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Presidential PR and leadership in the Oval Office

By Peter Osterlund / March 4, 1988

Leadership in the Modern Presidency, edited by Fred I. Greenstein. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 418 pages. $29.95. IN a word, here's what presidential candidate Bob Dole says he can offer the country: ``leadership.'' Now, take a peek at the short list of George Bush's self-depicted credentials: ``leadership.'' Mike Dukakis? You guessed it. ``The question,'' he says, ``is what sort of person should lead this country.''

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It's probably safe to say that every presidential candidate in history has touted his or her unique leadership abilities. But this year, the issue of leadership seems to be particularly prevalent on the lips of candidates, if not in the minds of voters. Call it eight-year angst or whatever other alliterative label you can come up with. After two terms of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it is clear the voters are restless.

The credit-card economy - literally and metaphorically - has produced a jolly good time for all parties: An old-fashioned Keynesian mix of tax cuts and federal spending hikes has the economy humming along, and easy credit has greased consumers' wallets. Now, the public has been struck by the uneasy realization that somehow, somewhere, someone is going to have to pay for this party.

The trick for this year's - indeed, any year's - successful presidential candidate is to avoid confronting voters with the unpleasant truth, yet with a wink and a nod convince them he possesses the backbone to make the tough decisions that most people know must be made. That kind of public manipulation continues even after the candidate has assumed the mantle of the presidency. It's a tough job, but as the masterly essays contained in ``Leadership in the Modern Presidency'' point out, the presidency is as much the nation's premier PR post as it is its No. 1 policy slot.

Consider the case of Franklin Roosevelt. His critics charged he was a politician without principles. As the first essay in this book points out, micromanagement was not FDR's forte. Nor did the architect of the New Deal bring to the office a clear blueprint of what he hoped to accomplish. His primary task was to deliver the nation from the jaws of Depression. And to use any means at his disposal to do so.

``Only a few weeks after Roosevelt took office, the spirit of the country seemed markedly changed,'' William Leuchtenberg writes. ``Gone was the torpor of the Hoover years; gone, too, the political paralysis.'' Roosevelt accomplished this with several specific actions - among them, summoning Congress into emergency session. But even more important, Leuchtenberg writes, was his manner. ``Supremely confident in his own powers, he could imbue others with a similar confidence.'' Similarly critical was his unprecedented use of the news media to further his goals, appointing the first press secretary and generally making ``conscious use of the media almost from the day he entered the White House.''

In at least one respect, this compilation represents an all-too-rare accomplishment. The individual essays are as scholastically rigorous as one would ever care to read, yet they rarely lose their clear-eyed readability. Each essay examines the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of a different president, beginning with Roosevelt. Written as they are by different authors bringing their own separate perspectives to wildly diverging personalities, the essays vary in tone, approach, and, to a certain extent, quality.