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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: 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.

Why the Obama Administration Has Issued Fewer Signing Statements

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as Vice President Joe Biden looks on.

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for which he issued one of 22 signing statements during his first term in office. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, PD.

In light of the festivities surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration a few weeks ago, I have found myself thinking a lot about unilateral power during his first four years in office.  During his first term, Obama did not shy away from acting alone when Congress was unwilling to support his proposals.  Yet, the president’s frequent use of direct executive action should not come as a surprise.  As political scientists Terry Moe and William Howell claim, the president’s formal capacity to act unilaterally “virtually defines what is distinctively modern about the modern presidency.”  While there have been a number of interesting developments over the last few years in this regard, I wanted to spend some time discussing one unilateral tool in particular: the presidential signing statement.

A signing statement is written commentary on a bill that is being signed into law.  The scholarly literature has shown that these statements can serve a wide range of purposes (praise, criticism, credit claiming, legislative appeals, etc.).  Most controversially, presidents offer their opinion about the constitutionality of various provisions of law and allude to non-enforcement (or altered enforcement in order to avoid constitutional conflicts).  President George W. Bush made the constitutional challenges within signing statements (in)famous by citing problems with approximately 1,200 provisions of legislation; double the amount of all the previous presidents combined.  Those challenges can be found within Bush’s 112 first-term statements and his 50 second-term statements.

The Obama administration has only issued 22 statements during his first term.  While these statements are chock-full of constitutional challenges (Obama’s most recent NDAA signing statement challenges more than 20 sections of law on constitutional grounds), the lack of frequency with which the administration issues them leaves Obama nowhere close to Bush in terms of the number of provisions challenged over a similar timeframe.

Why have we seen fewer signing statements during the Obama administration?

(Side note: anyone interested in this question should keep their eyes peeled for the work of Joel Sievert and Ian Ostrander who recently presented an interesting paper on this topic at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.)

Roughly speaking, the decline of the signing statement during the Obama administration can be attributed to four interrelated problems that President Obama has faced when aspiring to use this tool.

A Citizen’s-eye View of the 57th Inauguration

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the Public Swearing-In of Barack Obama at the 57th Presidential Inauguration. Photo courtesy of Carah Ong Whaley.

The Presidential Inauguration is an important civic ritual that legitimizes election results and represents a peaceful transfer of power. Last week, I attended President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration with the purpose of providing a citizen’s eye-view of events for RTT followers. While there was a certain measure of pomp and circumstance surrounding the 57th Inauguration, it was off-set by the diversity of the crowd and the President’s liberal, populist appeal.

On the Sunday before the public swearing-in, I attended one of the many Inaugural events being held by non-profit organizations, PACs, lobbyists, and consultants throughout the DC area. These events ranged from black tie balls to more subtle affairs with the purpose of both celebrating political victory and raising more money. Members of Congress made cameo appearances and gave brief speeches to thank the organizations and supporters for helping them get re-elected. They were also already beating the drum to raise money for the 2016 election…the never-ending campaign. As one member of Congress revealed at the event I attended, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo telling all members of Congress that they are to spend four hours per day fundraising. By any measure, that is quite a bit of time to devote to fundraising, especially when Congress began 2013 with its approval rating at 14%. How can Congress actually engage in the hard work required to legislate, govern and serve constituents when so much of their time is expected to be devoted to raising money for the next election? Doesn’t this system only further ingratiate Congress to special interests?

At an event I attended, Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized that we are in a unique era of hyper-partisanship and polarization. As a political scientist, I wanted to point out that it’s actually not so unique. In fact, there have been many periods in American political history when the parties have engaged in deep struggles over the role and direction of government. But his broader point was worth noting. King noted that he was elected not to engage in partisan politics, but to make every attempt to get government working again.

Many other politicians and members of the media also made their cameos. The more liberal media, Senators and members of Congress pressed supporters to rally for a more liberal agenda in President Obama’s second term and to gear up for battle in the 2014 mid-term election. From their speeches, there would seem to be no end to partisan bickering in sight.

The State of the Union According to Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore, 1857. By G.P.A. Healy. PD

Leading up to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which will be delivered on February 12, 2013, RTT will provide historical insights and feature materials from our archives.

“[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient...”

-Article II, U.S. Constitution

Seemingly innocuous constitutional provisions like the one above in Article 2, Section 3 are known for becoming less trivial in the era of “modern” presidents and “legislative leviathans.” When it comes to State of the Union addresses, however, the proof requires far less evidence. On February 12th, Barack Obama will give a speech before both Houses of Congress and a national television audience, and barring a significant shift in presidential strategic action, it will contain a substantive, charismatic appeal to the American people to support his 2013 agenda.

These descriptive facts are alien to States of the Union prior to the 20th century. A simple comparison will make the point clearer. Consider Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union in light of another titanic speech certainly worth remembering: the 1850 address of Millard Fillmore.

This is inaccurate, of course, because the 1850 State of the Union was not a speech, it was a letter (as the substantial proportion of SOTU addresses have been). In it, there is little in the way of emotional appeals, and it has an “agenda” that is minor by modern comparison. Fortunately, Fillmore was courteous enough to report the annual revenue and expenditures, and contributions to the reduction in national debt. In addition, it contains pledges to respect the office, an explicit reference to the state of nature, and general references to the goings on of the past year.

This Day in History: Ronald Reagan Addresses Nation on the Challenger Disaster

Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986

Today marks the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster when the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. Watch this video of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation on January 28, 1986 from the Oval Office. President Reagan was originally scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address that evening. Challenger was supposed to be the first mission to put a civilian into space. Reagan reminds the country of the bravery and dedication of those who were killed on the shuttle. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission appointed by President Reagan to investigate the accident.