American Presidency McDonald, Forest. The Term Paper

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The second section examines the processes of the Constitutional Convention, the rectification of the weak Articles of Confederation, the ratification of the new Constitution, and the Washington and Jeffersonian Administrations. The first presidents had to try to make sense of the wording of the new document and put the presidency's ideals into practice. The third section examines the evolving role of presidents from Jackson to the present and how they defined the role in relationship to the legislative and judicial branches, public opinion, historical events, and foreign affairs.

McDonald notes that although Democrats today tend to be most critical of so-called imperially styled presidents, it was Republicans who decried the increasingly powerful office of the presidency during the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations, and only later did the two parties flip-flop, after Nixon created what would later be called the imperial presidency by Democrats. This suggests that there is less of a real dislike of executive authority in America as there is a dislike of specific presidential authority and ideology.

Of all the modern presidents, McDonald approves most enthusiastically of Nixon and Reagan, despite their evasion of congressional approval for many of their actions while in office. He instead criticizes Congress for lacking a sufficiently national perspective, stating that congressmen and women today are more interested in reelection than serving the nation, which is exactly the opposite to the reasoned, aristocratic oversight that the founders desired. Congress' outlawing of providing funds to the Nicaraguan Contras, for example, was interfering with the executive's discretion, and Reagan's actions during the Iran-Contra affair were therefore justified, and only mildly questionable, legally. McDonald calls Reagan the greatest president since Jefferson, for Reagan's curtailing of big government, and restoring faith in a very powerful chief executive, especially in foreign affairs.

To explain his beliefs, McDonald cites the Founder's inspiration in Jon Bracton's idea that in "certain areas the king's power was absolute" (18). He thinks that the actions of recent Republican presidents were no more quasi-monarchial than FDR's during the Depression and World War II. In fact, sometimes it is necessary for Chief Executives to exert such control over the country in the name of -- of course -- national security. He often echoes Alexander Hamilton's sentiment that presidents may, under extreme circumstances, pursue "extensive and arduous enterprises" despite "the various checks and balances" of the Constitution (185). America must be a "presidential government" rather than a legislative government to be taken seriously in the world today (185).

At times, McDonald's belief in executive authority seems almost frighteningly authoritarian. He is most caustic when describing presidents who he believes were too interested in the point-of-view of the American public, and almost seems to devolve into psychoanalysis, when he states that presidents are sometimes so desperate to be liked and approved of, they fail to lead. However, surely there is a democratic element to the conception of the American presidency. A president should listen as well as to command; otherwise the Founders would never have created the need for legislative approval of certain actions, such as the power of the purse. But the author has no faith in the American public at all, or a Congress beholden to special interests, and he compares the public's selection of candidates to the ancient Roman belief in "the divination of soothsayers...tribal peoples [in] totems...Pentecostals [in] healers" (433-434). Although the book is ostensibly a celebration of American democratic office, the ultimate message is that congress and the populace should step aside and let those who know 'best' govern, especially if they 'best'…

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