At a time when much of our national attention is focused on who will be the next American president, La Jolla will get a visit from a man who is an expert on the people who have already held the job.
Robert Dallek, the highly regarded historian who has written numerous acclaimed books on past presidents including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, will be on the campus of the Bishop’s School from Dec. 3 to 7 as the school’s first scholar-in-residence. On Dec. 6 at 7 p.m., Dallek will give a free public lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium, titled “An Historical Look at the Contemporary Presidency.”
Dallek, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and has taught at UCLA, Oxford and Boston University, said his lecture would broadly cover the history of the American presidency in the 20th century.
“It’s essentially a look at the question of how presidents succeed and fail,” Dallek said. “The greats were men with vision like Wilson and FDR, pragmatists who built consensus. They were charismatic men like Reagan, who created a kind of rapport with the public and enjoyed their trust and affection.”
He will also discuss presidents who could be considered failures in the historical context, as well as some that fall somewhere in between.
“There’s pleny of evidence that Hoover couldn’t connect with the public,” Dallek said. “He was not pragmatic at all. His vision was crumbled in the Depression, he lost his hold on the public and was a rather rigid personality. Lyndon Johnson was a combination of the two - he was highly pragmatic and had vision, but was also seen as untrustworthy and someone who took us into a war that was seen as a failure.”
Though Dallek notes that presidential legacies can change drastically over time and often don’t crystallize for several decades, he sees the current president as fitting in the lower end of the historical spectrum.
“I think (George W. Bush) will be remembered as a highly unsuccessful president,” he said. “He had a large vision about spreading democracy, but it’s got to be more than a vision - it’s got to be a realizable vision. And what percentage of the public really believes that he’s going to spread democracy across the Middle East? He’s promised all sorts of things that he hasn’t fulfilled or achieved, and there’s a tremendous amount of divisiveness in the country. He’s flirting with the lows (in approval ratings) of people like Nixon and Johnson and Truman. I think he’ll be remembered as one of the bottom-feeders.”
Truman suffered historically low approval ratings toward the end of his term, but was somewhat vindicated in the subsequent decades. Bush can only hope for a similar turn of fortunes, Dallek said.
"(Truman) had 32 percent approval because of (the Korean War), the threat of communism, but now he’s seen as one of the near-great presidents,” he said. “What worked for him was 40, 50 years after he left office, we won the Cold War. And he was the one who put in place the containment doctrine. We look back now and he was absolutely right, this was the right thing to do, not to go to war but to contain the Soviet Union and hope it would collapse in on itself.
“Bush can hope that one day we’ll say he was very smart to have fought the Iraq War. It’s still a little too soon to say, but I think that’s going to be dead wrong.”
In the actions of Richard Nixon and his top adviser Henry Kissinger, the subjects of his latest book, Dallek sees parallels to the current administration.
“Nixon and Kissinger pressed forward (in Vietnam) with the same idea, that their actions would produce a representative government that could stand up on its own,” Dallek said. “That proved to be utterly false, and my guess is that we’re looking at a very similar scenario.”
But we’ll likely have to wait many, many years for a Dallek-penned book on the current administration. Most of his books were written at least 30 years after the administration in question ended, as it takes time for official records and documents to be opened to the public. Even then, Dallek cautions that the whole truth is probably never known, noting that more than 900 hours of tapes of Nixon remain sealed, as do tapes of Johnson and Kennedy.
“There’s a saying - history is argument without end,” Dallek said. “We’re forever rewriting these histories. We might look at someone one way, but as context changes it makes a significant difference. The work that endures and has a certain staying power in some part is a consequence of the artistry the writer brings to it.”
To reserve tickets for Dallek’s lecture, call (858) 459-4021 ext 790 or visit www.bishops.com.