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The Book Show #1667 - John Dickerson

Book cover for "The Hardest Job in the World"

Joe Donahue:  Veteran political journalist and 60 Minutes Correspondent John Dickerson's new book "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency", is a deep dive into the history, evolution and current state of the American presidency, and how we can make the job less impossible and more productive.

In the book, Dickerson writes about presidents in history, such as Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Eisenhower, and in contemporary times from LBJ and Reagan and Bush, Obama and Trump, to show how a complex job has been done, and why we need to reevaluate how we view the presidency, how we choose our presidents and what we expect from them once they're in office. John Dickerson is a 60 Minutes correspondent, prior to that he was a co-host of CBS This Morning, the anchor of Face the Nation. And CBS News' Chief Washington correspondent. The new book, "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency".

 It's about pleasure to welcome John Dickerson to this week's Book Show. John, thank you very much for being with us.

John Dickerson: Thank you so much for having me.

The question that kept on coming to my mind, which you really looked at to somewhat answer in this book, why would anyone in the world want this job?

It's a great question. And the more I looked at it, the more I thought, "Oh good gracious, it's, um, it's not a job you would want." And, and we've known that since the beginning of the presidency. I mean, basically- You know, Thomas Jefferson said, in the job, "All he did was lose friends daily and make new enemies." And it's been that way pretty much all the way through. Fortunately, we have people who are ambitious enough, and they tie their ambition to the public good, that they're willing to put themselves through the wringer. Now, I use two words there that are sometimes up for grabs and the- This was a part of the fear, terror really, at the Constitutional Convention. Which was how to find somebody who is ambitious enough that they would want to take the job. But who was ambitious for the right reasons, or at least had hooked enough of their ambition up to the public good, so that they would act in furtherance of the public good. And even if it was to burnish their own ambition, that's okay, because it would work for the public. Of course, what they were terrified about was that that ambition, coupled with the power of the job would create a tyrant. And you know, that they made a lot of efforts to try to block that. The- It's basically all comes back to ambition.

It seems as though you come to this project, with great concerns about the job of presidency and what it has become.

I am concerned and I'll tell you where the concern came from. I've spent 30 years basically covering presidential campaigns and presidencies and I saw an ever-widening gap between the way we talk about the presidency and the way it actually takes place. And that's not a, necessarily a criticism of any one president. It's just a disconnect between the way we talk about the office and the way it actually exists. And I also spent a lot of time talking to voters. And they're certainly quite frustrated. And part of that frustration, not all of it, but part of it, comes from, I think, thinking about the job in too binary a fashion: it's either this or it's that, and never anything in between. and and not understanding some of the complexities of the job, which would give us a better understanding of it and therefore inform our choices better, not only about who we picked for the job, but also how we evaluate what they do. And so the book was basically an attempt to try to work through those concerns, go back to the basics and the basic blueprint of the office, and then hope that people would, would follow me along and then make the decisions for themselves. So I hope that's what they do.

How well does that blueprint hold up?

Well, there are parts of the blueprint that hold up. if we go back and look at the original first room on that blueprint, which was to create an Office of Energy, where an executive could particularly take care of the security needs of the country under the Articles of Confederation, you had to go to each state to get donations to keep security force in, in order and we see a collective good problem even today and the response to COVID, With respect to the different ways different states are behaving. well, that was what they ran into under the Articles of Confederation. So the power in an executive to act with dispatch and in secrecy when necessary, is all quite well intact. The problem is it's too intact, and the presidency has too much power, at least relative to that original blueprint.

Do you think, and I'll include the last several decades, but do you think we, we have learned over the past few decades just how powerful a role it is, right?

We have learned and we've learned in part because, well, two different ways we've learned one, we just see the size, scope and amount of money in the executive branch. And and and we also, I mean, certainly, you know, President Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons is- There's no more powerful single act of a president with the with the results available for all to see. And, but we've also seen the way not only- So the national security part of the job has mushroomed since the Second World War and then it grew ever larger after the attacks of 9-11. But we also see a way in which the presidency is kind of at the heart of all of our political questions. The President is a political celebrity. No one else is on par with the President. And that takes a certain amount of our mindshare and our and our focus, as we think about public questions. And so there's part that the President has grabbed, there's part that Congress has handed to the President, and then there's part of what voters hand to the president as the kind of universal solution to all political problems. And that was definitely not the intention when the office was first designed.

You talk about, in the book, the four quadrant system. Talk to us a little bit about what that is?

Sure. I- When I was going back again, to the sort of basics of the job, what does the President do and what does the President need to do and how should we think about their jobs so we can effectively evaluate them? The first thing, or a couple of the basic things I came to, one of them was about prioritization. The President's time is some of the most valuable time on the planet, and everybody wants a piece of it. And the President wants to dole it out to everyone because who wants to, who wants to say no? But the problem is, there are too many things for a human being to do in one day. And if you get the prioritization wrong, you cannot focus on important things. And Eisenhower had a phrase when he said "Don't let the urgent crowd out the important." And what he was saying essentially was: You're going to be faced with lots of urgent things, and so many that your day can be completely filled with urgent things, but that can, that can keep you from focusing on things that will become urgent tomorrow. And really those kinds of things that you can only focus- that you can only address by thinking about them beforehand and putting a plan in place and having a team ready to deal with those problems. If you think about them, when they come to your lap, it's going to be too late. And so he had that phrase, which became something called the 'Eisenhower matrix', which anybody who's ever read Stephen Covey or any other self- help book knows about, and it's essentially a four quadrant system in which you place tasks and those tasks- It helps you sort which ones you should take on first and which ones you can delegate and which ones you should defer to tomorrow.

You write, "To manage a president must delegate ruthlessly. Ushering or sometimes pushing items from quadrant one to quadrant three. The location for urgent but less important tasks that can be handled by someone else, day-to-day decisions about how best to combat the spreading Ebola virus in Africa, or prepare for hurricane season or reduce opiate addiction, will have to be made for you." How is, how do we see that? Do you believe-Do we see that work? And how do you think we have seen that not work?

Well, we've seen it work in the sense that with disasters, President Obama, for example, tasked you know, as the Ebola crisis happened, he tasked Ron Klain with essentially setting up the US response to the Ebola crisis. And then went back to doing the rest of his job and handed it off to Ron Klain, who, by lots of different accounts, did a did a very good job of managing that issue. The President is responsible for everything that Ron Klain does, and the President's responsible for everything that the person to whom they delegated the task. He's responsible to that person- Not responsible to them, but responsible for them. But he, a president or, she, someday won't be, can't have their hands on everything because they've got so many other things to take care of. Now, where it's gone, you know, there will be lots and lots of debate about this. But, you know, the question on- With respect to the, response to the COVID-19, from the president now, when people look back at that, and whether the response from the federal government was fast or slow, the one place that people should look was not just once the pandemic hit, or once they heard it was happening in Wuhan, China. But how was the preparations for a pandemic, how was it handled beforehand? The Obama administration had left a guidelines for this that had actually started in the Bush administration. So how- When a president comes in, it's very hard. There's so many things to take care of. How was how was it that the Trump administration reflected on the threat of a pandemic and were they in the best possible position? The pandemic is a perfect example of, and so is cyber warfare, a perfect example of an important, but not urgent, event. So in 2018, there were- Pandemics were important, but they hadn't yet become urgent. And that's the time where you want to make yourself focus on it so that when it does hit, you're in a position to respond.

John Dickerson is our guest the name of the new book, "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency". It is published by Random House.

You write in the book, "Partisanship also affects how we analyze the presidency." How so?

Well, it basically has come to be, and one of the things I learned in working on the book, and of course, I've seen it over the course of my career, but basically what happens is in campaigns, partisans tailor the skills required for the job, and tailor the job itself to the person who's actually, who's running for president. So it would be if I were to say, the only possible person who can write a book about the presidency is a blonde man in his early 50s, with two kids, named John." You know? So, so you define the job by whoever's running for it. Well, that's politically useful, right? Because you know, you, you, you create a hole that only one person can fit in. But that's not that's not a- Not any way we do anything else. You have a set of standards against which you measure somebody and they rise or fall relative to the standards. But because everything has become so partisan, people's interest is more in defending their person than in judging them against a fixed standard. And by the way, judging against a fixed standard doesn't mean they're always going to well, presidents are always going to fall short. Its perfection is is impossible. But what we've gotten into with partisanship is that people are always defending their person who's in the presidency. Or always, or always attacking a person in the presidency who's from an opposite party. And it has more to do with the political needs of the moment than any kind of fixed standard about how a president's behaving, whether they should be held responsible in the way, and a series of other questions you can strip down to a certain standard that you could apply if you if you took politics out of the way.

We always hear this, and over your 30 year career, which is about- I think we're the same age, so my career as well. How many times have we, as journalists, but also as citizens heard the term: "This is the most important presidential election of our lifetime."

Right? Yes, we hear it basically every election. Although it's you know, it's And it's a it's a, it's a part of the malady of a presidency that's gotten too big. Because there was a time when the balance of American government and the shared power system was such that that, you know, wise people would have thought, well, no, there's not one election that is the most important. A president presidential election is important. But Congress and all the individual elections that make up Congress are also quite important, because Congress plays such a fundamental role in American government, that, and Congress's role has become diminished. And so the founders would have to hear that the founders would have been made nervous immediately. Nevertheless, because we've spent so much time on the presidency. Each president each presidential election is important. And there's a little bit of truth to it, which is to say, "We have no idea what the next president is going to face." And so to the extent that you're picking the person who will handle that next crisis, crisis or crises, if they're a series of them. You you are it is an important election because the the number of dangers out there a future president might have to handle are, are big and somewhat scary,

As you talk about the enormity of the job and what it's become, you quote Leon Panetta in the book and say "the modern presidency has gotten out of control. Presidents are caught in a crisis by Crisis Response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle on the office." How do you get away from that, though, especially for just the reason you just mentioned about the day-to-day crises?

Right, it's, well, it's very hard and we have to think we have to think about what what we can fix within an individual president, and what would have to be fixed through a kind of collective decision to do things a little bit different. Like the problem with even a president who would be perfectly poised to handle the job, and reorganize the lumpy parts of the office- And by that, I mean, imagine if you were having a corporate merger of two companies that that amounted to about a $4 trillion new enterprise- Which is what becoming president is, it's essentially, it's a corporate takeover of about four $4 trillion enterprise. You'd spend a lot more time on it than the two months, a President and his team gets between when they win the election and when they're inaugurated. And you would have some experience in the job if you were having a merger or a corporate takeover, you would have some understanding of how to do the job you were taking over. The presidency is on the job learning, essentially, and particularly because we've we've created a penchant recently, and I say recently, really, since you know, Jimmy Carter, where the American public wants outsiders wants people with with not that much experience. So those are all things that make it very hard to be a president. And the minute you get there, the inbox starts filling up with crises. So how do you fix that? Well, one way might be to think a little bit more about people with Washington experience. Now that makes some voters writhe in pain: They don't want Washington experience at all. It's Washington that's been disappointing them. But the problem is that lawmaking takes place in Washington. It is a sausage making factory. People hate that it is, but that's the way the system was set up. And somebody with some familiarity of that process would have less of a hill to climb to get familiar with the process in order to do the things they promised they would do. But there are also lots of management things- And this will sound boring, but if you don't have a system in place, you can't handle the challenges of the office. There are a lot of ways to prepare for the job that should start much earlier. And we should encourage candidates to think out loud or at least prepare earlier for the job. Even though they're running for president, they don't know whether they'll get the job. If they prepare earlier there'll be in a better position if they do in fact win and and have to take over

I'm interested in your timestamp of beginning with the Carter administration. So clearly that is a result of when one of the greatest political scandals and presidential scandals, and that's Watergate, of course.

Right. You know, Carter was coming in to clean everything up, both in response to Nixon, but he named in his famous Playboy interview, while he was a candidate, he named the the Johnson administration as well, in other words, that Lyndon Johnson was not straight with the country about what was happening in Vietnam. And Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were, you know, old time hands of Washington politics and and that was, you know, basically since then everybody's been looking for an outsider, with the exception of George Herbert Walker Bush, who was who was a longtime Washington politician and, and official. And and what happened with with Nixon in particular. And because I thought a lot about the question of character and what that means, and what- And basically after Nixon, we, who cover presidential campaigns and the public to some extent, spent a lot of time on the question of truth, telling and honesty and tried to figure out in campaigns if candidates were telling the truth or lying or misbehaving in private, in any possible way. And we became quite obsessed with that, and that really kind of boiled the job down in a way that, again, kind of narrowed our focus about what the job is. Because honesty is obviously very, very important. And we're, we're all having a discussion about that with President Trump who does who does not share that view. But sometimes the President has to be not honest. And it's a part of being successful in the job. Which is seems like a crazy thing to say, but it's true. It doesn't mean all the time, but it means in select instances. And that was one of the interesting parts of the work and interviews I did for the book.

You have a chapter in the book, which I found fascinating. It's called "Acting Presidential", and as you mentioned, Donald Trump. You write: "when Donald Trump attacks the suffering after disaster, he is not acting presidential. When he attacks a dead congressman and his widow, also a member of Congress, as he did with representatives, john and Debbie Dingell, he is not acting presidential. When he makes fun of a 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg, he is not acting presidential It seems- And this is what the big question is, I think that you you grapple with here is, are we more accepting of that? That there are people who find that refreshing in some way, but also, then how do we return to an era of a president acting presidential?

Well, it's a great question. And I would add, you know, there were new items that have come out since the book, which I think are in a new category, which is the president, whether it's about Joe Scarborough or 75, 75 year old protester, where he has made up stories that are quite damaging, And, and quite vicious. A president has an extraordinary power to call on the emotional need- Well, I should say speak to the emotional needs of the country. And and we all turn to our presidents in moments of crises, crisis. And that's built upon a reverence for the office and a stewardship of the office that's basically been maintained throughout its history. And in the same way, we would expect a certain kind of behavior from the priest who was officiating a wedding, or anybody else who we hold in high regard because of the position they hold. We don't expect the priest officiating a wedding to be hitting on the coat-check girl at the reception, we would find that inconsistent with the high value we place on their job. And so when a president acts outside of the traditions of the job, it makes it harder for the President to then call on those traditions of the job in the moment when you need it. So with with respect to truth telling or even the consoler job that we've come to expect from the president, which is to say, consoling the nation in a moment of agony, when the President has quite successfully and to the delight of many of his supporters, shredded a lot of the traditions of- That would be associated with being presidential. That's his choice. And he can do that. And they can find that refreshing, as you said, but it then leaves him unable to go to the bank and make a withdrawal on those presidential skills and that presidential admiration and that presidential feeling that people have. So as a president, you have to tend to that portion of your relationship with the entire country. You're not just president of your base, you're president of an entire country. And being presidential essentially means behaving in such a way that you can then call on the stature of your office that you've been maintaining in the times when the people need it the most.

John Dickerson is our guest, the name of the new book is "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency". The second part of your book is on presidential campaigns. Of course, we are now in a presidential campaign. There's a great chapter in that section called, "The Church of Perpetual Disappointment". Give us a sense of the the troubles with the the- Well the perpetual campaign, but also how we can break that cycle and and have- And, I realize this is a shaggy question, but how we can have a "more normal", for whatever that is- Because as you point out, there really is no such thing, campaign season. And and also, is there a possibility that given this, given this time that we're in with COVID, that that could present us with an opportunity of having something that is that is less strenuous than it has been in the past?

I think that's a good point to put the finger on COVID, and you might as well add the economic devastation we're facing at the moment and also the the, the racial agony in the country on behalf of blacks in America. But I'll step back for just a second to get there. I mean, for the first hundred or so years of the presidency to even run for the office was to, was to show that you lacked the virtue to be in the office. Remember, I was talking about ambition, they were so worried about ambition. And if you if you showed the kind of voracious ambition that is required to get yourself in a position to be elected, it would show that that was such a driving force of your personality that they didn't dare want to give you access to the office because that ambition matched with the power of the presidency would turn you into a tyrant. That norm faded over the time over time. And then what happened is television came along both television and party primaries. Primaries, where the voters make the choice of the elect- Of the person being elected, and not the sort of party Poohbahs, created a situation in which basically, increasingly, running for president became a popularity contest, to put it in blunt terms. I go, obviously, into much more historical detail of how this happened. And so since it's a popularity contest, and often can be a contest in which you just try to tear down the popularity of the person you're running against, It started to get very detached from what the actual job is, and more into personalities and to gaffes and into the basically frivolous. And even when issues were discussed, they weren't discussed on their merits or with reason. But they were often attached to identity politics or things that made voters get very outraged and upset. And now with the ability to micro target voters, which is to say, figure out what your one issue is that drives you crazy, and then target special messages to you on social media or or in mail that comes through your mailbox. There isn't there's a way now to keep voters constantly outraged about their specific issue, whether that issue should be in the top 10 we discuss during a presidential election or not. So all of this has shredded the capacity to make judgments about the president, whoever it may be. Now, that doesn't mean we always get bad presidents. But it makes it it makes it much, much harder to pick good ones and to engage in a process that sets us all up and sets our expectations up for what a president can and can't do once they actually get into office. So how how we would fix that, essentially going back to your point about COVID-19 and the moment we're in now, is to say there are three big challenges facing America at this moment. And we know from our own personal lives that no big challenge is faced seriously by being shallow or frivolous. So let's see what we can do to not get sidetracked. Let's see what we can do to not get hijacked by partisans in either party who want to frame every issue by in its starkest terms, who want to frame everything in, in terms that we know are kind of trying to excite us more than teach us and anything, and it basically is up to all of us. And certainly, those of us in the press to try to frame issues to not just try to hover around conflict and cover it because it's going to make people watch what we put on TV or make people read our newspaper columns. But try to do something to go through conflict or at least set it up so that people can make choices about what the conflict is about. And you know, this is this home probably sounds like a lot of homework for everybody. But the challenges of the moment require something a little more than the traditional sort of more kind of horse race or sports like coverage of presidential campaigns.

Of course, if you if you say this out loud, you are, you know immediately assailed for for being over reactive, but is that there are many that look at what is happening now and have grave concerns that we are in a constitutional crisis. I'm I'm interested in in what you make of that, of how we, how we look at this time how we move forward, and even including the really the loyalty for want of a better term that this President has seen from a Republican party that also realizes the concerns but doesn't seem to act on them.

Well, and that- We're in the middle of a test of that as as the President's former National Security Advisor john Bolton comes forward with more revelations about or his- Or what, what he says happened, obviously, the president disagrees or says it didn't happen. But anyway about the president putting his own personal personal interests over the country's interests. Now, obviously, John Bolton is just one person. He was- His relationship with the president at the end was not good, he's trying to sell a book. There's a lot of reasons to be skeptical about what he's saying. But it puts the members of the Senate in particular, but the members of the President's party who defended him during impeachment by saying they didn't need to hear from John Bolton, who was not just any old staffer, but was in an eye witness position to really ratify or refute the claims made of various people about what the President was doing and not doing the respect to Ukraine. So we're in a hot moment right now about the the testing the adhesion of the president to his party, but basically over the last several presidencies- Well, well, yes, since Nixon and Reagan, the adhesion of partisans to their president has grown ever stickier and the distance between any public official of a party and the leader of that party, it has grown very small. And that's part of our partisan moment. We were talking about earlier in which there is no incentive to criticize a president, if I am a member of that president's party, because my fortunes in my election are often going to be determined by how well the president is doing nationally. Because our pres- our campaigns have become much more national. So I don't want to say anything that's going to make the president look bad because it's going to blow back on me. Or if the President is of a vindictive nature, that President is going to encourage somebody to run against me in a party primary, and that's going to be expensive, and I may lose.

We talked at the beginning about how you want this book to be a way to show the complexity of this job and why we need to reevaluate how we view the presidency. So over these next few weeks before the November election, what is our job? What do we need to do?

Well, it's a great question. I think what we need to do is figure out what are the big questions that the next President will face. And, and who will be in the best position to face the next crisis that America faces because, because that's the job- Is, is to face unpredictable, surprise crises that come out of nowhere. And and who has the who has the temperament and also the kind of value structure to handle those that meet most closely with your views about what you think would be a good outcome. But I think also there's a good competition that could, that both candidates could engage in, which is not just to build America to what it was before these three challenges hit, to sketch a vision for what a better America would look like. There's a term in in in disaster relief after a disaster hits a country. They talk about "building back better". What does it look like to build back better after COVID-19? What does it look like to build back better after America comes to an understanding of the racial pain that we see displayed each day in our streets, and each day in the protests? And what does it feel to rebuild an economy that recognizes the fissures and the disadvantages and the inequities that were highlighted by this enormous economic challenge we are going through right now. And so who can sketch the vision for what America would look like if it was better not just coming back to what America was like before

John Dickerson's new book "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency". It is published by Random House. John I wanted to read this book far before you even probably started writing it. It's been something I've been fascinated in and now that you have actualized it, it is really stunning. To see and to read and to understand I thank you so much for being with us.

Well, thank you so much for having me, Joe. And for your questions and, and I'm glad you, I'm glad you wanted it to exist and I'm glad that it does.

Me too. Again the name of the book, "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency", published by Random House. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@WAMC.org. You can listen again to this or find past book shows via podcast, or at WAMC.org.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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