From the Publisher
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy-most would agree their presidencies were among the most successful in American history. But what made these very different men such effective leaders? According to presidential historian Gil Troy, these presidents succeeded not because of their bold political visions, but because of their moderation. Although many of the presidential hopefuls for 2008 will claim to be moderates, the word cannot conceal a political climate defined by extreme rhetoric and virulent partisanship. In Leading From the Center, Gil Troy argues that this is a distinctly un-American state of affairs. The great presidents of American history have always sought a golden mean-from Washington, who brilliantly mediated between the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to Lincoln, who rescued the Union with his principled pragmatism, to the two Roosevelts, who united millions of Americans with their powerful, affirmative, nationalist visions. As America lines up to select a president for the future, Gil Troy astutely reminds us of the finest traditions of presidential leadership from our nation’s past.
This well-intended book is an enjoyable exercise in wishful thinking. Historian Troy of McGill University (Morning in America) plays the part of pundit by arguing that moderate presidents have always served the U.S. better than others. Americans are centrists at heart, he says, tracing the ups and downs of national consensus through the Bush administration. Yet Lincoln, one of Troy’s heroes, wasn’t moderate when it came to secession—he refused to compromise. Troy’s definition of “best presidents” is also open to debate. Does “best” mean most effective or most conforming to Troy’s centrist hopes? The author may think he’s swimming in fresh waters, but instead he’s offering a venerable American prayer for tranquil and harmonious government. The founders themselves deplored partisanship. And while Troy claims to roam over all American presidential history, he picks and chooses his early subjects, then deals with every president since FDR. Nevertheless, he makes his case in as robust a fashion as possible. That his history is stronger than his argument doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the work. (June)
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Moderate does not equal namby-pamby, and extremism is not an American norm; instead, the founders “celebrated modesty, balance, self-denial, and rationality,” none of which seem abundant in politics today. Against those who hold that America has become bitterly divided between red and blue, Troy (History/McGill Univ.; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, 2006, etc.) observes that “a rich web of common cultural, political, economic, and social ties” tightly binds the nation. The best presidents, recognizing this network of elective affinities, have governed from a moderate, centrist position and shunned extremes on either side of the aisle. But neither does moderate equal passive: By Troy’s reckoning, the best have exercised “muscular moderation,” as with George Washington’s straight-edged governance over a still tumultuous time and Theodore Roosevelt’s refusal both to play to class loyalties and to accept the notion that capital and labor were necessarily inimical. By that reckoning, Dwight Eisenhower gets solid marks for his detestation of partisan politics and his quaint notion that the president was meant to be a unifier. Some presidents in Troy’s account were set on moderate paths but turned less moderate by events, as with Lyndon Johnson in the face of the Vietnam debacle; some were moderately inclined but so sensitive to public opinion as to be swayed off course, as with Bill Clinton. As for the president who once trumpeted himself as a unifier, Troy joins with a growing majority in finding George W. Bush to be a disaster who “damaged America’s national fabric by failing to lead the country as a whole” and insisted instead that he owed attention only to “everyone whoshares our goals.”Fans of Millard Fillmore, that noted moderate, won’t find much new in these pages, but those sick to death of extremist rhetoric should be assured by the author’s conclusions. Agent: Brettne Bloom/Kneerim & Williams