By Liam Bond
(Jeremi Suri speaks at Politics and Prose bookstore)
As a child of immigrants, Jeremi Suri has always felt that the United States is a different kind of place, with different kinds of leaders than the rest of the world. He believes that leadership matters, and is a deep believer in the presidency.
His passion for history and the presidency is what led him to write The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office. Suri, a professor at the University of Texas, took guests through the history of the office at Politics and Prose bookstore Wednesday night.
The power of the presidency has increased from generation to generation, but the effectiveness of the president has not. “The strange thing about the presidency is that he has every job and no job at the same time,” Suri said.
Suri’s speech followed the flow of his book, discussing how each president expanded the role of the office. He began by acknowledging the challenges that the founding fathers faced when crafting the role of the president.
“They wanted to create an office that had some of the unifying elements of a king without the problems of a king,” Suri said. “In the words of James Madison, they wanted a democratic, patriotic, accountable to the people, monarch,” he joked.
Washington spent his time as president traveling the country, and asking locals how “we as the country can help you.” Suri asserted that Washington used the presidency to unify the country, in order to assert the government’s right to collect taxes. Washington obviously recognized the challenge in legitimizing taxing from the government and not from the British monarch.
Suri then moved to Jackson and Lincoln. “Jackson saw the presidency as empowering those who were left out,” Suri said, noting the importance of this theme. Lincoln then used the power of the presidency to advance the country economically. Suri used Lincoln’s mastery of the English language and the effectiveness of the Homestead Act of 1862 as examples.
“He (Lincoln) gives them the land,” Suri said. “Why? Because land is opportunity, and he wants free labor, free soil and free men. He wants a country of free laborers who live and own their own soil and are free in their economic production,” Suri said.
Suri then reached what he felt was the shifting point of the presidency. “Franklin Roosevelt is the hero of the story,” Suri said, describing Roosevelt’s tenure as a healing process for the country.
To sum up how Roosevelt changed the office, Suri told one of his favorite stories. The author Saul Bellow, a notoriously cynical man, heard Roosevelt through the radio one day. Bellow said that Roosevelt was the first ever president who he felt was speaking to him directly, and truly understood him.
What Roosevelt ultimately did was make the president an empathetic figure. Yet according to Suri, he was the last president who truly mastered the job of the president. The office was still barely small enough for Roosevelt to control, yet was reaching the point where the job was too big.
To highlight just how large the job was becoming, Suri discussed president’s daily schedules. He noted that Roosevelt’s schedule was spaced out and allowed Roosevelt time to think in between meetings. On the other hand, Kennedy’s schedule was precise down to each half an hour, and was made days in advance.
“For the first week of the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy barely gets into the meetings when they’re discussing whether to blow up the world,” Suri said. “Kennedy’s and Johnson’s calendars look like the calendars of CEOs,” Suri said. “Busier, accomplishing less.”
Approaching the conclusion of his timeline, Suri said, “The presidency is defined by the purposes we see in it and the institutions and practices we think are appropriate.” Because of how warped and enlarged the presidency has become, Suri argues that we as Americans will only be disappointed with whoever is in office.
Regarding Donald Trump’s election and presidency, the job had gotten so hard and we had been left so disappointed that we felt the need to elect an outsider, someone who would come in with a non-political background. Even if the most qualified person, or “super-president” was in office, they would still not be able to perform the job and would fall flat on their face, Suri argued.
To conclude both his book and the speech, Suri offered three suggestions. First, he said that we need to start asking the right questions as citizens. We only discuss problems that affect our corner of the world, while we should be asking “what do you believe are the two or three most important issues for the future of our country, and what are you going to do about it?” Suri said.
Second, he said to fix the problem of fake news. “What generates revenue is often not factual.”
Finally, Suri suggested what he felt would be the most effective change, but the least likely to happen. “We have to actually think about dividing the office,” Suri said.
Through Suri’s book and speech, he clearly made his case for reasoning that the office of the president has become too large. Although he has always believed that the United States is a different kind of place, held in a different kind of light, Donald Trump’s election removed the United States from that light, and delegitimized the president as a world leader.
He repeated something his son had said to him, and what he felt was the theme of his speech. “We should not lose hope.”