The Progressive Presidents
John Morton Blum clearly ranks among the foremost American historians on the political course of twentieth century United States domestic affairs. Through such earlier works as The Republican Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality, and Roosevelt and Morgenthau, John Blum has established a respected view of the presidency in contemporary American history and a cohesive portrait of the potential of that office. While profiles on American presidents are not rare, Blum has repeatedly written on the subject from the perspective of presidential leadership in relation to national policy and the American political culture.
The Progressive Presidents is essentially a continuation of this approach modified by contemporary events. On the one hand, the author extends his analysis of presidential leadership to include Lyndon B. Johnson; something of a deviation from his traditional emphasis upon the first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, he presents a strong undercurrent of reexamination of the liberal political faith—an ideological belief that has fallen upon hard times in recent years.
Blum’s work in no way attempts to disguise the fact that he personally retains an unshaken belief in the merits of progressive liberalism. Nevertheless he is well aware of the current malaise that hangs over left-of-center political values as a result of such events as the Vietnam War, the increased size and cost of governmental activities, and the disappointments associated with White House leadership. To a certain extent, then, The Progressive Presidents is an attempt to rejuvenate the tattered liberal philosophy by examining its twentieth century foundations in the hopes of uncovering both its more problematic areas and the continuing strength of its vision.
The focus of this volume represents a conscious effort to survey liberalism’s twentieth century patterns in relation to a hallmark of that ideology’s faith: an unswerving commitment to presidential policy direction. In selecting the presidential administrations of the two Roosevelts, Wilson, and Johnson, Blum is directing his attention toward the four chief executives most commonly associated with a strong and expansive interpretation of the role of the presidency in Federalism. Despite the fact that each of these presidential leaders experienced varying foreign and domestic challenges, the common denominator that runs through their administrations is the vision of an almost messianic chief executive positioned to direct the course of events. Beginning with the Theodore Roosevelt years, the office of the president has consistently been the most visible symbol of American policy and the processes which help to produce it. For traditional liberals in American political thought, such an expansive presidential role has been the vanguard of progressive growth in the realization of the American Dream. The absence of an emphasis upon such presidents as William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and even Dwight D. Eisenhower is, at least indirectly, a critical evaluation of their unwillingness to grasp a similar vision.
Ironically the liberal faith in an enlarged presidential leadership became subject to increasingly vehement criticism not only from the more conservative circles, but also from those further to the left. While the conservative view of the presidency can be traced as far back as the formation of the Republic and the legacy of arbitrary British colonial authorities, the more radical left is essentially a twentieth century phenomenon. In reaction to the almost inevitable shortcomings which the rising expectations of forceful executive reform leadership produced, serious questions emerged concerning the relative merits and value of so potent a presidency. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency in 1973 was one such reaction directed, in part, to the excesses perceived in the Johnson-Nixon era so clouded by the war in Southeast Asia. In a deeper sense, however, the critical reaction from the left was also a commentary upon the frustrations inherent in the political process which seemed structured to convert almost utopian progressive goals into a compromised gradualism. The failure of an enlarged presidential role to bulldoze a dream into reality produced a growing disenchantment with both liberalism and its inherent beliefs.
Blum is well aware of these trends and the nature of the criticisms being expressed. The Progressive Presidents, thus, does not apologize for the liberal philosophy but attempts to discover its roots, the courses it has taken in twentieth century American life, and the misdirection which has occasionally dampened its image.
Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, the president traditionally most associated with initiating the marriage...
(The entire section is 1984 words.)