CONVERSATIONS: American Writers and the Presidency

By David Low ’76

In his latest book, A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (Princeton University Press), Professor of English and American Studies Sean McCann examines 20th–century American literature’s fascination with the modern presidency and with the relationship between state power and democracy that underwrote the rise of presidential authority.

DAVID LOW: What are some of the main themes in your book?

SEAN MCCANN: The book is a study of the way literary writers have often imagined themselves in a kind of competition with the presidency. These artists were attracted to the idea that presidential leadership could be used to reestablish the sovereignty of the American people over a government that seemed otherwise insufficiently responsive to their wishes. Typically, the writers I study suggested that literature should do what the ideal president would—as if great writers were democratic leaders like great presidents, only better.

One of the interesting things about this literature is that it articulates an underlying theory of presidential legitimacy that runs through much of modern American political culture—basically the idea that presidential power is justified so long as it acts toward the realization of a more democratic society. In other words, in this progressive view of the presidency, legitimacy doesn’t come mainly from the Constitution or from law; it comes from the president’s service in the cause of the nation.

DL: How have American writers’ views and attitudes of the presidency changed over the years?

SM: Most of the writers I look at were people who were attracted by the idea that expanding the power of the presidency could restore democratic control over government. That view of the presidency originally came to prominence in the late 19th century—famously a period of great congressional power. It has an arc that runs up through the Vietnam War and Watergate, which at the time appeared to ring the death knell for the progressive presidency.

Of course, there were ups and downs in this history. The high water marks occurred during the Progressive era, amid the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and then, especially, during the New Deal and World War II. The 1920s and the 1950s—years during which the Republican Party controlled the executive branch—were periods when there was much less enthusiasm for presidential power. That political history was fairly closely matched by literary history. During the ’20s and the ’50s, for example, many literary writers became concerned about abuses of presidential power and the dangers of executive tyranny.

DL: How have writers treated Lincoln?

SM: Lincoln is the foundational figure in this whole history—symbolically as well as politically. One point I emphasize is that attitudes toward Lincoln have always been divided by a profound ambivalence. He was often viewed as a conqueror and a budding tyrant and, of course, still more frequently viewed as a democratic martyr. Quite often, the same people held both views. That pattern begins with Walt Whitman, who saw himself and Lincoln as twin souls, but it runs all through 20th–century American culture. My view is that these two attitudes reflect an underlying ideology of presidential leadership in which great presidents are understood to exercise awesome power, but to be justified in their use of force so long as they submit their own wishes to the demands of their people. That’s one reason writers and other artists have been so consistently fascinated with stories of presidential assassination. The murdered president can be the perfect symbol of the leader who gives up his life to the cause of democracy and whose own exercise of power is symbolically legitimized by his vulnerability.

DL: What do you think about Norman Mailer and his take on the presidency?

SM: Norman Mailer is the purest example of the writer who says—well, I couldn’t be the president but I don’t have to be; I’m already playing the role of the democratic leader in my role as great American writer.

Of course, Mailer was a vivid political commentator. He wrote very well, for example, about the allure and disappointment of JFK and about the craziness of the presidential conventions in 1968. But for my purposes he’s still more important as an imaginative writer who used the presidency to feed his self–conception. He’s all about boldness and will and imagination. Again and again, he returns to a story about how people fail to live up to their potential because of timidity. In keeping with that preoccupation, he consistently says the presidency could do more than it does—that it’s undermined because small men inhabit the office. Interestingly, although he thought of himself as a fierce critic of ideological orthodoxy, his views of the presidency were not terribly distant from those of a more mainstream liberal like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

DL: How does Philip Roth deal with the presidency?

SM: Unlike Mailer, Roth is not a writer who you’d intuitively think of as a political novelist. Yet time and again, he comes back to the image of the president in a way that suggests that for him, as for Mailer, the presidency condenses central preoccupations. By contrast to Mailer, though, Roth is usually less worried about timidity than ideological overreach. The story he tells quite consistently—especially in the great novels he created in the 1990s—is the tale of some poor sucker’s benighted investment in a pastoral vision of American democracy, which then falls tragically to pieces. Quite often Roth connects this delusion to a misguided romance with the presidency. So, for example, in American Pastoral, the tragic hero Swede Levov is labeled “our Kennedy.”

DL: What nonfiction works were helpful in writing your book?

SM: A book I found very helpful was Jeffrey Tulis’s renowned study of The Rhetorical Presidency. Tulis, who is a political scientist, makes the case that the 20th century saw the creation of a new model of presidential power—one that emphasized the president’s ability to speak to and for the American people and in doing so to appear to surpass the limits of other political institutions.

But I was also influenced by Arthur Schlesinger’s famous attack on The Imperial Presidency, in which Schlesinger reconsidered his own earlier celebration of heroic leadership and warned of the dangers of executive tyranny. Tulis and Schlesinger each look at the history of the modern presidency, and they both see a growth in executive power that they believe is harmful to democracy. But they focus on quite different problems. What concerns Tulis is the way presidents can become more important than Congress and the parties in developing policies and encouraging public deliberation. It’s the president as holder of the bully pulpit that bothers him. Schlesinger, on the other hand, is especially concerned with the power of presidents to wage war without the effective oversight of Congress or the knowledge of the American public. He’s concerned about the president as commander–in–chief. One of the arguments of my book is that these two images of the president are closely related.

DL: Can you comment on Richard Slotkin’s novel Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln?

SM: Slotkin does a beautiful job of articulating the mythology of presidential leadership for which Lincoln is the founding example. In fact, Slotkin very deftly shows why writers frequently associate the president’s rhetorical power with his role as commander–in–chief.

In Slotkin’s story, the young Abe must first be a warrior so that he can then become an orator whose democratic eloquence will surpass the rule of force. Although Slotkin tells of Lincoln’s boyhood, the novel is mainly the tale of how the young Abe discovers his destiny as a democratic leader. A central part of that story concerns how the young Lincoln comes to discover the evils of slavery, but in Slotkin’s telling it equally involves Abe’s growth beyond the world of his bullying father and the brute ugliness of frontier Indian killing. All of this is shown to hinge on Abe’s realization that true leadership depends on the ability of democratic eloquence to transcend what Abe calls “the gifts of the man of war.” Among other things, Slotkin thereby shows how, in one potent ideology of democratic leadership, our concerns about the dangers of the imperial presidency can seem to be answered by the gifts of the rhetorical presidency. The president’s role as voice of the people is imagined to transcend and to justify the sheer power he exercises as commander–in–chief.

DL: What about Barack Obama? Will he have an influence on American literature?

SM: He’s going to be an enduring source of fascination. He’s resuscitated the vision of presidential leadership that on the Democratic side of the political spectrum had been more or less dormant since the Johnson years. Interestingly, he drew parallels between himself and Lincoln from the moment he announced his candidacy, and all through the campaign, he and his speechwriters drew very subtly on Lincoln’s and JFK’s words to bolster his own speeches.

Even more important in my view is the way that Obama’s campaign rhetoric re–articulated a progressive vision of the presidency. His standard stump speech, for example, cast his candidacy as one in a series of founding moments in American history. The chronicle began with the American Revolution and with the way “a band of patriots brought an empire to its knees.” Then Obama would go on to touch on the Civil War, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement, with this series of historical events arranged to culminate in his own candidacy. Each of these moments was described by Obama as an occasion when the American nation was reformed and the sovereign power of the people reestablished. In effect, Obama was saying: my presidency will amount to a refounding of America and a reestablishment of the authority of the American people over a government that has ceased to reflect their wishes.

It would be difficult to imagine a more direct or eloquent resuscitation of the heroic view of the presidency. Of course, only time will tell whether Obama will appear successful enough to make that view compelling again.