Presidential Ambition

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9780060183738: Presidential Ambition

In this timely, provocative, illuminating, and often shocking book. New York Times bestselling author Richard Shenkman provides a vital context for understanding the American presidents, today and throughout history.

Combining a potent narrative with persuasive and compelling insights, Shenkman reveals that it is not just recent presidents who have been ambitious--and at times frighteningly overambitious, willing to sacrifice their health, family, loyalty, and values as they sought to overcome the obstacles to power--but they all have. This volcanic ambition, Shenkman shows, has been essential not only in obtaining power but in facing--and attempting to master--the great historical forces that have continually reshaped the United States, from Manifest Destiny and Emancipation to immigration, the Great Depression, and nuclear weapons.

As Shenkman describes the lives and careers of the most representative and colorful presidents from Washington to Nixon, he shows that those who succeeded in reaching the White House, whatever their flaws, were complicated human beings, idealistic as well as ambitious. Over time, however, they began to make increasingly troubling compromises, leading to a decline in t he mortal tone of American politics.

What drove politics downward? In a stunning conclusion, Shenkman demonstrates that it wasn't a decline in presidential character that was responsible, but change--the dramatic transformation of the United States from a country of four million in Washington's day to more than a quarter billion today--that made running the country more complicated and difficult. Instead of things getting better and better they got worse and worse as people became used to increasingly promiscuous political practices.

First John Adams played politics with national security. Then James Polk lied the country into war. James Buchana tolerated the bribing of congressmen. Ulysses S. Grant ignored shocking corruption. Rutehrford B. Hayes became the first of several presidents to win election through vote stealing. Grover Clevland pandered to immigrants. Teddy Roosevelt precipitated an international crises to improve his chances of election. FDR used the IRS to go after his political enemies. Harry Truman faked a war scare. John Kennedy played God with nuclear missiles. And Lyndon Johnson lied and lied and lied.

Sympathetic but balanced in his presentation of the presidents' behavior, in his richly detailed portraits Shenkman shows just how resourceful they had to be to survive and succeed. Presidential Ambition--dramatic, lively, and nakedly honest--is a book that will permanently alter the way we think about past, present, and future American presidents.

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Review:

The standard by which all books on presidential power are judged is Richard E. Neustadt's Presidential Power, which considers modern presidents in terms of their ability to wield influence. In Presidential Ambition, Richard Shenkman takes a more historical--and much more cynical--look at the question of how a president uses and consolidates power. In addition to the compromising of principles, lying, pandering, stealing votes, manipulation of the press, and attempts to manipulate public opinion that take place in the Oval Office, Shenkman also delves into the nefarious methods by which these men became America's leaders.

He maintains that the primary quality that separates the presidents from other Americans, from George Washington onward, is their overwhelming ambition. The most successful occupants of the White House, he suggests, expanded the powers of their position by molding the presidency to their own talents and skills, finding ways to do what they wanted--including lying to the American people (a trait, he makes abundantly clear, that is far from limited to the Clinton administration). Shenkman's conclusions about the presidency and the United States are bleak. He argues that the behavior of American presidents has gotten worse as the world has grown more complex: "If you looked carefully at American history you could see a clear pattern of decline. Instead of things getting better and better over time, as Americans liked to fantasize, they had gotten worse and worse.... The system over time had become more and more politically promiscuous, ever more tolerant of a wider and wider range of unseemly presidential behavior." --Linda Killian

About the Author:

Richard Shenkman is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the New York Times bestselling author of six history books, including Presidential Ambition; Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of World History; and Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. The editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network website, he can be seen regularly on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

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