Library Interview: Robert Dallek on 20th Century Presidents

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Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek

Many of us entertain the fantasy of being President of the United States.

Historian Robert Dallek reminds us to be careful what we wish for.

“It’s an impossible job” says the man who has made a career of studying our chief executives and analyzing their successes and failures.

Even the revered Thomas Jefferson described the presidency as “a splendid misery,” Dallek observes.

“Look at the numbers. We’ve had 45 presidents and only 16 of them were elected to a second term, and only 13 completed their second term.

“Those are startling statistics.”

Dallek, a recently-retired professor of history at Boston University and author of numerous books about the presidency, will examine the factors that play into a president’s reputation as an effective (or indifferent) leader in The Making and Unmaking of 20th Century Presidents on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

It’s the keynote address of the 2012 Presidential Series of more than a dozen lectures presented by the Kansas City Public Library and the Truman Library Institute.

Today’s presidents live in the proverbial fishbowl, Dallek says. It would be extremely difficult for a Commander in Chief in 2012 to keep secret the sorts of sexual trysts engaged in by John Kennedy.

In his 2003 book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Dallek wrote 38 words about a reputed affair between JFK and a 19-year-old White House intern.

Last month that tidbit of history hit the headlines when the woman, Mimi Alford, now 68, published a book about the affair and took to the airwaves to discuss it. Her description of her first sexual encounter with the president has been categorized by some experts as a near rape, though Alford disputes that.

In any case, Dallek maintains, a modern president wouldn’t enjoy the collusion of reporters that allowed Kennedy’s behavior.

“I’ve talked to reporters who covered Kennedy, and they said they knew about the affairs but didn’t think it was their job to mention it. That’s no longer true, as Bill Clinton found out.”

Dallek, whose next book is Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, said it will be interesting to see if Alford’s revelations affect JFK’s generally high standing with the public.

“When people are asked to assess the last nine presidents, Kennedy gets an 85 percent approval rating. The only other one to come even close is Reagan with 74 percent.”

While many historians give Kennedy high ratings for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his domestic agenda is largely regarded as a failure. But that seems not to matter to the public.

“How does a president hold the public’s imagination? I have a matrix I set before the audience, one that involves vision, pragmatism, charisma, trust, consensus, and luck.”

In some cases decades must past before the public truly appreciates a president’s accomplishments.

Harry Truman ended his presidency with a 32 percent approval rating. His reputation was tarnished by an influence-peddling scandal involving some of his old cronies who worked in the White House.

“It really wasn’t until David McCullough’s 1993 biography that the general public appreciated what Truman had done, things like setting in place the containment doctrine that won the Cold War. In retrospect you can see how wise and sensible he was. He acted with restraint, especially in Korea where he had the strength to kick out Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to invade China. And Truman resisted the temptation to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese.”

How we regard certain presidents can be the result of clever marketing, Dallek says. FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s New Frontier, LBJ’s Great Society and Reagan’s Reagan Revolution were smart catchphrases that the public embraced.

A few presidents have had the misfortune to have terrible things happen on their watch.

Hoover and Carter were very unlucky presidents. Hoover got hit by the Great Depression, Carter by the oil crisis and the taking of American hostages in Iran.”

And a president’s charisma – or lack of it – cannot be overlooked.

“Presidential personality makes a big difference,” Dallek says.

Before the advent of television a president’s policies were more important than his presentation. No longer.

“It’s a real benefit that people like you,” Dallek said. “When Thomas Dewey was running against Truman in 1948, he was described as the only guy who could strut while sitting down. That attitude helped defeat him.”

Something similar could be said about current Republican Presidential front runner Mitt Romney, Dallek observes.

“I think what’s so striking is that Romney isn’t all that likeable. Can you get elected without that quality?

“For better or worse, image is terribly important.”

Admission to Dallek’s presentation is free. RSVP online or call 816.701.3407.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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