In Honor of Presidents Day

As I have done ever since I began this blog in the late 1950’s, I post my traditional column commemorating President’s Day by remembering the late, great Richard E. Neustadt.  Until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt was the nation’s foremost presidency scholar.  In his almost six decades of public service and in academia, Neustadt advised presidents of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service.  Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, (and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.)

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program.  When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, one had to dig deeper to uncover the sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4rth edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out two years ago). Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done through command or unilateral action. Instead, they need to persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during an economic depression, President Obama, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia.  He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics.  He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.). When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

And so sometime today take time to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!)  book available on edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!



  1. Cheers, indeed, to Dick Neustadt! Thanks, Matt, for the timely reminder. I would only amend this post by reminding President Obama to check out books with the word “imperial” in their title, should he want advice on dealing with Congress, or for the benefit of photographers. (Hint: Team of Rivals is not one of them.)

  2. We’ve talked a little of how the fundamentals affected the Mass special election. And there is pundent talk of how the tide is turning towards the GOP. The special election I believe was based on fundamentals. But now with the Evan Bayh “retirement.” Is there truly a shift that can be seen with the national fundamental favoring the republican party? I figured that a retirement like this is only because Bayh sees the writing on the wall and that reelection simply isn’t possible. What are your thoughts?

  3. Chris – An excellent question! I’ll try to deal with it in my next post. The short answer is that I don’t think the Senate retirements point to a Republican wave, since more of the 10 Senate retirements (by my count) to date are by Republicans (6) than Democrats (4) so far. The House may tell a different story, but I’ll need to run the numbers. So what’s driving the Senate retirements, if not electoral calculations? I think alot of it is due to the polarization and partisan bickering that is particularly bothersome to moderates from both parties. But see my next post for a more detailed discussion.

  4. I still remember that one of books for my first semester in college (Fall, 1963) was Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power.
    I remember the attitude of the time, and, as I recall, of Prof. Neustadt’s book was that Eisenhower was too reserved as President and had not been forceful enough. With JFK, we had a new, young, energetic President and many people, particularly liberals, wanted a more active, forceful President. Also, the preface of the book had a quote from Harry Truman indicating that “poor Ike” would give all sorts of orders and no one would listen because the President can’t give orders like a general can.

    The assessment of Presidents usually changes with time, some go up and others go down. Eisenhower’s reputation seems to have been on a generally upward curve over the years. We now know that he preferred to work behind the scenes and let others be out front. Apparently the avuncular old man concerned about his golf game was a carefully crafted image.

    I have often wondered if Prof. Neustadt’s view of Eisenhower changed over the years.
    The other thought I have had about Eisenhower refers to the political environments he had experienced before he became President. He once worked for Douglas MacArthur and, during World War II, he dealt with FDR, Churchill, Montgomery, Patton, DeGaulle and all kinds of political situations. Truman’s view that Eisenhower was a political naïf is kind of hard to believe.

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