BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Forrest McDonald, author of “The American Presidency,” almost at the end of your book you write the following: "The caliber of people who have served as Chief Executive has declined erratically but persistently from the day George Washington left office. The Presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good in the nation and in the world than perhaps any other secular institution in history." The Presidency has gone down, down, down since George Washington?
FORREST McDONALD, AUTHOR, "THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY": No, it's erratic. I mean, it went abruptly down with John Adams. It went back up again with Jefferson, but Jefferson was no Washington. Washington was such a great man; that's not an act to follow. We can perhaps talk about that some more, but it began to decline throughout the 19th century. From Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, who have you got? You've got Lincoln and a bunch of other people that -- Mort Sahl once said in 1960, "Vote no. Keep the White House vacant another eight years." Well, they voted for 75 years to keep the White House vacant. There have been some ups and downs in the 20th century, some good ones and some bad ones, but it's been by and large a downhill trek, I think.
LAMB: If you could pick one of all 41 men, which one would you pick?
McDONALD: Oh, Washington.
McDONALD: Washington was the indispensable man. He was the Revolution; it was just by sheer force of character that he held the Continental Army together and that he hung out for seven, eight years, brought the victory. He astonished the world by laying down his arms. Successful generals in revolutions had never done that, and the world was aware of that, from Caesar all the way up to Cromwell. He announced his retirement; he would never reenter public life, but the country was going to hell on a raft because the Articles of Confederation were inadequate, and they had to create an executive branch and had to create the Constitution.
He came back and he served, and he was acutely conscious of the duality of the office. One is symbolic, and the other is chief administrator, head of state, head of government. And he was wonderful at both roles. He was the symbolic embodiment of the nation as President, which Presidents have to be. I mean, even the bad ones; we look to them as the symbol of what we are, what we aspire to be and so on. But the reason that he was so much better than the rest of them is that he could play both roles very, very effectively.
Looking at the 20th century, we've had people who could play one brilliantly but couldn't play the other at all. William Howard Taft -- Taft was an enormous mountain of a man, and he looked lethargic, he looked like a plutocrat, all kinds of stuff. He was very, very good at running the government. He was following Teddy Roosevelt, who was a wonderful showman, not very good at government but just wonderful at getting up on a stump and using the bully pulpit, as he called it, etc. It takes two different kinds of tolerance, really, and very few people have had them.
Franklin Roosevelt had them both; he could do both. Move on forward to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's better at running the government than anybody has ever been; that is, more effective at running the government than anybody has ever been except possibly Jefferson and possibly Franklin Roosevelt. But he was a cornball, and he would come out and say, "Ma fellow Americans" -- like that. And nobody trusted him. Besides, his ears were too big. Johnson was doomed to fail; he almost had to fail.
LAMB: Who's the worst?
McDONALD: Well, I won't name any of the non-entities of the 19th century because they did no harm. Probably Harding -- no, even Harding has found his supporters. That opens a can of worms, sort of, because you can't judge how a President's going to fare in the history books, though they're playing to the history books at all times. You can't judge them until the force of their personality is gone, so what brings that thought to mind is Harding.
Harding in his own day, though he is judged by historians universally as a total dud, in his own day he was immensely popular and very well beloved. When he died on the Pacific Coast, they took his body on a train from California to Ohio, which was his home state. There was a continuous line of people there. The New York Times said, "This is the most beloved, respected President." Within months scandals were breaking; within months the whole illusion was going to seed. Or Harry Truman -- I mean in his own time the Truman administration was very much troubled, not least because Truman -- do you remember seeing him in newsreels? Or are you too young for that?
LAMB: I remember him.
McDONALD: You know, he had that nasal twang, and he had those spectacles. He was very myopic, and he sort of looked like this. When they put him on the newsreels and he was addressing Congress, the people behind him on camera were sleeping. He was a total washout in that kind of sense. Who would have thought it? Now Truman is very widely regarded as one of the great ones.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this cover. I could not find anywhere in the book itself where you tell us who's on this cover. Do you?
LAMB: Just for the fun of it I'm going to guess. The first one over here would be George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt. I'm going to jump over here to Richard Nixon, and that's either Harry Truman or FDR.
McDONALD: That's Harry Truman. You got it.
LAMB: Whose idea was this?
McDONALD: The idea of the jacket was the designer for University Press of Kansas. The idea of how to do it was them, and which faces to put on there was mine. They asked, "Who do you think ought to be there?" and I picked these.
LAMB: Why did you pick these?
McDONALD: They represent a pretty good cross-section. Roosevelt would have been a bit too obvious. I thought all the faces would be highly recognizable. It's interesting that you have trouble with Truman but not with Nixon, because most people I've talked with have trouble identifying Nixon. It's because of the angle; if you tilt it backwards, Nixon is a lot more recognizable and Truman is less so. If you tilt it forward, I think Truman becomes more recognizable.
LAMB: Who did this?
McDONALD: I don't even -- it's on there somewhere. I don't know his name; I should know. He's given credit in the book, but I don't know who it is.
LAMB: Where do you live?
McDONALD: Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- or rather I live outside of Coker, Alabama, which is out in the country 12 miles.
LAMB: What are you doing in that area of the country?
McDONALD: I teach at the University of Alabama; I'm a history professor. But I only go into town a couple of days a week. I live out in the country -- love it.
LAMB: What do you teach?
McDONALD: I teach a wide range of courses in American history, because I like to recruit students when they're sophomores and I get really, really good ones, and I discourage the bad ones. Then if I'm going to have the same students all the way up through their senior year, through five or six courses, I've got to change the offerings. I teach the Enlightenment; I teach the 18th century; I teach the founding of the Republic. I have stopped teaching the survey courses I used to teach. I used to like to teach them.
LAMB: What does that mean, survey?
McDONALD: Beginning in Colonial times and coming all the way to the present, the kind of course that you take as a sophomore that you've got to take for distribution requirements and that kind of thing. I stopped it because the quality of the students -- I mean, they don't know where Mexico is.
LAMB: Who do you blame for that?
McDONALD: Public schools, the teachers' union, federal government, which I like to blame for everything. It's part of the general declining condition of the planet.
LAMB: How would you describe your political views?
LAMB: How conservative?
McDONALD: Paleo. The New York Times reviewed this book a little while back, and I was described as a distinguished neo-conservative. Well, from the New York Times' point of view, that's a good thing because they think real conservatives are crazy, and they think that neos are very bright, like Irving Kristol and people like that. So the reviewer did me a favor, but I was scared to death that one of my very conservative friends would write in -- I've got friends like this -- and say, "He's no neo-conservative; he's a paleo-conservative."
LAMB: What does that mean?
McDONALD: Old conservative. You know the conservatives are divided into different camps. There's as much infighting among them as is on the other end of the political spectrum.
LAMB: How long have you been a conservative?
McDONALD: As long as I can remember.
LAMB: Where's home?
McDONALD: I grew up in Texas, went to school at the University of Texas, got all my degrees there.
LAMB: What did you study?
McDONALD: I was an English major as an undergraduate because I wanted to write the great American novel.
LAMB: Did you ever do that?
McDONALD: I wrote a very bad novel; I mean, it rots. I still have it.
LAMB: Did you publish it?
McDONALD: No, no. Not under my own name, anyway. But I learned as I went along that I like to write. It's hard work for me to write, and it's more fun to have written than to write. But I found that I could do it in history, so I've been in history ever since.
LAMB: I've got to tell you, I was having lunch the other day close by and the fellow sitting next to me turns out to be a historian. Somehow we started talking about this show, and I said I had your book. He said, "Forrest McDonald's an old friend of mine." But this is what he said, "Oh, you know he's very conservative. He's been beat up over the years by the `liberal' professors in this business." He wanted me to ask you about that. Then he said, "Ask him about the Wisconsin Historical Society."
McDONALD: I know who you're talking about because I just saw him a little while ago, and he mentioned this. I met him -- this was in the 1950s -- when he was out there at the state historical society of Wisconsin to be interviewed for a job. The history department at the University of Wisconsin had the old, progressive La Follette kind of a tradition and they were all -- they weren't leftists, but they were all very much on the liberal extreme of the spectrum. To historians of that sort the name of Charles A. Beard was a sacred one. Charles A. Beard was a historian who wrote a book many years ago called “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.”
It just angered conservatives everywhere, because what he said essentially was that the Constitution was written by a bunch of people who had certain kinds of economic interests, and they wrote the Constitution to protect those interests. My doctoral dissertation, which later got turned into a book called “We the People,” absolutely demolished the Beard interpretation, and I say that not boastfully -- every reviewer agreed that it did. And you know, I was a young whippersnapper. The folks at Wisconsin didn't like me for that, and they did an awful lot of badmouthing of me and some smearing and such stuff as that. I've got no complaints; I've had a wonderful career, but I've run into some -- well, political correctness was not invented in the last five years.
LAMB: If you're a partisan and you have strong feelings, can you take that out of your writing, or do you try to?
McDONALD: Sure. Oh, sure. This book, at the very beginning of it I say that the book began with the political controversy which I wanted to understand but didn't want to get involved in, and that was the shift in positions of attitudes of liberals and Democrats on the one side and Republicans and conservatives on the other -- attitudes toward the Presidency, the tremendous growth of Presidential power. From Roosevelt all the way up to Lyndon Johnson -- or maybe to Nixon, right in there -- liberals and Democrats in general applauded the growth of the Presidency, the power of the Presidency. Conservatives and/or Republicans deplored it and were trying to check it and such stuff as that.
In 1973 there was a crossing of the lines because Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published at that time a book called “The Imperial Presidency,” in which he denounced the explosion of Presidential power, almost likening it to a cancer. For the next while, of course, Republicans did control the Presidency for most of the time, and the Democrats and liberals became pro-Congress and anti-President. The conservatives and/or Republicans were much slower to come around the other way, but when Nixon became President, then they began to say, "Hey, maybe a strong Presidency is not a bad thing after all."
Okay, I wanted to understand that. I got into the thing because I've spent so many years -- I've spent most of my adult life in the 18th century. So I had the background on the thing, and I started exploring. What I learned was that people wanted me to write a polemic from one side or the other -- are you for it or are you against it? Well, I could see good in it, and I could see bad in it. I can see danger in it, and I can see wonderful, good things in it. And I didn't find it difficult at all to remain detached about the whole thing.
LAMB: But you did, at the end, say, "The Presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good in the nation and in the world than perhaps any other secular institution in history."
McDONALD: Yes, I think that's true, and I don't think that's incompatible at all with my position of neutrality on it, because in the 10, 15, 20 pages leading up to that remark and indeed in the last third of the book, the things that I have traced show that the Presidency is a very, very troubled institution. I mean, it's practically lost its capacity to do things. This gridlock that people have been talking about for a number of years now is not merely a function of the fact that 20 out of the 24 years before 1992 there were Republicans in the White House and Democrat control of one or both houses of Congress. It's much more deeply rooted than that; it's institutional.
Things have got away from the way they were originally designed to be. Probably the main weakness in the whole scheme of things, apart from bureaucratization, is that the level of expectations of Presidents has become so high and candidates, to sell themselves, go and aggravate that sense of things. In the `92 campaign, for instance, Bill Clinton is going to grow the economy. How the heck is the President going to grow the economy? Even if he knew how, even if he understood economics, which he doesn't, the President simply doesn't have the tools. It may be that the tools don't even exist, because the Federal Reserve system, it can jiggle things around a little bit with interest rates; we've got Congress which can lower or raise taxes, causing a few things to happen. But if the experience of modern times has demonstrated anything about economics it is that government can't really control it, and the market is so much bigger and more powerful than anything that government can do.
Okay, but the President is expected to -- if it's crime, hey, then get tough on crime. Well, he can do a lot of good showboating about it. A lot of Presidents recently have done a lot of good showboating about it, but they can't do anything. It's beyond Presidential reach. So many problems in the United States of America today are so beyond what the President or the federal government, even if the federal government were working peachy keen, which it's not; it's just beyond them, beyond control. A part of that problem comes from the fact that Presidents in general and Washingtonians in particular don't seem to understand that things are different in different parts of the country.
My favorite example is the 65 mile an hour speed limit. Okay, Congress is going to economize, and they put in the 65-mile-an-hour speed limit and blah blah, without noticing that 65 miles an hour in Nevada or Kansas is not the same speed as 65 miles an hour in Rhode Island. But the tendency to expect more and more of Presidents coinciding with the steadily reducing capacity for them to do what is expected of them is what has brought the thing virtually to a state of paralysis. Still, that does not mean that over the course of 200 years -- it's been a wonderful institution; it was a great invention.
LAMB: You have a footnote on page 468. You say, "President Nixon's stock has risen sharply during the past few years, and it is my personal belief that someday he will reckon among the great and near-great Presidents, depending upon the course history takes in the future." And you also say in an earlier footnote that you talked to him in 1992, and you refer to that a couple of times in this book. Is he the only President you've talked to?
McDONALD: No, I've talked with Reagan.
LAMB: For this book?
McDONALD: No, I talked with Reagan for other circumstances and other reasons. I talked with Nixon because Nixon invited me. He had heard about something I had written and wanted to meet me, and through mutual friends I went up and had dinner with him in New Jersey.
LAMB: How long did you spend with him?
McDONALD: Four hours, maybe.
LAMB: What did you talk about?
McDONALD: The whole range of things -- for instance, the question of the court order to turn over the tapes. I had written in there -- the thing was in manuscript at that point -- that that was the only time the court has ever given a direct order to a President and that I thought that Nixon would have said no if the articles of impeachment had not been reported back from committee to the full House six days later. I asked him point blank about that, and I said, "I didn't think you would turn over the papers." And he said, "Hell no, I wouldn't have turned over the papers. I have still papers they're trying to get, and I'm not going to turn them over to them."
We talked about that, and we talked about the philosophy of the Presidency and we talked about a wide range of -- you know, he's a very, very well-educated and broad-gauged guy. You've interviewed him, I'm sure. He's knowledgeable, particularly about foreign relations and the history of foreign relations and that kind of stuff, so we ranged all over the lot. We also talked about his place in history. He was not optimistic. He said, "I don't think so."
LAMB: Why are you optimistic? Great or near-great President?
McDONALD: Because of this -- his problems were the kinds of problems that Harry Truman had or that Abraham Lincoln had, which is up close, warts and all, he was not a very attractive man and he did a lot of things that were beyond the pale -- he broke the law, he did all kinds of stuff, and that's what caught attention at the time. But you have to back off from Abraham Lincoln to see what a great man he was; you have to back off from Harry Truman and see in a much broader historical perspective. Now, what Nixon is doing -- when he talked about the architecture of peace and the new structure and stuff of peace, he knew what he was talking about, and to open up relations with communist China was sort of the masterpiece, the master link in the whole thing he was building. He was trying to break the bipolarism of the Cold War in which everybody was doing all kinds of crazy things -- distorted, warped perceptions.
He was trying to break it up and make it a multipolar thing, and the only way to do that, the essential card in the game was China. Interestingly enough, as a confirmed red-baiter and an old cold warrior and so on, he was one of the very few men in the United States who could open diplomatic relations with China. And once he did, once the bipolar conflict became a multipolar conflict, the rest of the thing could fall in place, and ultimately the Cold War would be over with. I think for the way he handled foreign affairs and a great vision he had in foreign affairs, I think that is what he will ultimately be remembered for.
LAMB: Was it strange sitting around talking to about a President who is alive about where his place in history is?
McDONALD: It was unreal, unreal being there in the first place. I mean, I'm sitting there talking to this very, very bright, knowledgeable, articulate guy, and every once in a while it would hit me: this is Richard M. Nixon. You know, when I drove up to his apartment, he's standing there with the door open, big greeting and stuff like that. It was a large unreality quotient involved.
LAMB: And when did you talk to Ronald Reagan?
McDONALD: In 1987. I was the Jefferson lecturer; that's a thing from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
LAMB: You were the 16th.
McDONALD: Right. They do one every year; it's for achievement in the humanities. I gave the Jefferson lecture that year, and the President and Mrs. Reagan gave a reception for us afterwards. It was fun; I spent most of the time talking to Nancy because the President had got a circle -- the board members of the NEH were there, and he was just ...
LAMB: National Endowment for the Humanities, NEH.
McDONALD: Yes. And he was charming the pants off of them with one funny story after another, and I was standing back, sort of behind, with Mrs. Cheney, who was the director of the endowment, and with Nancy Reagan. It was a very interesting conversation, so I talked more with her than with him.
LAMB: How did you get picked to be the Jefferson lecturer.
McDONALD: I don't really know; a friend of mine who very much wanted to be the Jefferson lecturer succeeding me asked me, "What's the politics of it?" I said, "I don't have any idea." The board sits -- in their infinite wisdom somehow they pull it out of a hat. I do know this, though, that subsequent to my having become the Jefferson lecturer, each year they ask me -- among, I'm sure, hundreds and hundreds of other people -- "Whom would you recommend to get it?" And then I suppose members of the board put together portfolios on people they like, and there it goes. But that's all I know.
LAMB: Did it change your life any?
McDONALD: Not really.
LAMB: What do you get?
McDONALD: What do I get?
LAMB: Yes. Do you get money?
McDONALD: You get 10,000 bucks, but I'm on record -- I was already on record -- as having said in print I thought that the National Endowment for the Humanities ought to be abolished and people ought not to take its money, so that kind of put me on the spot. So I didn't take the money, but that was tricky because -- you know, after George Washington came out of the Army in 1784, 1785, somewhere along in there, the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland chartered a canal company to dig up the Potomac, and the company gave him shares in the corporation. He had promised he would serve without pay, and he couldn't accept this. On the other hand, it posed a real dilemma for him because, if he just said no, he said it would be too ostentatious a display of disinterestedness. Still, he couldn't take it; he agonized over it quite some time, and finally he founded a college with the proceeds.
Okay, I was in something like that kind of position. And it was really awkward because a fellow from the New York Times interviewed me -- nice interview, but he made a very nasty dig that this fellow talks about not taking government money and that kind of stuff, and it should be pointed out that this carries a $10,000 prize with it. But I wouldn't tell him, but the people at the endowment called him up the next day and said, "Hey, you shouldn't have done that." He said, "Oh, I'll publish a retraction." They said and I said no because that would be, again, too public a display.
But, I don't know, it probably got me a few more invitations to speak, but I had so many invitations to speak during the Bicentennial anyway that I really am burned out on such things as that. Then I don't need money, for goodness sake -- one on the very few people I know who makes more money than he needs, so what the heck.
LAMB: You left Texas what year?
LAMB: You went straight to where?
McDONALD: No, I got a grant from a Washington outfit, the Social Science Research Council, to do research, and I spent the next two years, `51 to `53, traveling up and down the East Coast doing research. I studied maybe 90 percent of all the extant documents of United States history from 1776 to 1791. I've got a final drawer of notes this deep which I'm still drawing on.
LAMB: Where did you go?
McDONALD: I started in Georgia and worked my way to New Hampshire and back.
LAMB: But where did you go on the trip? Where did you stop?
McDONALD: I went first to Savannah, Georgia, the state historical society there. Then I went to Atlanta, the state archives there; then I went to Charleston, the Charleston library society; then I went to Columbia for the state archives and so on, working my way through the historical societies and archives.
LAMB: How long would you spend at each place?
McDONALD: Well, I spent a total of two years, absolutely living on the road the whole time.
LAMB: Were you married then?
LAMB: Take your wife with you?
McDONALD: No, we also got divorced subsequently, but I'm very happily remarried now for 30 years. Let me say a thing about that. I came along in the late `40s, early `50s as a historian, as a budding historian, and a wonderful, wonderful time, a time of opportunity that came and went; that is to say, the National Archives had been founded in 1938 or `39 or something like that, but it really wasn't open to scholars until a little bit after the war. The same is true of a lot of state archives; the same is true of a lot of state historical societies. When I went into Atlanta, Georgia, in 1951, the state archives, which is now big, fancy, catalogued and so on, the manuscripts from the 18th century were piled up on the floor, from floor to ceiling, all around the walls. That's what I had to work with.
But it was all there, and I had access to materials that previous generations of scholars didn't; I did more work in those two years, did more research in those two years -- I did research in those two years which would have taken three, five, 10 lifetimes to do for an earlier generation of historians. Because of the explosion of the availability of materials, there was an explosion of knowledge about American history from the late `50s to about 1970 or `75 or so. Since that time there's been an easing of research in one sense; that is to say, the papers of very distinguished Americans have all been published, so I own at home the 26 volumes of the papers of Alexander Hamilton -- wonderful. A lot of stuff is available on microfilm, but the archival collections are not open anymore because of vandalism, because of people stealing manuscripts and all this kind of stuff.
When I first worked at National Archives, they just turned me loose in the stacks. Now you've got to go in, and you've got to tell them what volume you want or what document you want and so on, and you sit down in a waiting room, and they will bring the stuff down for you, and that's that. You can't work that way; you can't get things done. In the Virginia state library in Richmond, back in the early `50s, they've got tax records from 1780 to 1860 -- wonderful, things that you can mine from that, finding who owned what kind of property and what they did and this kind of stuff and how many people lived on a plantation etcetera. I work with them the way I work with the National Archives. Now you've got to check them out, but you've got to have these documents to compare and have them in front of you -- can't do it anymore. Whereas it would have taken generations to do what I did in the early `50s, now it couldn't be done; it simply could not be done.
LAMB: Two years right out of school you did the research?
McDONALD: Right. I was a doctoral candidate at the time.
LAMB: The physical material that you collected, how did you keep it?
McDONALD: Eight and a half by 11 sheets.
LAMB: Handwritten notes.
McDONALD: Handwritten notes, bound paper.
LAMB: Where'd you put it?
McDONALD: In folders, files.
LAMB: Where is it now?
McDONALD: It's in my office in Tuscaloosa.
LAMB: At the school?
McDONALD: Yes. It must be 5,000 pages of notes, just jammed full.
LAMB: Do you have it indexed?
McDONALD: No, I know where it is.
LAMB: You know where every word is. Those two years of research, and then what happened? Give us a quick thumbnail sketch.
McDONALD: It was time to go to work, even though I didn't have my degree yet. I went to the state historical society of Wisconsin; I was there from 1953 to the end of `58, writing first a history of the electric utility industry there and then a biography of Samuel Insull, the big utility magnate, whose empire collapsed in 1932. That was accidental. I mean, I got on the job market, it was a bad market, I was offered a couple of not very good teaching jobs, and I was offered a job to go to Wisconsin and write a commissioned history of either the electric industry or the paper industry, whichever materialized first. They thought it was going to be paper, so I said okay -- what did I know about either one of them? But I went and I did it.
But it was interesting because it established me in two fields, that is to say, as a 20th century economic and business historian and as an 18th century historian. The two things, the two careers, so to speak, the two caps were entirely compatible because a lot of the mystery and misunderstanding of the American founding comes from a lack of understanding of public finance. Well, you go through the papers of Samuel Insull and that labyrinthine $2 billion network of companies operating in 38 states, or whatever it was, you either understand finance or you die. Well, I understood finance, and I could take this back into the 18th century with me. Anyway, just pushing forward career-wise, I went in 1959 to Brown; I taught at Brown University in Providence from then to 1967. In 1967 I went to Wayne State in Detroit, which was a step downward but it was also double salary, which I needed because I had kids to support.
LAMB: How many?
McDONALD: Five. And then from there we went and bought a farm in west Florida and just lived in west Florida out in the country for a couple of years. Then we went to the University of Alabama, and I've been there ever since.
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: This book is called an intellectual history of the Presidency. Are you an intellectual?
McDONALD: I don't like the term. I guess I am if an intellectual is somebody who makes his living with his brains. That makes an awful lot of people intellectuals whom nobody would seriously consider as such.
LAMB: If you don't like the term, why did you call the book and intellectual history?
McDONALD: That's very interesting because my mother-in-law read it the same way. It means not a history of the Presidency by an intellectual -- it means it's a history of the idea of the Presidency. The first third of the book is where did the framers get their ideas about executive power, and it explores ancient history, it explores the great English legal commentators, it explores the Bible, all kinds of things -- where they could have got their ideas. The next third is what happened; it's from those materials that they formulated the idea of the Presidency, and it was a very novel idea, too. The next third of the book is the establishment of it and early implementation of the idea, and the final third carries the story by subjects up to the present, what happened to that idea which the founders cooked up in 1787.
LAMB: A couple of little, quick questions. Which Presidency has the most material available?
McDONALD: Probably Roosevelt, except that it's a very tricky question now because of all the Presidential libraries. Every President now when he leaves the Presidency, his friends gather huge quantities of money, and they bring in all these materials and they catalog and index them and so on, so it may be that it's just progressively more and more and more. I can give you a little illustration of how that worked. I lectured at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin a couple, three years ago, and the stuff they have is just fantastic -- every note, every memo is cross-referenced and so on. They've got it on computers, and you can just pull it right out.
Somebody was explaining this to me, and I said, "Ah, am I in there anywhere?" He said, "I'll go see." And he banged out my name, and he pulled out a letter that a friend of mine named Peter Kelton wrote to a friend of his named Bill Moyers, when Bill was press secretary or whatever he was, calling Bill's attention to a book that I had just written -- “E Pluribus Unum,” it was called. There's this letter; I had seen that letter. That was the only thing that was in the Johnson White House about me, but just like that they got it. So the problem is going to be with Presidential history, the problem is going to be an excess of materials -- not an inaccessibility or a shortage.
LAMB: What President in history or friends of the President in history have done the best job of proselytizing?
McDONALD: Roosevelt had a whole bunch of people who wrote "Roosevelt and me" sort of books, and always the "me" was played up a little bit stronger than it should have been. But in a general sort of way, I think they've done better by their man than anybody else I can think of. It substantially wasn't done until fairly recent times, and the modern go-round -- well, Reagan's people did well by him. Ed Meese's memoirs, Regan's memoirs, Schultz's memoirs all are self-serving, but they really lay it on saying what a great man he was, that kind of stuff.
LAMB: How about way back. I remember reading somewhere that if James Madison had done a better job of keeping some of his material, or there may have been a fire back then somewhere, he would be a much bigger man in history than, say, Thomas Jefferson.
McDONALD: Well, in the first place, I don't believe it, but in the second place, the Brits did come in and burn the public buildings in Washington so a lot of the public records were lost. So that might have been.
LAMB: You write about Thomas Jefferson. Some of the things that you are writing about seem to fit today, and I want to ask you about these because we heard a lot about, when President Clinton came into office, the small dinners he was having at the White House. You have a thing here about "endless, small dinners by Thomas Jefferson." He rejected symbolic functions. Talk about Thomas Jefferson, and is there any relationship with what you see President Clinton doing?
McDONALD: Hold off that last portion first. Jefferson was firmly committed to the principle of the separation of powers; he was firmly, fiercely committed to anti-monarchy, and he was firmly convinced that the Washington and Adams administrations -- particularly the Washington administration, of which he had been a part -- but because of the influence of Alexander Hamilton he was convinced that there was a monarchical plot afoot to turn the Presidency into a monarchy. The Americans had been devout monarchists prior to 1776; then they were betrayed, as they saw it, by the king.
They reacted by having no executive power until 1787, and then they very reluctantly created the Presidency, only because Washington was there and they knew that they could trust him not to abuse it. But going back to this symbolic function again, Washington understood this craving -- it's a natural social craving to have a leader, a symbol, etc., so there were several trappings of monarchy that he indulged himself in; for instance, whenever there was a new session of Parliament or whenever there was a new king or whatever, the king would address both houses of Parliament and each house would come back with a message congratulating him and blah blah. Washington addressed Congress, and each house of Congress went over as committee and paid their respects. They ran the thing, and there were levies and all kinds of other such things.
Jefferson just stopped doing that. Jefferson gave his inaugural address and whoever was there could listen; except that he spoke in a very, very soft voice and nobody heard him. It's a wonderful address, but nobody heard it. They read it in the papers the next day. But he abandoned the practice of appearing before Congress. Not until Woodrow Wilson, 1913, was the practice resumed. So Jefferson went to a lot of pains to be folksy. He was not a folksy man, but he dressed folksy. He had rundown-he had patches on his sleeves, and he dressed like a country squire and this kind of stuff, but how do you reconcile this kind of attitude toward the Presidency with being a legislatively effective President and separation of powers and all?
Well, he would give these little dinner parties at which they would talk about everything. The man was a walking encyclopedia. I had a professor once who wrote an article describing the things that he could have been a professor of, classics and biblical studies and political philosophy and architecture, etc. And he would just charm the pants off of these people, and somehow it would come through that there would be a certain piece of legislation that he wanted enacted. He would never put direct pressure or whatever, and he would get enacted -- for the first seven years of his Presidency, he was so successful it just almost defies belief.
But he never let any congressman think that he was putting the arm on them, that he was asking any favors or so on. He did it purely by personal charm and magnetism of personality and stuff. Now, the present incumbent is trying to operate that way, and he understands a lot of the techniques of persuasion, but he also is not averse to twisting arms and putting the squeeze on and calling in favors and such stuff as that. My prediction is that he will not be anywhere near as successful legislatively as, say, Lyndon Johnson was because Johnson had some rules, and one of Johnson's rules was that he never offered a quid pro quo, never offered a favor for a favor, for a vote because he respected the pride, self-esteem of the congressman who didn't want to feel that they were being bought. He would either give them favors before and collect later, or he would give them favors afterwards but never any kind of a one-on-one trading, and from what I read -- I'm not privy to the way Clinton really works -- but from what I read, he seems to be calling in his chits and paying out his chits at the same time very often. I don't think it will be very effective.
LAMB: First President to have a press secretary?
McDONALD: McKinley almost was, but not really. There was a guy who was, in fact, press secretary for him. Roosevelt was the first one who they sort of admitted it.
McDONALD: The first one to have a speech writer?
McDONALD: Let's see, Wilson wrote his own speeches. Probably Harding -- yes, I'm pretty sure it would have either been Harding or Coolidge, though Harding was perfectly capable of writing his own speeches because he had been a newspaper man.
LAMB: I didn't notice a dedication in this book.
McDONALD: It's not dedicated.
LAMB: How come?
McDONALD: I've published 15 or 20 books, and I've dedicated to all the people that I want to dedicate books to.
LAMB: How does this book fit into your accomplishments? What's your favorite book you've written?
McDONALD: I have three or four favorites. The first one that made a big splash was “We the People.” That was the economic interpretation one.
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: Still available?
McDONALD: Yes, still in print, in paperback, Transaction Press. Nineteen sixty-five was “E Pluribus Unum,” the subtitle of which is “The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790.” I like that one. “The Biography of Alexander Hamilton,” published in `79; “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” published in 19 -- I don't know, three or four years ago, five or six years ago, `86 I guess it was. That's the intellectual origins of the Constitution, and then this one.
LAMB: Where would you rate this book as far as your personal pleasure?
McDONALD: I think this may be the best so far, but I'm not a very good judge of these things, you know, whether you're personally satisfied with the book or whether you really feel, I've done something here. I do feel that. What the critics are going to say, I don't predict.
LAMB: When did you start this book?
McDONALD: In a sense, I started it in 1949 when I started my career because a lot of that big stack of notes comes to bear here. Working about 15 or 20 years ago, I did short volumes on the Presidencies of Washington and Jefferson, so that's sort of, too.
LAMB: And there are two chapters in here.
McDONALD: But the actual working full-time on this book must have started five years ago.
LAMB: If we could see you in your environment writing this book, what would we see?
McDONALD: You'd see me writing in the nude most of the time.
LAMB: In the nude?
McDONALD: Yes. We live in total isolation out in the country. They don't even read the electric meter because the electric man can't find it. We have to read our own meter. We've got wonderful isolation, and it's warm most of the year in Alabama and why wear clothes? I mean, they're just a bother. You'd see me sitting on the porch. We have a house that's mainly glass and otherwise screen and sitting out on the porch with a big 8-and-a-half-by-14 yellow tablet and writing. I write it out by hand. My wife, who is a very fine harpsichordist and has become a fantastic typist, then transcribes. I do a lot of editing before I turn it over to her, and then she edits with her fingers as she goes along. So we're really at a third or fourth draft by the time we get a first typed draft. We never use word processors, and then we'll let it sit and edit it some more. I'll keep on writing.
The key to turning out good stuff is rewriting. The key to just grinding it out is consistency. It sounds silly, but if you write four pages a day, you've written 1,200 pages in a year -- or 1,400 or whatever it is. You accumulate the stuff, and so what I normally do is give myself quotas. They'll vary depending on the depth and complexity of the subject, but somewhere between three and five pages, and that's my day's writing. I've got to do it every day. I can't go out and work on my farm until I've done my day's writing, and working on my farm is so pleasurable. So that's incentive; I hold myself hostage, so to speak, and it gets done.
LAMB: This is an unintellectual question. You open the book up, and the first third of the book is about Montesquieu and Fortescue and David Hume and John Locke. Then as you move into the book you get into the current stuff. Were you ever worried that people would pick this book up who aren't intellectuals and get into this great depth about the Bible and the origins of executive power?
McDONALD: No, I'll tell you what the slight unease I had about it, though. I figured that the origins chapters and the establishment chapters would fly just gorgeously, that the historians would just be bowled over and anybody in the popular audience who was interested enough to read it would say, "Wow, this is really hot stuff." The third third, the one that brings it up to the present, I figured might very well be very controversial because I've tried to be fair, but I do like some Presidents and don't like others and I know that not everybody will agree with me. I tried to balance my sources from left and right and so on, but what I was afraid was -- not afraid but a little concerned about -- was that people would read the first two-thirds and say, "Yeah," and they'd read the final third and say, "Hey, wait a minute. Where's this guy coming from?" So far that's not been the reaction, but it's mighty early to tell.
LAMB: Which of those writers in history has had the most impact on our system?
McDONALD: If I had to pick one, it would be David Hume.
LAMB: Who was he?
McDONALD: David Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, lived in Edinburgh most of his life, though he travelled various places. He was born about 1707 or `08, somewhere along in there. He died in 1776, the year of “Wealth of Nations” and the Declaration of Independence. He was a great friend of Adam Smith's; that whole circle of Scottish thinkers was. Hume was very realistic about human nature.
It was a given in the 18th century, the understanding of the human psyche, that we're driven by our passions, passions not meaning like heat of anger and so on, but drives for self-gratification. Man was not a reasonable animal; the role of reason was merely to enable you to gratify these desires -- pain, pleasure; avoid the one, seek the other. But Hume thought very, very deeply about how you could harness the passions by rigging up governmental institutions so that everybody's passion -- everybody's supposed to be as selfish as they could be, but it would work out to the public good. And in quite a number of essays, he rang the changes on these themes.
Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were devout students of Hume; I mean, they really swallowed it whole. Both had sharp enough brains so that they could refine and elaborate this stuff, and when you read the debates in the Constitutional Convention, you see David Hume just popping out all over the place. When you read the debates in the early Congress, same thing. When you read Alexander Hamilton's great state papers, same thing; there is Hume all through there. He's not the only one.
LAMB: You mentioned there are some Presidents you just don't like. Who would be top on that list?
LAMB: Lyndon Johnson. What reason why not?
McDONALD: Partly it's the reason that Richard Rovere gave. Remember, Richard Rovere wrote a New Yorker piece shortly after Johnson became President and said, "How come we don't like this guy? He's done everything that Kennedy couldn't do." He finally admitted to himself, because he's a cornball and a slob, that's why. It's partly that, but there's also a more rational reason and that is that he carried government into territory where it couldn't play, couldn't operate.
LAMB: Who else?
McDONALD: Jimmy Carter.
McDONALD: Cipher. Nothing there. You know, everybody who writes about Jimmy Carter says he was a brilliant man. Jimmy Carter wasn't a brilliant man; Jimmy Carter was a man who was a quick study. He was almost a speed reader, almost a photographic memory, but an intelligent man would have taken that gift and risen above it and been able to make generalizations about it. Carter never understood anything. He could tell you everything that's in a thousand-page book, but he couldn't tell you in one sentence what's in that book or in one paragraph what's in that book. So he was never in control of the situation.
LAMB: Back to this cover. Should we assume that you liked all of these men? You start with Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.
McDONALD: I think they were all great men who made great contributions to the Presidency. I doubt if I would have liked Lincoln.
LAMB: Why not?
McDONALD: He was obnoxious. He was very homely, and he spoke with that Middle Western twang and he was a terribly obscene man. The things that he was fascinated by, sort f obsessed by, you can't mention them on the television. I mean, not even these days you can't.
LAMB: Can you give us a hint?
McDONALD: Well, they had to do with reproductive and elimination organs of females.
LAMB: How do you know that?
McDONALD: It's in his correspondence. Historians don't write about this, but they know about it. But to repeat, he was a great man.
LAMB: What about Theodore Roosevelt?
McDONALD: I think I would have liked Teddy very much. Teddy was a big showman. He introduced an element of showmanship into the Presidency which simply had not been there before. In some ways he was the progenitor of the whole modern idea of the Presidency because he was the first President who was actively a reformer. He would go out and make speeches all over the place, calling for legislation that would bring the giant trusts under control and all this kind of stuff. From all descriptions, he was just a wonderful entertainer at doing so. It was show biz; it was largely fakery.
He didn't bust any trusts to speak of, and he didn't bring in much reform legislation. But he talked about -- he would pick up an act that Congress had passed, claim credit for it, brand it a great reform but had nothing to do with it. The Elkins Act of 1903 is my favorite, drafted by Sen. Elkins of West Virginia, who was the attorney for the Pennsylvania Railroad. It forbade rebates from railroads to big shippers. The idea was to get out from under John D. Rockefeller and all the big oil shippers who had the economic clout to make them give rebates. But Roosevelt said, "This is bringing the great railroads to brook. Right? And I take credit for this legislation."
He did this kind of thing all the time. He didn't really -- he proposed a lot of legislation; very little of it got enacted. But he opened the door for the legislative Presidency, the idea that the President is chief legislator. He's supposed to go to Congress and propose things, and the guy who walked through the door was Woodrow Wilson. For a couple of years there -- 1913, 1914 -- Wilson was immensely successful at drafting and pushing through, just jamming through Congress reform legislation.
LAMB: Do you have another book in you?
McDONALD: I've got a lot more books in me.
LAMB: What's next?
McDONALD: I don't know. I was discussing this last night, and the one that I proposed, or suggested, to somebody, my wife dumped all over, and we're absolute partners in this venture, so unless she wants to play we won't do it.
LAMB: What was the proposal?
McDONALD: Something about doing history, how you go about it, why I'm in it, why anybody should bother reading it, why anybody should bother studying it.
LAMB: She didn't like it?
McDONALD: She just didn't think it's very sexy.
LAMB: Do you have to worry about having a sexy topic in order to get people to buy these things?
McDONALD: No, I meant sexy not literally; I meant sexy meaning having some pizazz. No, I don't write with a popular audience in mind, specifically. I certainly don't write just for historians the way most historians do. I write for anybody who's intelligent and who's interested in the subject. I think they can read it, but this is something I'm absolutely no good at -- knowing what kind of market there will be for things. I'm just not oriented that way. The predecessor of this book, which was “Novus Ordo Seclorum” -- now, who's going to buy a book on the intellectual origins of the Constitution? I didn't even bother to go over to my agent because I thought, this is not a commercial book. So I went to Kansas; they published it as they published this one, and there's something like 55- or 60,000 copies of that thing around.
LAMB: This book?
McDONALD: No, that one, which I thought was terribly esoteric. Whether this is going to be a popular book or sort of an in-groupy book, I don't know. There is an awful lot of interest in the Presidency right now, but that doesn't necessarily sell books.
LAMB: We're out of time. This is what the cover of this book looks like -- “The American Presidency: An Intellectual History” by Forrest McDonald. Thank you very much for joining us.
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