Presidential PR and leadership in the Oval Office

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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.''

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.

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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.

The sum, however, is greater than its individual parts. ``Leadership in the Presidency'' offers a vivid account of the evolution of the presidency into the modern, highly complex, highly influential office we know today. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in understanding how our country is led, and by whom.

``Leadership'' leaves one question hanging: Who will come next? Dukakis: An American Odyssey, by Charles Kenney and Robert L. Turner (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 248 pages, $16.95), offers one possible answer. It is a biography of Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor and candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, written by two journalists for the Boston Globe. (See a review of Republican campaign biographies on Page B3.)

Kenney and Turner have followed Dukakis's political career for the last decade. Clearly then, he's had quite a ride, what with Dukakis's disastrous first term, embarrassing primary loss to Edward King, and subsequent recapture of the governorship four years later. The authors obviously admire Dukakis and are clearly enthusiastic about his candidacy. Still, Kenney and Turner do not shy away from discussing the candidate's personal strengths and weaknesses - character traits that have played a major role in the twists and turns of his political odyssey and, doubtless, would shape a Dukakis presidency.

Indeed, their journalistic instincts help keep the biography honest enough to be mildly damning of its subject. Whether intended or not, ``Dukakis'' conveys the image of a somewhat arrogant, somewhat cold-hearted, highly intelligent technocrat with many of the same strengths and foibles that, ultimately, hobbled Jimmy Carter. There are more superficial similarities as well: Dukakis's relationship with his brother, who once attempted suicide and was killed in a bicycle accident, reads like atragic case of sibling rivalry and sounds faintly reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's relationship with his brother, Billy.

Kenney and Turner show Dukakis to be occasionally ruthless. Take the case of Beryl Cohen, a local Massachusetts pol who, Kenney and Turner tell us, helped Dukakis ``at important junctures in his career.'' Cohen and Dukakis agreed to run for lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively, on the 1968 Democratic ticket. But when the state legislators elevated one of their own to the attorney general's slot after the position was unexpectedly vacated, Dukakis was suddenly left without a post to run for. So he turned on his erstwhile pal Cohen and ran for the governorship himself.

If only Dukakis had been clever enough to preempt Kenney and Turner with a campaign biography of his own, we might not pay any attention to the repetition of such episodes in the midst of a distinguished career in public service. But those experiences say something about the character of the individual in whose hands the world's fate may rest. So they are significant.

``Dukakis'' constitutes an important contribution to the electoral process - all the more so because Dukakis appears to be the front runner for the Democratic nomination for president. It also underscores the lesson of Fred Greenstein's collection: For presidential aspirants, as for presidents themselves, there's no substitute for good PR.

Peter Osterlund is on the Monitor staff.

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