake of the British monarch. Curiously, the admiring scholars who see the executive of Federalist No. 70 as envisioned by Hamilton—a leader given to “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch”—have overlooked the fact that in Hitler and Stalin these attributes were abundant. In their search for “legitimacy” (a key word in their lexicon, though its meaning is imprecise), a great many political scientists have failed to perceive that the chief executive of “vigor and expedition” they idealize is the antithesis of the president serving in a system designated to throw up roadblocks all along Pennsylvania Avenue.

The selection system worked fine as long as there was a Washington around. But once he was off the scene the constitutional method for choosing his successors proved to be a rickety cart barely able to make it to the finish line twice. Jefferson set things aright with a constitutional amendment, and the presidency was, for seven and a half years, everything the founders had dreamed it would become. But then the presidency and the means of choosing the right man descended into a slough of ineptness, until Van Buren came along to shape together an honest-to-God political party capable of using patronage and power to keep the nation moving forward. Ceaser pays homage to Jefferson and admires Van Buren, since both of them understood that political parties, far from being the bane of good government, provided the mechanism for majority rule. Ceaser believes Van Buren—”His Rotundity” to a host of enemies—perceived the function of political parties in the constitutional scheme of things far better than any American up to his day.

The political parties which emerged from the Jacksonian era made the selection of a president much more than a congressional club exercise in petty politics. The old system collapsed, anyway, for the electors had not come together to choose the wisest and most deserving man in the country but had rubber-stamped a bland choice made to pay off old debts. On the other hand, the old Jeffersonians (such as Thomas Ritchie of the Richmond Junto) were appalled at the thought of a “spectacle of five or six candidates for the Presidency, traversing this continent and chaffering for votes.” After Jackson, the president had to be more of a politician than a statesman, for there were sectional compromises to work out, and a strong-willed leader rarely gained much of a hearing at the pre-convention councils. The occasional selection of a “dark horse” by a convention only proved that the party gatherings were not 100 percent rigged affairs; and the Democrats’ bumbling in 1860, which allowed a minority of the voters to pick the president, proved that the party system was less than perfect.

What went wrong? The Founding Fathers were afraid of demagogues and yearned for a method of selecting men of character and probity as president. “The general problem,” Ceaser notes, “is that good character, however one defines it, is not immediately visible.” The machinery of politics took over as a substitute for public character by providing a platform and a choice. In time the convention system was under attack, and the Progressives capped their reform drives by opting for presidential primaries, thus exalting the role of the press in publicizing potential candidates. Shamelessly the two major parties warred on each other and on their common enemy, the third party. By Woodrow Wilson’s time everything was set in place for the modern era except the electronic media. But again, there was the ideal confronted by the real. Wilson, who as a college professor wrote that the president “is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people,” stumbled in the treaty room and opened the door for the “normalcy” of Harding.

Ceaser’s chapter on Wilson is a reminder of how long the American people have been looking for an easy answer to the complicated problems of this century. Picked by a handful of rich men to run for governor, Wilson bit the hands that fed him and by a series of flukes became president. (The fluke element in presidential selection is ignored by Ceaser, but in fact the element of chance has provided some of the worst and best presidents with a White House tenure.) Wilson, yearning for power, epitomized the frustration of the 20th-century democrat who realizes that somehow the federal government has grown into a terrible complexity. Government was no longer the fireman, the policeman, and the postman. The two major parties were not doing their job. “The two great parties,” Wilson said, “are dying for want of unifying and vitalizing principles. Without leaders they are also without policies, without aims. With leaders there must be parties. . . . Eight words contain the sum of the present degradation of our political parties: No leaders, no parties; no principles, no parties.” Wilson got his personal wish, but his great principles were left in tatters on the Senate carpet. Jawboning about leadership has not provided the nation with spectacular results.

Little is said of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is a surprise, for Ceaser decries the decline of parties and clearly would like to see an earnest revival of party strength. Roosevelt, who climbed the party ladder or was carried in a wheel-chair, would have provided Ceaser with much evidence that good presidents have also been good party men. But, since there is so much Roosevelt material already on the shelves, the political scientists seem to be veering away from FDR now and are more inclined to discuss leadership failures than the successes.

Ceaser also barely brings in the role of radio and television in the presidential selection process. Unlike the late Clinton Rossiter, who deplored the influence of a handful of New Hampshire voters once the television cameras were trained on them, Ceaser almost avoids the role media has played in presidential selection since 1952. He does discuss image-making by campaign aides but is more concerned with “packaging” than with the effectiveness of television itself as an image-maker. Since Wilson’s time, Ceaser indicates, the presidential office has grown because of the national involvement in world affairs “and the increased involvement of the federal government in domestic policy-making.” True enough, but to what extent has the media fulfilled the founders’ dream of helping to enlighten voters, and to what degree has the media failed to help citizens spot a phony? One Ed Murrow does not a free press make. Is the endorsement of the New York Times enough to vault a candidate into the nomination at a tight convention? Of course not; but what if CBS, ABC, and NBC all gave a major share of their evening news programs to the coverage of a glamorous candidate’s campaign many weeks preceding the actual convention? Is part of the selection process of a presidential candidate left in the hands of a journalistic “gate keeper” whose newsroom decisions create pictures which are still whirling around in the voter’s head on election day? And, in a free country, is that bad?

The growth of issue-oriented individuals, the so-called single-issue voters who are pounding hard for ERA, or antiabortion laws, or for the closing down of nuclear energy plants, seems to disturb Ceaser more than the challenge of television images. Ceaser sees the electorate broken into groups of over-zealous partisans and concludes that the Democratic party, which was built largely around the umbrella it offered to a number of minorities, is unable “in its present form [to] express the will of the electorate.”

Is there any hope of solving the problem of downhill slide in the presidential election process? Some of the damage done by the McGovern reformers of 1972 has been remedied, Ceaser indicates, but a return to the old brokered type of convention is unlikely and not particularly desirable. Ceaser seems to imply that a system which gives voters a choice between a McGovern or a Nixon, between a Ford and a Carter, has become almost bankrupt. He sees some hope for a revival of confidence (if that is what we need, although it is not quite clear) in a few swift strokes that would include abandoning the primaries, curbing wildfire campaign financing, and allowing large third parties to flourish as useful elements in the democratic process. Whether Ceaser’s heart is really in these measures is questionable, for he admits “these changes would have to be supported by a campaign to convince people of the virtues of strong political parties.” At the moment, the anti-party spirit seems to be galloping in the other direction —at least the old loyalties are as antiquated as the dime savings bank.

Ceaser liked the old rough-and-tumble of a partisan battle between the Democrats and Republicans which left the air clear on the day after the election. McKinley was in and Bryan was out, and the country took its bearings accordingly. Now, somebody wins and somebody loses, but the country stagnates. Between pollsters, prime-time television, and two-year-long presidential campaigns, who is laying “the foundation for a safe but vigorous partisanship in the years ahead” which Ceaser hopes to see? The answer probably is that nobody on a college campus knows where to find the potential foundation builders. But, unless we are ready to give up the Republic as a lost cause, there is more reason to rejoice than to view with alarm. The crisis of the 1970’s remains a frail shadow compared to the specters the nation faced in 1861 and 1933. Somehow we have survived. As Professor Ceaser must remember, the costs of a republican system are exceedingly high, but they remain as the best governmental bargain in the world. Presidential selection? We can even afford the mentality of citizens who in 1980 A.D. would vote for Nixon again.


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