, The Montreal Gazette, September 28, 2008
Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents
341 pp., $29.50
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It’s a pity that this book had to go to press before the tickets for this year’s U.S. presidential election shaped up. It is nevertheless timely, coming as it does at the start of the sprint stage of the marathon that is a U.S. presidential race, which essentially begins the day after the last one ends.
Gil Troy’s review of past presidencies is an instructive guide to rating this year’s contenders. His thesis is that the most successful presidents have practised constructive moderation by embracing and defining the political centre of their times, rejecting extremism of the left and right, but at the same time seeking to reconcile conflicting currents of thought with enlightened compromise.
Going for the centre may sound like a no-brainer. It is the hoariest of political wisdom that the leader who best positions himself at the political centre that encompasses the broad majority of voters will be blessed with success. But as the Queens-born Troy, who now teaches history at McGill University, expounds in Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, that’s easier said than done.
“It is a high-wire balancing act,” he writes. “Leaning too far in any one direction or holding on too tight to heavy baggage risks a steep fall, often with no safety net.
“Vigorous responses have to be rationally based. Shrill debates obscure real dangers and risk hysterical overreactions.”
The successful practitioner must be a visionary, but cautious in the application of vision, able to compromise without abdicating principle, capable of firing the public imagination while respecting the bounds of realism. It takes not just moderates, as Troy puts it, but muscular moderates; not just centrists, but passionate centrists.
The governing idea is to think creatively, cultivate broad alliances and “push voters just enough so they move forward without losing their balance.”
Those who have masterfully succeeded at this in Troy’s book include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin Delano and, most lately, Ronald Reagan.
Prominent among those he counts as falling short on one essential count or the other include Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He suggests Washington, with his power of personality, modesty of manner and diligent striving for common cause in forging a nation from a gaggle of disparate colonies, set a lasting tone for American democracy at its best, when it works in a spirit of civility and centrism.
Troy makes the point that the centre path is by no means the easy way.
His successful centrists tend to have in common that they catch flack from both sides of the ideological divide between left and right, including from their own partisans. Lincoln was reviled by both slavers and abolitionists for his incremental approach to emancipation, initially willing to allow some slavery in the interest of preserving the union; in his day, FDR was denounced as a stooge for both commies and capitalists.
Clinton gets marked down as a failure even though Troy hails him as a “political virtuoso” and an instinctive centrist. He gets written off for being bigger on talk than action, reluctant to stake his popularity on risky endeavours. The conclusion is drawn that “presidents who love to be loved too much fail to accomplish much.”
Bush II fails the moderation grade for the opposite reason. Where Clinton’s moderation lacked muscle, Bush came on with an excess of muscle and a dearth of moderation, content to be president of half the country and damn the rest.
This is a scholarly book, but most accessible to anyone with a serious interest in politics. It offers a sprightly tour of U.S. presidential history liberally sprinkled with bon mots and eloquently expressed insights, both Troy’s and those he quotes.
Another pity is that the book is entirely devoted to U.S. politics. It would have been interesting to get a take on how his thesis applies to Canada, and why the U.S. political centre is so markedly skewed to the right of where it lies in Canada.
But then, that could make for a whole other book.
Hubert Bauch is The Montreal Gazette’s senior political writer.