By Harry Levins
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
In “Leading From the Center,” history professor Gil Troy pins down his election-year thesis in his subtitle: “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”
Troy singles out five presidents as shining examples of centrism: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, with honorable mentions to Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Although readers might raise their eyebrows at the notion of FDR and Reagan as moderates, Troy builds a lawyerly case for each. He notes that FDR took his bold steps incrementally and that Reagan never let ideology get in the way of pragmatic compromise. More recently, he chides Bill Clinton for “spineless centrism, a poll-driven posture” and George W. Bush for a rigid, my-way-or-else approach.
But Troy concedes that moderation can be a tough stance. “Examining modern American culture’s media-fed, garish burlesque,” he writes, “it seemed all too easy to connect the dots between Washington’s polarizing crankiness and consumerism’s instant gratification, pop culture’s anything-goes sensuality, corporate America’s predatory selfishness, the blogosphere’s angry posturing, and the media’s headline-driven hysteria.”
Still, he argues that “seeking the center has provided the best road map to American presidential success, because Americans on the whole have been a remarkably centered people. As the Founders envisioned, most Americans over the centuries have been too busy enjoying good lives, expanding liberty, and pursuing happiness to embrace extremism.”
Indeed, Troy sees in this year’s top presidential candidates — he wrote his book before Hillary Clinton dropped out — a move away from what he sees as Bill Clinton’s squishiness and Bush’s hard-headedness.
Just as interesting as Troy’s take on politics is his musing on American sociology. Where others look at the ’50s and see conformity, for example, Troy looks at the Truman-Eisenhower years and sees consensus.
Troy writes his book from the same central position that he praises. Unlike many academics, he refuses to side with liberals; unlike many pundits, Troy refuses to side with conservatives. He tosses lightning bolts against sexual shenanigans and lack of patriotism on the left, and against corporate and individual greed on the right. He has little good to say about the press. But he also frets that cable TV, talk radio and blogs are letting too many Americans hear only what they want to hear.
Still, in the end, Troy proves to be an optimist. After all, he’s a historian who can look back at our nation’s history and find optimism galore. His book should make interesting re-reading a year from November, when we may know whether his optimism was warranted.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired last year as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.