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Muscular moderates; Gil Troy: Centrists make best Presidents

HUBERT BAUCH, The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, Sptember 13, 2008, WEEKEND: BOOKS; Pg. I6

Leading from the Center By Gil Troy

Leading from the Center By Gil Troy

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 practiced 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, F.D.R. 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 Gazette’s senior political writer.

LEADING FROM THE CENTER: WHY MODERATES MAKE THE BEST PRESIDENTS

By Gil Troy

Basic Books,

341 pages, $29.50

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By Harry Levins
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
07/06/2008

‘Leading From the Center’
By Gil Troy
Published by Basic Books, 341 pages, $27.50

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.

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Leading From the Center

Leading From the Center

LEADING FROM THE CENTER: WHY MODERATES MAKE THE BEST PRESIDENTS

by Gil Troy, just published by Basic Books

TO PURCHASE LEADING FROM THE CENTER – CLICK HERE

Hail compromise! Huzzah negotiation! Purple power! … ‘Moderation is an odd thing to get passionate about,’ admits Troy , but that doesn’t stop the McGill professor from waxing Socratic over the virtues of the golden mean. America has a ‘long and vibrant tradition of cultivating civility and seeking the center,’ Troy claims, which has produced many leaders to steady our nation’s course.
“Leading from the Center – part history, part manifesto of centrism, and part political how-to-sets out to rewrite the history of the presidential greats as ‘maestros of moderation’ and reorient our present day notion of how a president should lead….”

  • Read: more from the New York Post review by clicking here
  • Watch: Book TV on C-SPAN2: Sunday, July 6, at 8:45 AM
  • Listen: The Jim Bohannon Show (Westwood One) Wednesday, July 9, 10-11 PM
  • See: the Troy Kids discuss Leading from the Center: “A concept so simple, even children can understand it?” – on “Face the Nation… for Kids” Click Here

For more information visit www.leadingfromthecenter.com and www.giltroy.com

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By JULIA KAMIN

NY Post, June 22, 2008

“Leading From The Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents”

By Gil Troy

Basic Books

Hail compromise! Huzzah negotiation! Purple power!

Four presidential terms of red-blue politics, culture wars, impeachment threats, left-right blogo-sparring, Swift Boaters and Bush-bashers have brought America to perhaps a new high in partisan entrenchment. But, if you believe the pollsters, there are signs – by the names of John McCain and Barack Obama – that Americans weary of heated hyperbole and itch for some cool consensus.

According to Gil Troy, that’s very good news.

“Moderation is an odd thing to get passionate about,” admits Troy, but that doesn’t stop the McGill professor from waxing Socratic over the virtues of the golden mean. America has a “long and vibrant tradition of cultivating civility and seeking the center,” Troy claims, which has produced many leaders to steady our nation’s course.

“Leading from the Center” – part history, part manifesto of centrism, and part political how-to – sets out to rewrite the history of the presidential greats as “maestros of moderation” and reorient our present day notion of how a president should lead. Troy constructs a presidential A-list of masters of the middle, starting with George Washington, the “gold standard” of moderate leadership and working his way through Ronald Reagan, who understood the value of “big picture pragmatic governance.”

Troy also admits that tacking center is not only about good leadership, it’s the surest way to get into office in a “winner take all” electoral system. Recent polls certainly suggest that Obama and McCain need to do the same to win. Unsurprisingly, most presidents seek out the middle (with a few exceptions) – but that doesn’t mean all do so successfully.

It’s in piecing together what separates the ineffective centrists from Troy’s concept of the “muscular” moderate that the true mystery lies. Apparently some mixture of nationalism, pragmatism, moral conviction, statesmanship and force of personality will do the trick. Troy is a little vague.

Troy says that charisma and ability to inspire patriotism on their own will get a president far, even for an “amiable ideologue” like Reagan whose “temperament, leadership techniques and patriotism tethered him to mainstream public opinion.” But to create a wellspring of consensus out of a national crisis, you need Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s knack for writing a “successful narrative” that invites “all Americans to uphold and enjoy the country’s most noble ideals” as well as his ability to “find that muscular middle, clearly standing for something but compromising when necessary.” Add “elan, great charm, and a steady smile,” and you have a New Deal president that “not only preserved the American center” but “repositioned and strengthened it.”

Bill Clinton’s presidency, on the other hand, is a “cautionary tale” in how centrism alone won’t do it: “offering moderation with no muscle, Clinton perfected a spineless centrism, a poll-driven posture whose addiction to popularity diminished the presidency’s transformational potential,” Troy writes.

As for the presidents who threw moderation to the wind, they did so either by failing to notice that the center had shifted or by mistaking rigidity for strength. In this category, George W. Bush earns one of Troy’s harshest history-lashings. As a “conviction politician,” Bush risked “being imprisoned by ideology, handcuffed to the world [he wished] to see rather than adjusting to the world that is.” His immoderation is particularly troubling because it was coupled with what Troy sees as an “unnatural” change in our political culture – toward a rhetoric of “slash and burn, all or nothing, red versus blue, my way or the highway.”

It’s a good time to start getting passionate about moderation. Enter Sens. McCain and Obama.

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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 Leading From the CenterAmerican 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.

Publishers Weekly

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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews

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

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