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Presidents and Political Thought
Presidents and Political Thought
David J. Siemers
University of Missouri, 2010
264 pp., $24.95

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Bruce Kuklick


Theory and Practice

The connection between political philosophy and presidential effectiveness.

This book takes up the weightiest problems of public affairs. How should we evaluate our leaders? How do ideas of the common good influence policy? Not surprisingly, these questions prove too difficult for the author, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, to answer credibly. But David Siemers' careful framework of inquiry indicates where we stand on these issues.

Presidents and Political Thought argues plausibly that all national leaders have an interest, implicit or explicit, in political ideas. Siemers excavates the political theories with which officials came to the presidency, to see how the theories affected the decision-making of the politicians. Finally, he wants to investigate the nature of the decisions to learn how they carried forward political justice.

We have six case studies. The author starts with John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. The Founders, almost to a man, self-consciously read political theory and in some measure saw themselves as implementing it. For his second three cases, Siemers takes Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. Siemers makes the same sort of exploration, although these presidents conducted themselves at a somewhat lower theoretical level. But, I feel, we have here a bump in the road that betokens trouble down the line. Siemers wants presidents at least minimally conversant with concepts of politics. Easy enough with Wilson the academic and Clinton the policy wonk. Roosevelt constitutes another case entirely, especially given Siemers' explanation that Lincoln is ruled out because he never articulated his political philosophy. Lincoln thought as deeply about political life as anyone in human history; FDR notoriously lacked self-consciousness. Wisdom fails when you elevate FDR as a political thinker at the expense of Lincoln.

Siemers only cautiously draws conclusions from his case studies. Sensible qualifications and various sorts of strategic hedging fill the book. He has ...

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