What’s behind the best presidential decisions?
About this blog: Presidential decision-making is tricky. Fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or not? Pardon Richard Nixon, or not? Invade Iraq, or not? Nick Ragone assesses how White House decisions are made in “Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions That Changed the Nation," being released today – Presidents’ Day – by Prometheus Books. Ragone considers the big decisions such as Nixon’s commitment to go to China, Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Kennedy’s challenge to America to reach the moon. Here, he reveals two traits behind the best presidential decisions.
“The aggressive impulse of an Evil Empire” — it’s one of the most recognizable and devastating utterances in presidential history. Many historians, in fact, consider it something of a turning point in U.S-Soviet relations — in an instant, President Reagan had successfully reshaped the trajectory of the Cold War by branding the adversary as evil at a time when much of the country was urging just the opposite: greater cooperation.
And it nearly didn’t come about. Those closest to Reagan wanted nothing to do with the harsh rhetoric. Time and again they had scrubbed similar phrases from his speeches, much to the president’s chagrin. To their thinking, it was unnecessarily inflammatory, would cause more harm than good, and on some level was simply unpresidential, beneath the dignity of both the office and the man.
Reagan felt differently. That one sentence perfectly captured all he believed about the Soviet Union. He wanted to put the world on notice that he considered victory in the Cold War not only achievable, but inevitable – a view that few outside his inner circle shared. If he had to bypass his own State Department and overrule many of his closest advisors to use the language in a speech, so be it. He wasn't going to be denied.
The line between presidential success and failure has always been a fine one. It's a bit of a mystery why some decisions take hold while others do not. To reduce presidential achievement to a few axioms would be shortsighted and difficult; there are simply too many variables that factor into the equation.
That being the case, there are two traits that seem to stand out the most: conviction and persistence. Decisions born of either, or both, tend to stand the best chance at creating policies that shape the long-term trajectory of the nation, and typically come to define the narrative of their presidency.
When confronted with the prospect of civil war over South Carolina's nullification of the federal tariff laws, Andrew Jackson, who had broken ranks with his southern brethren on the issue, steadfastly maintained that the nature of the Union was perpetual, and therefore could not be summarily disbanded by a disgruntled state.
He believed so much in the sanctity of the Union that he wrote an 8,000 word treatise on the topic, which Lincoln would later draw upon to justify some of his actions. With the eloquence of his words and vehemence of his ideas, Jackson was able to forestall civil war for another three decades.
Lincoln faced a similar predicament as he made his way east for his inauguration in the spring of 1861. There was widespread disagreement over whether the Union should be held together by force. Many in the country, including the outgoing president, thought it wiser to let it dissolve.
But like Jackson before him, Lincoln held the Union with near biblical reverence. Even at his lowest point in the spring of 1862, he never wavered on the rightness of his decision to go to war. Of course, history would prove him right.
Ironically, few presidents believed more deeply or advocated more fiercely for a policy than Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations. The peace-keeping organization was his brain child, and he literally gave his life trying to secure its approval in the Senate.
Although he failed to win ratification, the cause was prescient. How history might have been different had the United States been active in world affairs in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Lend-Lease program was born of Franklin Roosevelt’s subtle but persistent maneuvering to gird the country for war. Truman knew that his decision to fire Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War was wildly unpopular – even career ending – but that never influenced his thinking, much like Gerald Ford with his pardon of Richard Nixon. History has vindicated both men.
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