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Riding the Tiger > Category: Presidents and the Presidency

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Book Review: The End of Greatness

The End of Greatness by Aaron David Miller

In his book The End of Greatness, Aaron David Miller has developed a successful synthesis of the presidential greatness literature on why we don’t see great presidents anymore, yet we still demand one every presidential election cycle. This work should be very useful to students and to the general public as a way to discuss important questions about presidential greatness and seemingly unrealistic voter expectations. 

POTUS at Play

As President Obama catches some R&R on Martha’s Vineyard, a pictorial montage of 20th century presidents at play reveals how some of his predecessors enjoyed their down time.  It also provides a glimpse of how presidential sports create images of White House occupants.  

Why RFK Sat Stone-Faced as LBJ Signed Civil Rights Act of 1964

Attorney General Robert Kennedy (front row, 6th from right), stares straight ahead as President Lyndon Johnson prepares to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Photo: LBJ Library)

What a bittersweet day it was 50 years ago for Robert Kennedy.  The events of July 2, 1964 should have filled him with pride and gratification. But, as the attorney general sat stone-faced at President Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he could barely bring himself to look at the chief executive. A mere six months had passed since Bobby Kennedy had accompanied his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy, into the same White House space (the East Room), where, still wearing her blood-stained suit, she had brought her assassinated husband home from Dallas.

George H.W. Bush Officials Reflect on Tiananmen Square

June 4, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. It was a topic that came up in several interviews for the George H.W. Bush Oral History Project. Below are excerpts from interviews with Secretary of State James Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and others.

Book Review: A Call to Action

In his new book, A Call to Action, President Jimmy Carter has brought women’s rights to the forefront.  It is an important issue as he himself writes: “I have become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls…” (pp. 3)

Book Review: FDR and Polio

Frankline Roosevelt and son James Roosevelt

FDR and son James, December 1, 1933. (Courtesy of National Archives)

For Dr. James Tobin, the famous line, "The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself" meant even more to Franklin D. Roosevelt, because he understood it in a personal way as he recovered from polio.  Tobin’s new book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, has given us a well-written and unique way to look at FDR. 

Friday Feature: Camp David Through the Years

David Eisenhower, a teenager, poses with the

Pictured: President Eisenhower’s grandson David Eisenhower at Camp David in 1960. (Courtesy Eisenhower Library)

As President Obama heads off to Camp David, check out these great photos of past presidents enjoying the Maryland retreat.

From whitehouse.gov:

Camp David, known formally as the Naval Support Facility Thurmont, is the President’s country residence. Located in Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, Maryland, Camp David has offered Presidents an opportunity for solitude and tranquility, as well as an ideal place to host foreign leaders.

Adapted from the federal employee retreat Hi-Catoctin, President Franklin Roosevelt established the residence as USS Shangri La, modeling the new main lodge after the Roosevelt winter vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Eisenhower subsequently renamed the institution in honor of his grandson David.

Learn more about Camp David from whitehouse.gov.

Announcing the Miller Center’s new Historical Presidency Series

“That’s what’s the matter” from the Library of Congress. McClellan separates Lincoln and Davis in a tug of war over a map of the United States.

Beginning this fall, the Miller Center will host a new lecture series based on the Historical Presidency.  The theme for 2013-14 is "The American Presidency and the Crises of the Nineteenth Century."  On September 18 at 5pm, series organizer Gary W. Gallagher (UVa history) will kick things off with Princeton Emeritus Professor James M. McPherson for a conversation about Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. 

Check out the entire 13-14 series here.

Friday Feature: The Tiger Goes Riding

How about a little cuteness to wrap up the week? Here's President Clinton with Socks (clearly ready for action).

For more, check out this feature of presidential pets posted by Cute Overload back in February.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Friday Feature: Benjamin Harrison Riding a [Goat]

Pictured: Benjamin Harrison’s son, Russell Harrison, with his children and their supposedly-ornery goat, “Old Whiskers.”

Did you know? Although stiff and formal with acquaintances, Benjamin Harrison opened up with his family. During his one term as President, he spent as little time as possible in the office, usually working only until noon. He loved to play with his grandchildren, many of whom had moved into the White House with their parents—Russell Benjamin Harrison, age thirty-six in 1890, and Mary Scott McKee, age thirty-two.

Perhaps most interestingly, the children were allowed to keep as many pets on the grounds as they wanted, including a goat whom they named Old Whiskers. One memorable story told of Harrison chasing the goat down Pennsylvania Avenue with his three grandchildren in tow and top hat in hand while waving his cane. Harrison also tried to escape Washington as often as possible, frequently going on hunting trips in secret. One trip made the national press when he shot a farmer's pig by mistake.

Read more in the Miller Center’s Benjamin Harrison essay.

Book Review: US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sputnik, which means “satellite” in Russian, was the Soviet entry in a scientific race to launch the first satellite ever. USAF photo, PD.

In US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967, Sean N. Kalic examines the roots of American space policy from the post-World War II era through the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty. Kalic argues that presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all sought to establish the use of space for peaceful purposes while at the same time sustaining the militarization of space to support military missions on Earth. Under each administration, according to Kalic, space was viewed as venue for military activities, but not for the conduct of warfare. An overarching theme that emerges across the different partisan administrations is the extent to which space policy and technological development were driven by the confrontation with the former Soviet Union, especially following the USSR’s detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1947 and the launch of Sputnik a decade later. The book provides an interesting and in-depth examination of the origins of U.S. space policy and the role of presidents in its formulation.

Kalic begins by examining the period immediately following World War II, which laid the foundation for the military’s use of satellites for non-aggressive purposes. According to Kalic, President Harry S. Truman and his administration were far less interested in the research and development of satellites and other space experiments. Rather, Cold War strategic considerations and reducing the defense budget in the wake of WWII were the overriding concerns of the administration. Competition between the Army and Navy and the Army Air Force’s desire to maintain a close working relationship between universities and military scientists in the post WWII era were the primary drivers of early research and development. The air force and the RAND Corporation were the central actors in promoting America’s use of satellites for military applications, such as collecting data and intelligence (as opposed to killing or destroying targets). According to Kalic, “Despite the administration’s reluctance to support the development of satellites, the air force and RAND built the theoretical foundation to use space for military and scientific purposes” (pp. 17).

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower firmly embraced the use of satellites and space systems as a central tenet of the national security strategy of the U.S. and he established a national space policy. Countering threats from the former Soviet Union was the overriding driver of space policy. Eisenhower and his administration believed that the U.S. should use space technology as a means to maintain and expand the international prestige of the nation. In the wake of the Air Policy Commission’s miscalculation of when the USSR would test a nuclear weapon, Eisenhower also wanted to improve intelligence gathering and reconnaissance capabilities. Thus, he directed the National Security Council to define a space policy and to move forward with satellite construction, but Eisenhower chose not to deploy space weapons. Unlike future presidents, Eisenhower maintained that the U.S. should maintain separate military and civilian space programs.

One key question the book raises but might have explored further is why President Eisenhower sought to keep the American public unaware of the nation’s military developments despite public demand for a response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch.

This Day in History: TR Signs Bill Creating Department of Labor and Commerce

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (at far left). March 4, 1909. Photo courtesy of M. A. DeWolfe Howe (1919), PD.

On this day in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, the ninth Cabinet office. In his first State of the Union address delivered on December 3, 1901, Roosevelt called for the creation of the department. Although there had been a long-standing dispute between labor forces and business interests, Roosevelt did not believe that labor and capital were in conflict with one another. Rather, he thought that combining the functions of various information and statistics bureaus into one department would be more efficient. Roosevelt told Congress in his annual message:

There should be created a Cabinet officer, to be known as Secretary of Commerce and Industries, as provided in the bill introduced at the last session of the Congress. It should be his province to deal with commerce in its broadest sense; including among many other things whatever concerns labor and all matters affecting the great business corporations and our merchant marine.

The course proposed is one phase of what should be a comprehensive and far-reaching scheme of constructive statesmanship for the purpose of broadening our markets, securing our business interests on a safe basis, and making firm our new position in the international industrial world; while scrupulously safeguarding the rights of wage-worker and capitalist, of investor and private citizen, so as to secure equity as between man and man in this Republic.

Senator William P. Frye (R-Maine) translated these ideas into legislation, which he introduced in the 57th Congress. The bill passed despite Democratic minority opposition to the bill on the grounds that Labor would be submerged and that the distrust between labor and business would destroy the usefulness of the Department. President Roosevelt appointed his private secretary, George B. Cortelyou, the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor.

Memorable SOTU Addresses in the Modern Presidency

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress. Photo by Lawrence Jackson, PD.

Tonight President Obama will deliver the first State of the Union Address of his second term. As we learned from former presidential speechwriters, under the modern presidency, the objectives of the SOTU are to set the president up for what he is trying to achieve that year, to get a bounce in public approval, to inoculate the public when introducing controversial policies and to generate support for those policies within Congress. Yet, because the SOTU attempts to do so much, it rarely makes history, serving instead as a laundry list with few memorable moments or lines. Thus, the SOTU tends to contribute to the idea that presidents are remembered more for what they do than what they say. Still, the SOTU is valuable since it lays out a president’s objectives and provides a basis by which we might measure his accomplishments. We combed through our archives and offer in this post what we think are the the memorable SOTU addresses in the modern presidency.

Presidential Speechwriters’ Perspectives on the SOTU

Terry Edmonds (Clinton speechwriter), Lee Huebner (Nixon and Ford speechwriter), and Clark Judge (Reagan and Bush speechwriter)

A speech is part theater and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his people: it is art, and all art is a paradox, being at once a thing of great power and great delicacy.

-Peggy Noonan, Former Speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, from What I Saw

On February 12, President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to a joint session of Congress. What distinguishes the SOTU from other presidential speeches is that it is the only constitutionally mandated speech. This post offers historical perspective on the SOTU based on insights from former speechwriters for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton.

The State of the Union was transformed with the onset of the television age. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved the SOTU from midday to evening in order to attract a larger television audience. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans (roughly 30% of households with television) are expected to tune in to watch the address. But televising the speech has meant that presidents are more limited in what they can say. Televised State of the Union addresses delivered from Dwight D. Eisenhower to present have ranged from 3,500 to 9,200 words. One way that Richard Nixon dealt with this limitation was to limit what he said about foreign policy and draft a separate “State of the World message.” In 1970, for example, Nixon gave only a broad outline of his foreign policy in the SOTU, but on February 18 of that same year, he transmitted the “First Annual Report to Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s.”

According to Lee Huebner, speechwriter for Richard Nixon (and corroborated by the National Archives), it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who popularized the term “State of the Union” in 1935. From 1790 to 1934, it was simply called the “Annual Message.” Even though the most memorable speeches tend to be short, like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the SOTU has essentially become a laundry list of wide-ranging policies on the president’s agenda for the year.

So what purpose does the SOTU fulfill? The answer tends to vary by president.

This Day in History: Warren G. Harding Installs Radio in White House

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches.

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches. PD.

On this day in 1922, President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House. On June 14 of the same year, Harding became the first president to have his voice transmitted to the American public by radio. Although President Harding’s address was not radio-specific (Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address on radio in 1923), the broadcast of Harding’s speech dedicating a memorial site for Francis Scott Key heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public.

Check out the Miller Center’s Warren G. Harding Speech Exhibit, which features 14 audio excerpts of speeches given by Harding before 1922. The audio clips were recorded from 1917 until 1921 during three stages in Harding’s career—as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, and finally as President of the United States. The recorded collection was first assembled by President Harding’s nephew, Dr. George T. Harding III.