The NYT Sunday Book Review editors asked a gaggle of writers and intellectuals to recommend books for the candidates (and, by extension, the next president). The only one that stood out to me as particularly useful was a recommendation by Steven Pinker. He offers Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), in which “renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.” And that’s true–everyone else I know is exactly like that. Anyway, I thought I’d join others in blogland and offer my own recommendations.
It would be pompous to recommend my own book (which you’ll buy if you love America even a little bit). So instead I’ll offer a few in the spirit of the Pinker rec. These are books that influenced me a lot in writing my own. And there’s at least some chance they’d help anyone taking office to keep their bearings, assuming that person isn’t delusional, which is probably not a safe assumption because if so why are they running for president.
In any event, the first is Twilight of the Presidency by former LBJ aide George Reedy. Here’s what I wrote about it in my book:
In his 1970 book The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy warned that the environment surrounding the chief executive was enough to make even a well-grounded person delusional. Reedy arrived at that conclusion through close observation, having served as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary from 1964-65 and later as special assistant to the president in 1968. It seems that Reedy did not entirely enjoy the experience. As a boss, Johnson was a “colossal son of a bitch,” oscillating unpredictably between sadistic abuse and kindness. Reedy has left us a painfully honest—and, at times, bitterly funny— depiction of the sociology of power. Former Nixon aide John Dean, who knows something about the darker side of the West Wing environment, calls Twilight “the best book on the presidency.”
As Reedy writes in Twilight:
There is no position in the United States in which the isolation from equals is so complete as the presidency. To be the absolute superior in status to everyone else encountered throughout the day is an effective form of isolation…. In many respects, it is an even more effective form of isolation than physical confinement. The prisoner doing a spell in solitary knows that he is cut off from other human beings. The president, however, is surrounded by large, adoring groups that give him the illusion of human contact when all they really do is act as an echo chamber for his thoughts.
Gerald Ford recognized that Groupthink and the Arrogance of Power were threats to a sanely administered presidency, and required that his top staffers read the book as a cautionary tale. Alas, given that two of his top staffers were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, it seems not to have worked.
My second recommendation is hard to find: Bruce Buchanan’s The Presidential Experience: What the Office Does to the Man (1978). The psychological analysis in it is dated, long-distance, and not performed by a psychiatrist. But it’s an interesting exploration into/speculation about, the various pathologies that can accompany becoming “the most powerful man in the world” and still finding yourself powerless to meet expectations.
Finally, Theodore J. Lowi’s The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled (1985). I hadn’t read Lowi’s book until halfway through my own, and discovered that he’d said almost everything that needed to be said about the modern presidency. Luckily he’d said it over two decades ago. Here’s a good summary of Lowi’s thesis:
In his new book Mr. Lowi shrewdly describes the Presidency as an increasingly ”plebiscitary” office. Its occupant uses television and polls to commune directly with the masses, bypassing such mediating institutions as Congress and the political parties. Having given our Presidents big power, we expect big things of them – especially in terms of ”service delivery,” which, Mr. Lowi writes, has displaced representation as the test of democracy and legitimacy. Despite the aggrandizement of the executive branch at Congress’s expense, though, there are still ”built-in barriers to presidents’ delivering on their promises.” The result is a dangerous cycle – substantive failure, followed by frantic White House efforts to create false images of success, followed by adventurism abroad, followed by further public disillusion – all of which forces the next President to turn the rhetorical heat up even higher.
Is it really too much to ask the candidates to check out these three books? I don’t think so. After all, our current prez reads around 90 books a year!