Guide to the Presidency


Edited by: Michael Nelson

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    CQ Press’s Guide to the Presidency is one of the few reference books that I always take with me on my working summer “vacation” on Cape Cod. I find it an indispensable book—and so, I think, will every American historian and biographer, every political scientist, and every student of international relations. Certainly it ought to be on the desk of every member of Congress, and every aspirant for the presidency should make it his or her bible.

    These imposing volumes are, first of all, a compendium of all the basic facts concerning the American presidency. Here are short, accurate, and insightful biographical sketches of every American president. These are fair-minded but not bland. For instance, the pre-presidential years of Warren G. Harding are said to have been devoted to “drinking, playing poker, and developing political allies.” Richard M. Nixon is considered “tainted” by the Watergate scandal, because “he had participated in the cover-up of illegal administration activities.” Even more refreshing are the biographies of every first lady. Where else could one learn that Ida McKinley had frequent bouts of epilepsy, that Edith Roosevelt carried bouquets of flowers to avoid having to shake hundreds of hands during public receptions, and that Mamie Eisenhower suffered not from alcoholism but from a chronic inner ear condition that caused her to lose her balance and bump into things? Careful, brief biographies of every vice president bring to mind such forgotten figures as Richard M. Johnson, vice president during the Van Buren administration who had an African-American mistress, Julia Chinn, and attempted to introduce his mixed-blood daughters as equals in virulently racist Washington society.

    Here, too, are readily accessible tables of the popular and electoral votes for each presidential and vice presidential candidate in every national election since 1789, together with a list of Also-Rans—candidates who received some electoral votes but did not become president or vice president. One appendix presents the cabinet members of every administration.

    But this Guide is far more than a mere encyclopedia of facts. The body of the book consists of long, careful monographs, each written by an expert, on the structure and basic functions of the presidential office. Beginning with the brief, general provisions of the Constitution providing for a chief executive, the authors trace the slow, and often unsteady, evolution of the office, from George Washington’s small staff of three departments (plus an attorney general), operating on a budget of about $4 million a year, to the present vast proliferation, with a federal executive bureaucracy that in 2004 consisted of almost 1.7 million employees.

    These admirable chapters authoritatively examine the president’s numerous, and often overlapping, roles, as legislative leader, chief diplomat, commander in chief, head of state, party leader, and chief economist. Others offer insightful accounts of how presidents and vice presidents are nominated and how these practices have changed over time. A revealing section traces the evolution of the role of the president as chief executive officer. As late as 1884, Woodrow Wilson, in Congressional Government, described the president’s day-to-day business of running the government as “mere administration”—“usually not much above routine.” But in subsequent decades the duties have so enormously expanded as to make nearly impossible demands on the time, energy, and health of the occupant of the White House. It was appropriate for Clinton Rossiter to introduce his authoritative 1956 study of the presidency with a quotation from Macbeth: “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!’ ”

    Valuable as history, several of these chapters are illuminating guides to present-day issues. Chapters new to this edition of the work are “Unilateral Powers of the Presidency” and “The Presidency and Popular Culture.”

    An especially valuable section of the Guide deals with the president and the federal bureaucracy. Featuring the brief, amusing boxed insert “Bureaucratic Lingo,” it traces the remorseless growth of the civil service and shows how the bureaucracy not merely implements but also makes policy—independently of the president and of Congress. It makes it easier to understand the frustration so many presidents have felt toward the bureaucracy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining why his numerous attempts to bring about changes in the State Department, the Treasury Department, and even the military were so often unsuccessful said it was “like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

    Largely a record of the success of the American presidency, the Guide also contains warnings of the fragility of the institution. Its sad chronicle of ten attempts to assassinate American presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, warns of the dangers hidden behind the panoply of power. The Guide also analyzes the three instances in U.S. history of serious attempts to remove a president from office. Whatever the merits in each case, the impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Bill Clinton suggest how easy it is to arouse partisanship and prejudice against a vulnerable incumbent.

    A notable feature of the Guide is the attention it gives to the vice presidency. For most of U.S. history it has been an office without meaningful functions and so inconsequential that in 1828 Daniel Webster declined nomination saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.” Indeed, the office has generally been so unimportant that because of deaths and resignations, the country has been without a vice president for one-fifth of its history—and has suffered no ill consequences. Only in recent years, beginning with Walter Mondale, has the vice president begun to serve as a close adviser to the president. That shift is important because, as the Guide notes, nine vice presidents—more than one-fifth of those who have served in the office—have become chief executive on the death (or, in Nixon’s case, resignation) of the president.

    My only complaint about the Guide is that it contains so much fascinating miscellaneous information that I become easily sidetracked when I am doing research. Where else could I discover that at George Washington’s first inauguration, no Bible could be found in Federal Hall in New York City, and aides had to rush out and borrow one from St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1, a few blocks away on Wall Street? Or that John Adams, whom some recent historians have praised as a paragon of democratic leadership, campaigned to have Congress authorize the ostentatious presidential title of “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same”? Or that Massachusetts did not ratify the Twelfth Amendment—the 1804 amendment providing for separate balloting for president and vice president—until 1961? Or that British scholar Harold J. Laski once called Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal a “pill to cure an earthquake”? Or that Americans lived—for the most part quite unaware—in a state of national emergency from 1933 to 1975? Or, on a lighter note, that Andrew Johnson’s daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, who presided over the White House during her father’s administration because of the illness of her mother, put cows on the White House lawn to provide the first family with milk and butter?

    But these are minor diversions in this magisterial work, which Michael Nelson has so ably planned and so intelligently edited. He has given us the fullest and best account of the origins and history of that distinctive American contribution to the science of politics, the presidency.

    David Herbert Donald

    Charles Warren Professor of American History Emeritus Harvard University


    The presidency is both a person and an office. At any given moment, the powers and duties of the presidency are entrusted fully to the person who is the president. To a great degree, the presidency has been shaped and defined by the forty-three individuals who, as of this writing, have held the office. Historical periods often are described in terms of the presidents who dominated them: the “Age of Jackson,” the “Lincoln years,” the “New Deal period” of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the “Reagan era.”

    But the presidency is more than the persons who have served as president. It is also an office, an enduring and evolving institution that is deeply embedded in an interactive network of other institutions: Congress, the Supreme Court, the departments and agencies of the bureaucracy, the news media, interest groups, political parties, the public, and the nations of the world.

    Plan of the Book

    By design and execution, Guide to the Presidency reflects the individualism of the presidency. The two volumes of the book are laced with descriptions of every president’s accomplishments and failures, virtues and foibles. Even a quick glance at the table of contents and the index will attest to the detailed information the Guide provides on each president. Part VIII consists of illustrated biographies of every president, from George Washington to George W. Bush (Chapter 35), the vice presidents, from John Adams to Richard B. Cheney (Chapter 36), and the first ladies, from Martha Washington to Laura Bush (Chapter 37). Part VII delves into the daily life of the president (Chapter 32), the role of the first lady, the first family, and the president’s friends (Chapter 33), and the developing role of former presidents (Chapter 34).

    The institutional character of the presidency is manifested in several ways, all of which are described in this book.

    • The presidency is a constitutional office. It has been shaped by its design at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and by later constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, and customs and precedents. Chapter 1 offers an extensive description of the constitutional beginnings of the presidency, and the six chapters that constitute Part III thoroughly examine the various powers of the office, most of them constitutional in origin. Constitutional aspects of the presidency also are noted throughout the book. Part II, for example, examines the processes of presidential selection, succession, and removal. New chapters, added for the fourth edition of the book, treat the unilateral powers of the presidency and depictions of the presidency in popular culture.
    • The presidency is a historical office. During its more than two centuries of existence, the presidency has evolved in response to changing social, economic, and political conditions—domestically and internationally. Chapter 2, which plots chronologically the development of the presidency, is one of only several places in the Guide where the history of the office is described. Chapter 6, for example, consists of an election-by-election history of presidential contests.
    • The presidency is the nation’s supreme elective office. Part II offers full treatment of presidential selection and removal—not just the history, rules, strategies, and processes of presidential nominations and elections, but also the methods provided by the Constitution for presidential selection under special circumstances, such as the death, resignation, or disability of the president.
    • The presidency is a highly public and political office. Indeed, it is as public and political after an election as it is during a campaign as evidenced by the ongoing importance of presidential appearances (Chapter 16). Presidential leadership depends heavily on the support or acquiescence of those groups outside government whose relations with the presidency are also described in Part IV—the political parties (Chapter 17), the mass media (Chapter 18), the public (Chapter 20), and interest groups (Chapter 21). In addition, a new chapter in this edition treats the place of the presidency in popular culture (Chapter 19).
    • The presidency is the chief office of the executive branch. This branch comprises the White House staff, the cabinet, and the numerous departments and agencies of the federal bureaucracy. Its major players and major components are described extensively in Part V.
    • The presidency is part of a multibranch system of government. Throughout the Guide, attention is paid to the separation of powers and the checks and balances that characterize the American constitutional system, but the interactions of the presidency with Congress (Chapter 29), the Supreme Court (Chapter 30), and the bureaucracy (Chapter 31) are specifically the subject of Part VI.

    The Guide also covers the vice presidency—its origins and history (Chapter 3), the processes of vice presidential selection (Chapter 5) and removal (Chapter 8), and the office of the vice president (Chapter 23).

    Thus the Guide to the Presidency explains in two volumes the origins, evolution, and contemporary workings of the most important office of the U.S. political system. The book has been written and edited to make this material readily accessible. The thirty-seven chapters of the Guide, in eight parts, are each devoted to a particular subject, but these topics are not discrete because few aspects of the presidency are unrelated to others. The subject of one chapter, therefore, may be mentioned in several different contexts throughout the book. The president’s relationship with the public, for example, is the focus of Part IV, but this relationship is also discussed in Part I (in Chapter 2, on the history of the office) and in Part II (in Chapter 5, on the electoral process). Easily visible cross-references in each chapter guide the reader to other relevant discussions as well as to documents, tables, and figures in the appendixes. This overlap provides complete treatment of a topic in one place but also allows readers to discover and pursue related subjects.

    Continuing the tradition of CQ Press’s other major reference works—Guide to Congress, Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Guide to U.S. Elections—the material in Guide to the Presidency is descriptive, factual, unbiased, and easy to understand. Writing in a highly readable style, the authors have distilled for the average reader the widely accepted expertise of scholars who study the presidency. For readers who want to delve further into the scholarly literature, the notes and selected bibliographies at the end of each chapter show the way.

    The reference materials section in the Guide supplements the text with documents, tables, and charts. Included are excerpts from more than forty documents highly significant to the presidency, with explanatory headnotes. The tables list, among other things, electoral votes for all presidential elections and cabinet members from the administration of George Washington through that of George W. Bush.

    The photographs and other images deserve special mention. The Guide is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of pictures chosen to instruct as well as to add visual interest. Some were selected to familiarize students with the classic pictures from the presidency—such as the shot of an exuberant Truman displaying a “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. Others capture unique moments—such as a young Bill Clinton meeting John F. Kennedy. Other illustrations highlight little-known facts of presidential history—such as the cartoon from the 1840 election showing the origin of the expression “OK.” Boxed material throughout the chapters emphasizes important, interesting, and current events.

    Changes in the Fourth Edition

    Readers familiar with the award-winning earlier editions of the Guide to the Presidency will find that this edition is, if anything, even better. It has been thoroughly updated to incorporate the events and personalities of the George W. Bush presidency and to address budgetary and economic issues, emerging political trends, recent Supreme Court appointments, and the new challenges posed by the “war on terrorism” and the war in Iraq.

    This edition also has been updated to incorporate new academic research on the presidency published during the 1990s and 2000s. The new scholarship infuses every chapter, but is especially apparent in two entirely new chapters: one on the unilateral powers of the presidency and one on depictions of the president in popular culture.

    Several highly respected scholars specializing in the presidency have joined the roster of contributors to this edition, including Meena Bose, David A. Crockett, Matthew Dickinson, Matthew Kerbel, Andrew C. Rudalevige, Greg Smith, Mary Stuckey, Daniel J. Tichenor, and Shirley Anne Warshaw.

    Perhaps the most striking improvement in the fourth edition is its design and layout, which features numerous changes to enhance readability and visual presentation.


    The current edition of the Guide is the work of numerous dedicated scholars and authors, many of whom have participated in all four editions. Major contributors are noted in the opening pages of Volume I and in each chapter.

    At CQ Press, preparation of the Fourth edition was overseen by acquisitions editor Mary Carpenter and development editor David Arthur under the direction of Andrea Pedolsky, chief of library reference editorial acquisitions. Sally Ryman once again handled production along with managing editor Joan Gossett and editorial coordinator Belinda Josey. Freelance editors Jon Preimesberger and Colleen McGuiness were the principle copy editors. Indexing of this edition was carried out by Indexing Partners LLC.

    The efforts of many people have brought this project through successive editions, but the work of a few deserve individual mention. David R. Tarr, former executive editor of CQ Press, kept alive the idea of the Guide during its conceptual stages, then provided thoughtful direction and support in the second edition and returned as sponsoring editor for the third edition. Freelance copy editor Sabra Bissette Ledent was instrumental in the original and second editions and served as the lead editor for the third edition, with responsibility for much of the content. Nola Healy Lynch, former developmental editor at CQ Press, wrote the working outline of the first edition in the 1980s, and presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin reviewed the initial plan of the book. Margaret Seawell, formerly a senior editor at CQ Press, was the principal editor of the first edition. Much of her seminal work on original manuscripts remains intact. The work of these editors was ably carried forward by CQ Press acquisitions editor Shana Wagger, who served as both developmental and supervisory editor of the second edition.

    John L. Moore, former assistant director of CQ Press, edited several chapters in the first and second editions and compiled the original reference materials. In the third edition, he revised the chapters on elections and the president and the media.

    The authors of the Guide displayed unusual dedication in meeting the demands of a rigorous review and editing process. I commend them for their stamina as well as for their scholarship. In addition to the contributors to the new volume, freelance writers Harrison Donnelly, Richard A. Karno, Margaret C. Thompson, and James Brian Watts deserve warm acknowledgment.

    Finally, I and the other writers and staff owe a great deal to our friends and especially our families, who stood by while we worked on the Guide. Their support and good cheer count for much.

    Michael Nelson

    Rhodes College

    Contributors to the Fourth Edition

    Michael Nelson, Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College: Chapter 1, Constitutional Beginnings; Chapter 3, History of the Vice Presidency; Chapter 4, Rating the Presidents; Chapter 5, The Electoral Process and Taking Office; Chapter 7, Selection by Succession; Chapter 8, Removal of the President and the Vice President; Chapter 23, Office of the Vice President; Chapter 34, Former Presidents; Chapter 35, Biographies of the Presidents; Chapter 36, Biographies of the Vice Presidents; Chapter 37, Biographies of the First Ladies; headnotes to Documents and Texts.

    Harold F. Bass Jr., Professor of Political Science and Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Ouachita Baptist University: Chapter 16, Presidential Appearances; Chapter 17, The President and Political Parties.

    W. Craig Bledsoe, Professor of Political Science and Provost, Lipscomb University: Chapter 26, Presidential Commissions.

    Meena Bose, Peter S. Kalikow Chair in Presidential Studies, Hofstra University: Chapter 13, Chief Diplomat; Chapter 14, Commander in Chief.

    Mark E. Byrnes, Professor of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: Chapter 31, The President and the Bureaucracy.

    David A. Crockett, Associate Professor of Political Science, Trinity University: Chapter 20, Public Support and Opinion.

    Matthew Dickinson, Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College: Chapter 12, Legislative Leader.

    David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History Emeritus, Harvard University: Foreword.

    Jim Granato, Director, University of Houston Center for Public Policy, and Associate Professor, Department of Political Science: Chapter 15, Chief Economist.

    Deborah Kalb, Washington, D.C., Author: Chapter 6, Chronology of Presidential Elections; Chapter 27, Housing of the Executive Branch; Chapter 28, Executive Branch Pay and Perquisites; Chapter 32, Daily Life of the President; Chapter 33, The First Lady, The First Family, and the President’s Friends.

    Matthew Kerbel, Professor of Political Science, Villanova University: Chapter 18, The President and the News Media.

    Sidney M. Milkis, White Burkett Miller Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics, University of Virginia: Chapter 2, History of the Presidency.

    Stephen L. Robertson, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: Chapter 22, Executive Office of the President: White House Office.

    Andrew C. Rudalevige, Associate Professor of Political Science, Dickinson College: Chapter 9, Unilateral Powers of the Presidency.

    Greg Smith, Associate Professor of Communication, Georgia State University: Chapter 19, The Presidency and Popular Culture.

    Robert J. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, State University of New York—Cortland: Chapter 29, The President and Congress.

    Mary Stuckey, Professor of Communication and Political Science, Georgia State University: Chapter 10, Chief of State; Chapter 19, The Presidency and Popular Culture.

    Daniel J. Tichenor, Associate Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University: Chapter 21, The President and Interest Groups.

    John R. Vile, Professor and Chair of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: Chapter 30, The President and the Supreme Court.

    Shirley Anne Warshaw, Professor of Political Science, Gettysburg College: Chapter 11, Chief Administrator; Chapter 24, Executive Office of the President: Supporting Organizations; Chapter 25, The Cabinet and Executive Departments.

    Contributors to Previous Editions

    Harold F. Bass Jr., Professor of Political Science and Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Ouachita Baptist University: Public Support and Opinion; The President and Interest Groups.

    Adriel Bettelheim, Senior Writer for CQ Weekly: Executive Office of the President: Supporting Organizations; The Cabinet and Executive Departments; Government Agencies and Corporations.

    W. Craig Bledsoe, Professor of Political Science and Provost, Lipscomb University: Chief Executive; Executive Branch Pay and Perquisites; Executive Office of the President: Supporting Organizations; Cabinet and Executive Departments; Government Agencies and Corporations; Presidential Commissions.

    Christopher J. Bosso, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean School of Social Science, Public Affairs, and Public Policy, Northeastern University: Chief Executive; Legislative Leader.

    Mark E. Byrnes, Professor of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: The President and the Bureaucracy.

    Daniel C. Diller, Washington, D.C., Author on Politics and International Relations: Chief Diplomat; Commander in Chief; Chief of State; Chief Economist; Biographies of the Presidents; Biographies of the Vice Presidents.

    Charles C. Euchner, Former Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston in affiliation with the Taubman Center at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: The Electoral Process; Taking Office; Chronology of Presidential Elections; Presidential Appearances; Public Support and Opinion; The President and Interest Groups.

    Jim Granato, Director, University of Houston Center for Public Policy, and Associate Professor, Department of Political Science: Chief Economist.

    Deborah Kalb, Washington, D.C., Author: Executive Office of the President: Supporting Organizations.

    Martha Joynt Kumar, Professor of Political Science, Towson University: The President and the News Media.

    John Anthony Maltese, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Georgia: The Electoral Process; Taking Office.

    Sidney M. Milkis, White Burkett Miller Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics, University of Virginia: History of the Presidency.

    John Moore, Washington, D.C., Author on Elections and Politics: Chronology of Presidential Elections; The President and the News Media.

    Dean J. Peterson, Assistant Professor of Economics, Seattle University: Chief Economist.

    Stephen L. Robertson, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: Daily Life of the President; The First Lady, the First Family, and the President’s Friends; Executive Office of the President: White House Office.

    Mark J. Rozell, Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University: Chief Executive.

    Leslie Rigby, Washington, D.C., Author on Governmental Affairs and Public Policy: Executive Office of the President: Supporting Organizations; Cabinet and Executive Departments; Government Agencies and Corporations.

    Margaret H. Seawell, Executive Editor, Sage Publications: Housing of the Executive Branch.

    Robert J. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, State University of New York—Cortland: The President and Congress.

    John R. Vile, Professor and Chair of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University: The President and the Supreme Court.

    Stephen H. Wirls, Associate Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College: Chief Diplomat; Commander in Chief.

    Margaret Jane Wyszomirski, Professor, School of Public Policy and Management, Ohio State University: Removal of the President.

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