William G. Howell, Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power (2013) — Book Review

© 2014 Peter Free


27 February 2014



Good idea, somewhat ineptly presented


University of Chicago Professor William G. Howell’s Thinking about the Presidency: the Primacy of Power (2013) inelegantly presents a good idea.


The book’s Kindle edition additionally suffers from footnotes and citations that are not keyed to the text. Although the e-book contains numbered notes at its back, there are no corresponding numbers in the main text.



Professor Howell’s premise


William Howell’s theme is that American presidents pursue power, so as to be able to meet the American public’s insatiable (and unrealistic) demands for leadership:



[W]e argue that presidents care about power: about acquiring it, protecting it, and expanding it.


[T]he main reason presidents care so much about power has less to do with their addiction to grandiosity and far more to do with their constitutional inability to address the extraordinary expectations put before them.


What do we expect of our president? The answer is at once obvious and unbelievable: everything.


Power consolidation is the presidential modus operandi.


© 2014 William G. Howell, Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power (Princeton University Press, Kindle Edition, April 2013) (at pages ix-x, 1 and 19)



The book is questionably written, and its analysis is illogically structured



One clue highlighting Professor Howell’s difficulty with writing coherently — and on a clearly delineated analytical track — is the fact that he nowhere succinctly sets down his complete thesis.  Even though adjacent pieces of it are located only paragraphs apart.


The power premise is embedded among frequently poorly tied-in examples of what he and “contributor” (whatever that means) David Milton Brent think support it.



For example — theme-irrelevant excursions into Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Machiavelli


These references are dribbled into the text apparently in order to put the Founders’ thinking about the Constitution into intellectual context.  But the traipsing is done without a coherent introductory explanation of why it is pertinent to American presidential modernity.


Speaking as a once-historian myself, these four figures are not applicable to any modern politician’s sense of the presidency.  Indeed, given Howell’s theme that the American public’s wild expectations drive the presidents’ lust for power, the named quartet’s thinking has no bearing on why American presidents do what they do.


My guess is that Professor Howell wanted to achieve a measure of intellectual authenticity by dragging these tired icons into his account.  But, while Plato-Aristotle-Cicero-Machiavelli remain pertinent to discussions of the development of political science and philosophy, they are not today persuasively pertinent to much else.




For some reason, many academically-oriented people appear to think that present-day minds are incapable of thinking competently.


Evidently, modern circumstances — evaluated using developed knowledge, science and methods of analytical inquiry — cannot be understood, without making repeated resort to famous folks’ ideas taken from the distant and ignorant historical past.





My patience with Professor Howell’s writing and analysis waned before I was half-way through the volume.  There is little logic to the order and manner in which he supports his power theme.  In fact, in some places, it is difficult for intelligent readers to figure out what the Professor is trying to say.


Symbolic of this analytical disorder, Howell sometimes chatters on at length about one view of what he has just asserted, only to destroy it a few pages later.


There are two especially prominent examples of this trait:


One involves Howell’s logically circuitous passages about modern presidents’ penchant for adding their own interpretations of just signed legislation to it.  These are called signing statements.


A second long circumambulation occurs when the Professor is (inconclusively) attempting to prove (and disprove) that George Washington’s personal character stood (or did not stand) as the reason for the Founders’ willingness to give the president powers that exceeded those in the Articles of Confederation.



Illogical analysis — signing statements


Howell uses presidential signing statements to support his idea that our executive leaders seek power, so that they can carry out the public’s expectations for strong leadership.  These signing statements often blatantly contradict the plain wording of the new law.  In other words, American presidents explicitly express their intent to defy portions of bills that Congress has enacted.


Professor Howell hammers this point — only to noticeably withdraw it with his final admission that only the courts’ interpretations of the law and signing statements matter.


In truth, although presidents arguably seek power, their power-seeking via signing statement amounts to ineffectual tantrum-throwing and nose-thumbing.


Therefore, thoughtful readers might ask whether a signing statement a good example of power-seeking.  If the president who crafted the tantrum comprehends (as he must) that his statement is essentially ineffectual, can he still be seen as a power seeker, based on that example?


In sum, modern presidents’ signing statements do not logically belong in the company of the much more graphic instances of effective clout attainment that Professor Howell embeds them in.


Howell’s writing and analysis are too scattershot.  Too indicative of an inability to weight evidence logically and connect it coherently to his theme.


A couple of examples of this characteristic follow.



Illogical analysis — George Washington’s character as a model for Article 2 of the Constitution


Illogically weighted evidence shows up at length in Howell’s discussion regarding whether George Washington’s personal trustworthiness led to the Founders’ willingness to give the president significant authority under Article 2 of the Constitution.


What Howell apparently missed here is that, by his own earlier reasoning, it is modernity’s pressures that have made modern presidents the power-lusters that they have become.


The relevance of the Founders’ interpretation of Article 2 — even if that could be successfully gleaned from Howell’s cursory review — is only marginally pertinent to presidents’ philosophies of action.  Instead, modern jurisprudence and modern presidential practice determine who does what to whom and how.


That being so, why not focus on these modern aspects, rather than make an extended and idle perambulation through historical matters that literally no one, outside of the federal appellate judiciary, actually cares about?


George Washington’s character and the Founders’ unclear view of Article 2 — as evaluated from outside the judicial context — are as extraneous to Howell’s modern power premise, as is his lengthy digression regarding Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Machiavelli.



The inability to stay on analytical track mars almost every example that the author drags in


For example, Professor Howell goes on and on about President George W. Bush’s unfortunate flight over (rather than into) post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.


The idea here is that the American public detested Bush’s apparently hands-off attitude toward suffering and clean-up.  Howell contends, via this negative example of action, that Americans want effective and action-oriented involvement from their leaders, especially in the face of crisis.  If effectiveness cannot be achieved, at least let there be action.


No one on this planet is going to argue with Howell’s premise in its action-centric regard.  So, why slip in a “zero” example (where action and power-lust are absent) to substantiate the book’s lust-for-power premise, when Howell could just as easily have used a vignette that directly supported it?


There is, after all, a difference between:


(a) asserting that American presidents seek power




(b) illustrating the American public prefers powerful and action-oriented presidents.


In the Bush Katrina example, Howell drags in a president who emphatically failed to seek or assert presidential power in regard to the disaster.  Yet, this same President acted powerfully (if mistakenly) to start two wars, establish torture as an American paradigm, and mount an assault on the Fourth Amendment.


Those examples are much more directly tied to Howell’s theme.  And they add an extra dimension, regarding presidential overreach that arguably harms the nation.  This is a subject that one would think is an almost necessary corollary to any discussion of presidential power-seeking.  Yet Howell barely skims the topic.


Analytical left-handedness (no offense to lefties) marks the whole book.



Virtually no history and no political science


I found Professor Howell’s cursory use of a few, superficially researched, mostly modern examples of power-seeking less than glowingly professional.  This is the kind of book that a casually motivated, anecdotally-oriented journalist might write.



Not a shining example of political science or history


On the negative side, Thinking about the Presidency: the Primacy of Power is less than well-presented history and political science, wrapped in analytically disorganized writing.


I was disappointed because Professor Howell’s ideas about the reason and justifications for presidential power-seeking are intuitively persuasive.


On the positive side, which arguably justifies the price of the book, is Professor Howell’s premise that public expectations drive presidents’ power-grasping.


Although Thinking about the Presidency is less than elegantly written and structured, it is nevertheless sometimes (almost irrelevantly) interesting.


I would recommend the book to political and governance junkies.  But probably not to anyone else.