The importance of being president

Henry Adams was wrong; occupants of the White House can reshape history

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It is one of the great American stories, involving three great Americans and perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in the United States. The principals were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt along with Henry Adams, the fabled historian and intellectual. The setting was Adams' home right across the park from the White House.


David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890).

It occurred on the day 95 years ago when Eleanor and Franklin went to Adams' home for lunch. Roosevelt at the time was assistant secretary of the Navy; Adams at the time (actually at all times) was a skeptical, sometimes acerbic observer of the American political scene. In the middle of a discourse by FDR (who at 31 wasn't known that way -- yet) on a contemporary matter, Adams, who was 75, sneered:

"Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House come and go, and nothing that you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long!"

The month before an election -- the most important election in years, everyone says, just like they said four, eight, 12 and 16 years ago -- is an apt time to contemplate the remarks of perhaps the most dyspeptic member of the Adams family, a family peculiarly suited to suffering from, and spreading, dyspepsia (Abigail Adams, having merely married into the family, was apparently immune of its effects).

On the surface it is tempting to say that Adams was right, and for months I have been saying that examining the details of one candidate's health plan or another's tax plan is pointless because once Congress gets its hands on major policy proposals they swiftly become unrecognizable. Prime piece of evidence: The financial bailout proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. The bill that passed Congress bore almost no resemblance and cost a whole lot more.

This theory works, too, in much of national security. Even the most fervent opponent of President Bush could not plausibly argue that al-Qaida would not have tried to strike the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, if Al Gore or someone else were in the White House. The presence of Mr. Bush in the White House did not materially affect the Russians' plans in Georgia or the Chinese comportment in the months leading up to the Olympics.

But the best argument against the Adams thesis could come from the man -- still unmarked by polio, still unmarked by disappointment -- who sat down to lunch that afternoon in 1913.

Some 15 years after Adams' death, Roosevelt himself would move into the White House and demonstrate how great could be the impact of a single individual who lived there on the course of the nation. Herbert Hoover himself argued the point in the weeks leading up to FDR's inauguration, when he failed to win Roosevelt's cooperation in declaring a bank holiday, and in the months that followed, when he was not stingy with his criticism of the New Deal.

There is an answer to Adams in our own time, in the White House right now. Bob Woodward and others have shown that it was Mr. Bush's determination to take on Iraq that prompted the United States to drive the war against terrorism across Iraq's borders. It was Mr. Bush's convictions about the role of taxes in the economy that fueled the tax cuts that have become an issue in the 2008 election. It was also Mr. Bush's commitment to fighting AIDS that made the difference in many lives, though his opponents are grudging in their praise for what may be one of his major nonpartisan legacies.

Parsing the fine print of the candidates' proposals is illuminating only because the details might provide some hints to the way their minds work, the people whose interests they support, the topics that engage their enthusiasm. The old civics-class rule still prevails: The president proposes, the Congress disposes.

One thing more: Even a president's power is limited, a humbling lesson taught by the great political scientist Richard Neustadt. Ronald Reagan wanted smaller government and had to settle for a less-intrusive government. Mr. Bush wanted smaller government and will leave with a bigger Pentagon and an entirely new Cabinet department, Homeland Security.

But no one who witnessed the way Ronald Reagan bent establishment Washington to his will -- the way he completely changed the debate in Washington; the way he altered the assumptions of Washington -- can plausibly argue that nothing that the occupant of the White House does can affect the history of the world for long. We live with Reagan's skepticism of government still -- and both 2008 nominees are his heirs.

The truth is that the 2008 election is important. This is an important juncture in American history. The economy is in transition to a new structure whose contours we cannot now imagine. The world is being remade every day, perhaps more in India and China than in America. The threat of terror has not abated. The return of Cold War-type tensions with the legatees of the Soviet Union is a frightening prospect. Then there are the twin challenges of energy and the environment, and vitally important ethical questions growing out of advances in biotechnology and genetics.

Henry Adams was wry but wrong, for his time and for ours. It mattered, for example, that Woodrow Wilson, and not William Howard Taft, was president when Adams made those remarks, as the nation would learn when the president led America into World War I. It mattered that FDR was president during the Great Depression and World War II. It mattered, too, that James Buchanan was president in the four years leading to the Civil War. (Had he done a better job, his tenure might not be described as the four years leading to the Civil War, because there might not have been a Civil War.)

It will matter, too, whether Barack Obama or John McCain is president, despite their common chants of reform, despite their shared sense of impatience with politics as usual. The beautiful irony is that in this Age of Cynicism, no one is arguing, as George C. Wallace did in 1968, that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the major-party candidates.



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