Archive for December, 2008

The Globe & Mail, 12-16-09

Gil Troy on leadership

Talking Management: Gil Troy

Globe and Mail UpdateTuesday, December 16, 2008 at 11:14 EST

Karl Moore spoke to Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, about what CEOs can learn from U.S. presidents.

KARL MOORE: Good morning, Gil.

GIL TROY: Good morning.

KARL MOORE: So, you’ve written a lot about presidential leadership – very interesting material. Does that apply, in your opinion, to the business leaders as well?

GIL TROY: I think the argument that the best presidents were moderates that the best leadership comes from the centre is not just limited to the White House. And, I think that CEO’s and leaders of organizations can learn a lot from both the great presidents who understood they had to build to the Centre, and the presidents who failed by playing to one extreme or another.

KARL MOORE: What do you mean build to the Centre? Maybe, you could just tell us what you mean by that.

GIL TROY: So, what I talk about in the book, is the need for a president to understand, that in order to be effective in a democracy, he has to find that golden mean. He has to be balancing. So we look at someone like George Washington. George Washington, we could call the case study of the squabbling subordinates. He had Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, two brilliant men, who were at loggerheads. And, Washington understood that if he appeared to be favouring one over the other, then he would have even more chaos in the administration.

At the same time, he was a man of principle, I’m looking for moderates; but, I’m looking for muscular moderates. And, what we see Washington doing is playing the two off each other, understanding that he has to learn from both, that he has to give each victories enough, so that each of them stay within the organization. And, reminding them constantly, and reminding the people around them, that we’re Americans. We have to keep our vision of the community together.

And, so for a CEO to learn from George Washington, and read this case study, you learn about how to handle tension. You learn about how to channel tension. And, you learn how to remind your organization about the bigger picture, about the goals of the organization.

When you look at someone like Abraham Lincoln; and, you can say there we have the case of the squabbling states. And, I also think about Abraham Lincoln as a muscular moderate; because he had a – you think North/South – but we tend to forget that one of the tensions he had was, he had a Northern Coalition of States that was under extreme stress.

The Border States were slave-holding states; but they stayed with the Union. What Abraham Lincoln has to do, is he has to, while having the ultimate goal of eliminating slavery; he has to keep the real focus on keeping the Union together; because he understands that if he rushes ahead, and tries to eliminate slavery too quickly, he’ll lose the Border States, he’ll lose the war. So, a CEO would learn from Abraham Lincoln that part of building for the centre is having a vision; but, knowing that you sometimes have to go in baby steps, you have to go gradually, you have to keep your eye on what’s realistic, while also keeping a broader form of vision.

KARL MOORE: How about some of the modern presidents? What are some of the lessons we might get from a Reagan, a Clinton, or a Bush – ones that we’re more familiar with?

GIL TROY: Well, when you look at someone like Bill Clinton, there are, I think, two lessons, that CEOs can learn. First of all, whereas George Washington has these squabbling subordinates, is able to channel them; one of the problems with Bill Clinton was that he had a little bit too much of the university professor in him, and, enjoyed the chaos of many different voices – which sometimes can be very good; because one of the problems that we see in presidencies is, and also we see in corporate board rooms is that insulation.

But, with Clinton, he let it get out of control, partially because of his own lack of discipline, and we had too many voices coming from the administration. It created a lot of haze. It created a lot of chaos. The other thing with Clinton was that he was so committed to being a centrist, is that he ended being a spinal centrist, as opposed to a muscular moderate – that he sometimes forgot his “ideals”. For example, at the beginning of his first term he talks about health care, and he goes 60 per cent towards achieving his goal; but, he ultimately fails; because when push comes to shove, he doesn’t really make it the core principle of his administration. And, he’s too concerned with popularity, he doesn’t push through, and he ends up as a president who had more potential to succeed than actual success.

Then, we look at someone like George W. Bush, known often as the first CEO president, I think there are some negative lessons to learn, that Bush often says that “the devil may care about what’s going on”, “you have to keep your eye on the prize. You have to keep ahead, forging ahead towards the goal.” And, I think what Bush teaches us is that, yes, it’s important to have a goal; but you also must remember that you have people who are following you, an organization of a thousand, or an organization of 100,000.

Equally, you have to make sure that people are buying in to your goals, and if you rush too far ahead you fail. You will learn this really from Franklin Roosevelt, if I can just go back to the 1930s. Roosevelt understood that if he was five giant steps ahead of his people, he would fail. He understood if he was half a step behind, his people, meaning both his subordinates and the American people, he would fail. A good leader is half a step – three-quarters of a step ahead. And, we look at the excruciating dance that Franklin Roosevelt had to dance during the fight over whether or not the United States should enter World War II.

He was always just ahead enough, so that he could push the American people where they needed to be, not so much that he was following, and not so much that he was rushing too far ahead, as George W. Bush did with Iraq.

KARL MOORE: So, it’s interesting, because when you look at change – and CEOs are often about leadership about transferring, about changing – part of the issue is creating a sense of urgency, and a sense that we must change, as opposed if you change you’re going to screw up a successful organization. So, there’s a real tension there. And, you’re suggestion there, looking at Roosevelt, is that don’t get too far out, but get people to buy into what you’re seeing, what your vision is.

GIL TROY: The great presidents were grounded – Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.

And I take them, because you can learn from the left and from the right. They had a sense of a vision. They had a sense of wanting to change; but, they also knew that human beings, to a certain extent, are conservative. And, you have to give them enough comfort to be able to change. And, so you have to push, but not push too hard. You push too hard, you miss the boat. And, it’s very much a tension; but I think the CEO can learn from reading about Roosevelt, learn from reading about Reagan – that you have to be going forward. You have to be moving somewhere; but, you also have to be remembering to get buy-in.

KARL MOORE: So, it’s interesting, when you think about, you understanding moderates from the point of view of the Republicans, you have the Democrats. Reagan was fighting and trying to lead through. In the world of a CEO, what do you have to compromise about? What’s the equivalent in the world of a CEO?

GIL TROY: Moderates get no respect. We’re told we’re boring. We’re told that we’re wimps. We’re told we’re mush balls. And, one of the things I’m trying to push, with this notion of muscular moderation, is that the moderate is in some ways, someone who’s sensitive to his or her surroundings; someone who understands the dynamics, but also knows that part of their job is to lead. So, I think what works with a CEO is, a CEO like a president has constituencies. And, a CEO, like a president, has to say who’s buying in, and who’s – what’s the tension, what’s the back and forth, between me and my people, me and my board, me and my management team, me and my workers. And, you know, people love to complain these days about the high salaries of CEOs. That’s a good example of a distancing perhaps, between the CEO, and the rank and file. And, what we learn from applying some of the lessons of democratic politics to the corporate board room is that democracy doesn’t necessarily just mean sharing power and opening up to the people; but, it means keeping rooted in the community discourse – keeping rooted in the norms of the community, while also being the engine for change.

KARL MOORE: So, it’s the idea of a stakeholder. Rather than the shareholder being the only one, that may be perhaps the political party. As a stakeholder model, saying there are employees; there are communities where your base might worry about the environment. There’s the government, as well as your shareholder, as well as perhaps your banker. So, there’s a bunch of groups you have to work with, and understand their concerns. And, somehow please all of them to some degree.

GIL TROY: I have to say, I thought I was writing a book about moderation, and I ended up writing a book about nationalism; because, to be a great moderate president, you have to be a great patriot. You have to be a great nationalist. I think it applies to this example of CEO; because, you have to understand you are a community leader. And, I think if we spent more time thinking about businesses as communities, as functioning communities, and we ask the same question – you know, Al Gore has this now, worrying about our carbon footprint. If you ask as a leader, “What’s the toxic footprint that I leave?” I want to minimize that. I want to make sure that I’m not leaving bad feelings. I’m not rankling people too much. Again, without being a total mush, without forgetting core principals. But, if you think about your role as being a constructive community leader, a constructive agent of change, I think it can lead to successes in the board room and beyond.

KARL MOORE: So, part of it is, you want to create a sense of pride. So, I’m an American, I’m a Canadian, I’m an IBM-er, I’m a Microsoft person – that there’s a sense of real engagement, of something bigger that we’re proud of, and we’re leaving a legacy, whatever part of the company we are.

GIL TROY: If you read these presidential case studies, especially, if you focus on the modern world, the modern presidency, one of the things you see, is that so much of modern leadership is what Theodore Roosevelt called the bully pulpit – setting a tone, symbolic leadership. We have a tendency sometimes to say, “Well, if it’s all symbol, it’s empty.” That’s true. But, if there’s no symbol, you’re also in trouble. And, a leader has to set a tone.

A leader has to understand that part of the job; part of the mandate is leading people together. You know, you think of an organization that has 100,000 people. The challenges of leading a 100,000 person organization are the same as leading a country of 300 million. You can’t speak to each one. You can’t create a personal relationship. So, what do you do? You set certain goals. You set certain standards; but, you also set a tone. And, you start a communal conversation, and a communal sense of going forward.

KARL MOORE: So, it seems some ways, I think, big companies are moving to, perhaps the pre-millennial generation particularly, where you’ve got to have multiple voices heard – whereas, it used to be more a meta-narrative – here’s the story and follow it. And, young people are not going to buy into it as much. But, in some sense, it means we’re becoming more like a democracy – that you hear the voices of these many constituents; but, we accept the CEO, the leader, the president’s got to make a decision that will please everyone. But, you’ve got to listen to the voices along the way.

GIL TROY: And, I think, again, you can learn from the democratic model, because here you have a situation where you’re leading 300 million people in the United States with very strong opinions, with a great gift of freedom. We don’t want to minimize how great that gift is. And, so you have to be able to push ahead while also hearing multiple voices.

And, certainly working with students, I see that this generation wants to be able to have their voice, have their stake. They feel a connection by being able to make their mark. But, the job of the CEO, even while allowing this chorus, these many choruses to come together, is to make sure there’s harmony. And, when I mean harmony, I don’t mean a lack of conflict. I mean being able to kind of have a harmonic convergence – where you have people coming together, and ultimately understanding that they have to sing from the same song book.

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Gil Troy: Will deft shoe-dodge improve Bush’s image?

National Post, 12-15-08

According to Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, Mr. Bush handled the potentially embarrassing situation with a grace that could benefit the way people remember him. “One of the things that he has always had as an advantage as part of his skill set has been a very fluid and smooth physicality,” he said. “At his best, when he’s been most effective, he has been able to use a kind of sheer physical presence and fluidity, the grace of an athlete — and he has the grace of a jogger. I think that helped him in this incident.”

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HNN Debate: Should Obama Lead from the Center or Not?

By Allan Lichtman and Gil Troy

HNN, 12-15-08

Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His six books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House.

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

HNN Editor Recently, Allan Lichtman recommended in a post on the Britannica Blog that Barack Obama should adhere to four simple rules followed by FDR. Three of the rules sounded the same notes being heard all over Washington these days: 1. Strike early. 2. Bring the people with you. 3. Think big and broadly. But the fourth rang a controversial bell: Don’t govern from the middle. We thought this fourth point was worth further exploration. We asked historian Gil Troy, author of the new book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to comment. What follows is an exiciting Lichtman/Troy roundtable.

Allan Lichtman

Great presidents don’t move to the middle they move the middle to them by changing the conversation about government and implementing programs that work. That is what FDR did for liberal governance in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan for conservative governance in the 1980s.

No political leader in the history of the government has gained major political success or produced fundamental changes in national policy by attempting to move to the middle. Rather the so-called “center” of American politics is the graveyard of mediocre one-term presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The centrist presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton won two terms in office, but they both lost control of Congress in their first term and failed to pass on the presidency to a candidate of their party.

By following the example of FDR Obama can prove that it is possible to learn from history and not merely be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Gil Troy

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to Strike Early. Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. Bringing the People With You is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. Thinking Big and Broadly is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives. One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, The Triumph of Politics, complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in The Audacity of Hope. Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

Allan Lichtman

I appreciate Gil Troy’s positive comments on most of my piece on how Barack Obama could become another FDR. I take issue, of course, with his criticism of my recommendation that Obama should not govern from the middle, but should boldly implement progressive policies.

Troy’s arguments are based on the faulty premise that departure from what he calls the “muscular middle” necessary means the embrace of some sort of radicalism or extremism. This is evident by his contrasting Roosevelt’s policies with “radicals” who “demanded revolution” during the Great Depression. Of course, Roosevelt was no radical or revolutionary, but his policies were decidedly more progressive than the middle-of-the road for his time. Indeed, Roosevelt’s New Deal established much of the modern liberal tradition against which conservatives have been railing against for decades.

According to the acclaimed Poole-Rosenthal index of conservative-liberal ideology (with liberal ratings from 0 to -1 and conservative ratings from 0 to +1) FDR’s rating for the New Deal period — based on his legislative advocacy — was -.58. This places him well to the left of the center of US politics at the time. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during the period was +.02 and for all House members -.06.

Likewise it makes no sense to tab Reagan as a centrist because he didn’t mechanically follow the lead of the most extreme right-wingers. As a true conservative and not a middle-roader, Reagan did far more than just slow the growth of government, he engineered foundational changes in tax, regulatory, and defense policies, and in America’s approach to the world. His administration established the modern conservative era of American politics. Reagan’s Poole-Rosenthal rating of +.742 during his first two years places him far to the right in the American political spectrum. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during this period was +.02 and for all House members -.03.

If both FDR with his -.58 rating and Ronald Reagan with nearly his polar opposite rating of +.742 are both centrists then the concept has lost all meaning. By this odd reckoning, all presidents are centrists and have governed from some vast ill-defined middle. However, if Troy means only to say that leading from the “muscular middle” means avoiding the contentious, bitter partisanship of the Bush years, then I heartily agree. However, no political leader and no political party has transformed American politics by leading from the ideological center of his times.

Barack Obama has a golden opportunity to implement such progressive policies as establishing universal health care coverage, weaning us off the fossil fuel economy, vigorously protecting civil rights and liberties, reforming the tax code, and instituting a more cooperative and multilateral approach to international affairs. He should not be dissuaded from pursuing these commitments by misguided advice to govern from the middle.

Gil Troy

I appreciate Allan Lichtman’s reaction to my response to his initial, thought-provoking post. We disagree both about whether successful presidents have led from the center and whether Barack Obama should be what I call a muscular moderate. Our disagreement manifests itself in three important ways: methodologically, historically, and politically.

For starters, I am too much the historian and not enough of a political scientist to settle historiographical disputes with the “Poole-Rosenthal Index of Conservative-Liberal Ideology” or any other formulaic attempt to reduce the complexities of reality to a simple batting average. Such approaches would have made graduate school a whole lot easier – but a lot less interesting.

Of course, the P-R index and others help assess a presidency. My conception of a muscular moderate acknowledges that the FDRs of the world will tack left while the Reagans will tack right – but the question is how much? And here, we plunge into our historical clash. I agree that it would be simplistic to give Roosevelt, Reagan, or other presidents centrist merit badges just for not being as extreme as the most fanatic elements of their respective parties. But in placing a particular president on the spectrum, and divining the secrets to his success, we must factor in the tug-of-war of the political process.

The center is, of course, an elusive target (just as definitions of liberalism and conservative or left and right have shifted over the decades). But we can deem a president a centrist when he acts more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, when he compromises on key measures if not core ideals, when he uses his bully pulpit to forge as broad a coalition as possible both in Congress and among the people. Simply seeing the FDR years as a lurch -.58 to the left and the Reagan years as a lurch +.742 to the right not only misses the subtleties but overlooks the serious ways in which the president’s and party’s ideological wings were clipped in both eras.

We need not fully embrace Barton Bernstein’s characterization of the New Deal as a “conservative achievement” but I always have been struck by Roosevelt’s discipline – most of the time – in not overstepping during an era when cries for more radical solutions were mainstreamed. And I link FDR’s triangulation process to a broader American leadership tradition rooted in George Washington’s enlightened approach to mobilizing Americans behind a “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic focus on of first keeping the country united and alive, then freeing it from the stench of slavery, and Theodore Roosevelt’s bully-bully romantic nationalism seeking to make America more progressive without alienating big business, too much. The result in the 1930s – as I argued in my last post – was the uniquely American welfare state that stretched our constitutional limits but was a far cry from the European reality or homegrown leftist dreams.

Similarly, I echo the analysis of James Patterson, Alonzo Hamby and others in viewing Ronald Reagan as more of an incrementalist than an ideologue. This centrism of Reagan’s, this understanding of the need to compromise and sell his program broadly, accounted for his success. At the same time, Bill Clinton’s tenure is a cautionary tale for moderates. Simply being a finger-to-the-wind spineless centrist, lacking big ideas and core principles which you can at least compromise on, leaves you with little more than the policy bandaids of the Clinton years and the impression he created of tremendous potential unfulfilled.

So, to end by focusing on the political differences this exchange uncovers, I desperately hope that Barack Obama leads from the center, appealing to what he has called the “pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.” I discovered by analyzing America’s centrist tradition that the search for moderation is really about reinvigorating a new broad vision of American nationalism – and advancing policies that reinforce a big, broad tent approach. It starts with repudiating the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 50-percent-plus-one strategy of simply mobilizing enough partisans to ensure re-election. But it entails picking moderate, non-ideological advisers – as Obama has done so far. It entails reaching out symbolically and substantively to Republicans and more conservative Democrats – as Obama has done so far. And it entails singing a song of centrism while advancing constructive, bridge-building policies that are rooted in the ideas of one camp but acknowledge the concerns of the opposition. It requires complex solutions to complex problems, mindful of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that only the thorny questions end up on the president’s desk, the easy ones are solved before they get to the chief executive.

What that means more concretely (to follow Lichtman’s agenda) is constructing a health care reform that avoids triggering the big-government fears Republicans exploited so effectively in killing the Clintons’ program. It means using government stimulus to find alternative energy sources but not in such a heavyhanded way as to smother individual or corporate initiatives – or trigger another great inflation thanks to soaring budgets. It means tax reform that does not return us to crushing burdens of the 1950s or the 1970s. And it means protecting civil liberties and working together with allies without being afraid to treat terrorism as a military problem not simply a crime and without forgetting how in the Middle East cooperation and diplomacy can be perceived as weakness.

This summer, Barack Obama demonstrated the kind of muscular moderation America needs, when he endorsed a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed. This nuanced approach angered many of his core supporters. In a remarkable on-line exchange with thousands of his field workers, Obama explained why the new legislation did not cross his red lines – while affirming his commitment to defend civil liberties if legislation did. As one volunteer who participated told me, he showed he was willing to listen to the complaints, he understood the disagreement, but he was comfortable with his decision. George W. Bush rarely showed he was willing to listen. Bill Clinton too frequently caved in on core issues. At that moment, and many others, Obama demonstrated that he just might walk the walk as well as talk the talk – governing as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud.

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Gil Troy “Will recession mean a toned-down inauguration?”:

AP, 12-7-08

Though costly, an inauguration helps set the tone for a presidency, said Gil Troy, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The president shouldn’t be seen noshing on caviar, but neither should he dispense with glamour entirely, Troy said. Americans want their leader to be a man of the people and a celebrity superstar, both.
“Americans are people who love to indulge, and deep in our hearts want our leaders to be like the king and queen of England — but not too much,” he said.
President Ronald Reagan fit the bill best when he set a new standard of opulence for his 1981 inauguration, Troy said. Nancy Reagan wore a $10,000 gown to the three-hour gala with Frank Sinatra.
“Reagan had the ability — and maybe the Obamas will — to somehow make spending look patriotic,” Troy said. 

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-4-08

In yet another example of “blowback” actually undermining Islamist terrorism, the Mumbai mayhem may boost George W. Bush’s historical legacy. In the waning days of his presidency, the massacres highlighted one of Bush’s most significant but elusive achievements. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must grant him at least some credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.

Subsequent atrocities in London, Madrid, Bali, Jerusalem, and now Mumbai – among many others – as well as occasional warnings and arrests within the United States — suggest that the terrorists kept trying. In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that, while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that so far the United States has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that many of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

A similar challenge faces Cold War historians. How do we explain the decades-long record of relative peace with the Soviet Union, despite repeated fears not just of confrontation but of nuclear confrontation? In analyzing this bell that did not ring, we assess the fears of Armageddon to see whether they were reasonable or exaggerated. We try to understand how the Soviets acted and reacted at the time. And we examine the American policies to see what worked and what failed.

This mystery of how we avoided the worst case scenario so many expected explains the enduring fascination with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The “Thirteen Days” in October 1962 continue to attract so much attention because we came so close to war – and because we can study the actors on both sides. Especially since the Soviet Union fell, scholars and retired policy makers have done an impressive job reconstructing and deconstructing the excruciating chess game that ended in a Soviet retreat rather than worldwide apocalypse. In some ways now we can appreciate how close the world came to the brink, and salute both John Kennedy’s and Nikita Khruschev’s moderation in determining the happy outcome.

Of course, the no-new-9/11s debate is shrouded in much more mystery. In addition to the Bush administration’s admirable reluctance to violate national security to score some PR points, the Islamist terrorists’ chaotic, secretive world remains obscured too. Still, it seems clear that the Treasury’s crackdown on the flow of funds into and out of the United States helped inhibit the terrorists. Similarly, the greater scrutiny in general, the tightened security at airports and other vulnerable targets, and the immigration crackdowns have helped.

More controversial, of course, is the Patriot Act and other moves that came at a higher cost, namely America’s tradition of maximizing individual civil liberties. Those difficult questions enter the realm of political theology. Given the fog around the facts, that debate more reflects individuals’ commitments to civil liberties balanced against their faith in the judgment of Bush and the broader national security apparatus. The arrogance, incompetence, arbitrariness, characterizing so much of the Bush Administration has undermined its credibility on this critical issue, where it may have achieved some great successes.

The terrorist attacks in India were equally mistimed regarding Bush’s successor. President-elect Barack Obama’s decisions to keep on Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State partially reflect Obama’s own realization of the seriousness of the terrorist threat. As a New York senator when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, al Qaeda’s recent videotape using an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but could not have escaped Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, proves that this ugliness persists – and that a reprehensible ideology unites these murderers who target Westerners and democrats wherever possible.

Despite all the hype during a presidential campaign about a candidate’s skills, judgment, character, experience, and potential, external events often define presidencies. George W. Bush himself entered office expecting to focus on domestic affairs. The horrific murders in Mumbai – along with the continuing economic roller coaster – illustrate that Obama’s legacy, like that all of his predecessors, remains in the hands of powerful actors and historical forces beyond his control, no matter how talented he is, no matter how focused on this one leader we remain.

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