‘How Did We Get Here?’ Review: Why Presidents WinHistorians in the News
tags: presidential history
In “How Did We Get Here?” Robert Dallek’s engaging but flawed analysis of presidential leadership, the prolific biographer posits a provocative thesis—that the transgressions and weaknesses of even our greatest chief executives set precedents of thought and action that led eventually to the political rise of Donald Trump. As he puts it: “There were traditions in place going back to Theodore Roosevelt . . . that made Trump’s ascent to the presidency and behavior in office possible.”
TR’s “insatiable need for attention,” for example, led him to seek the limelight obsessively and dominate the news—opening the way for the celebrity politics of our time. Further, writes Mr. Dallek, the first Roosevelt pushed out the boundaries of presidential power, “both positively and negatively—in ways that have lasted to this day.”
Yet Mr. Dallek still thinks the voters were bamboozled by Reagan’s image-making and celebrity status. He credits a single quip from a 1984 presidential debate—when the elderly Reagan defused the age issue by promising not to exploit the “youth and inexperience” of his opponent, Walter Mondale—with essentially washing away other issues that might have tripped up Reagan. This in the face of Reagan’s subsequent capture of nearly 59% of the popular vote and 49 states in his re-election bid.
But presidential elections don’t turn on quips or other superficial factors such as public gaffes, debating points, image-making and ad buys. They turn primarily on the question that Reagan posed to voters during his 1980 debate with Mr. Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Mr. Dallek calls this a “subtle attack,” but it wasn’t subtle at all and not much of an attack. It’s the question voters ask themselves—and should ask themselves—every four years.
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