As I have done every President’s Day since I began this blog in the late 1950’s, I post my traditional column commemorating 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 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out four 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. It is a simple point, but one that is often overlooked by presidents and their strongest supporters who in the heady days after election often overestimate just how much power a president has.
At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Others have picked up on his themes, but none have distilled the essence of presidential leadership quite so well. The reason why Neustadt’s book retains its power, I have come increasingly to believe, is because Neustadt was, at heart, a government bureaucrat more than an academic. Beyond the subject matter, what makes his analysis so fascinating and compelling 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 on an airport tarmac 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 under Truman – 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. One of his last advising roles involved traveling to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva. In my last conversation with him, a few weeks before his death, he was his usual generous self, providing me equal parts career advice, scotch and a mini-lesson on the history of presidential war powers and their relevance to the Bush presidency.
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 Amazon.com 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!
Thank you for this wonderful piece on presidential scholar Richard Neustadt. You helped me connect a few dots. My later father, Dr. F. Oladipo Onipede, received his doctorate from Columbia University in political science in the mid-1950s where he got to know Shirley Williams. I remember meeting her in London when my parents visited her in 1970. I continue to appreciate your blog and your analysis on the presidential candidates and presidential power.