What would Richard Neustadt, the late Kennedy School professor and leading presidential scholar, have had to say about the current state of the presidency? On Monday evening, some of his star pupils and collaborators took some highly educated guesses.
As panelist and former Vice President Al Gore said, “This topic invites discussion of Dick Neustadt or Donald J. Trump, and I would much prefer the former.”
The panel, “The American Presidency in the 21st Century: What Would Dick Neustadt Say?,” was held in honor of what would have been Neustadt’s 100th birthday and moderated by Graham Allison, the former Kennedy School dean and current Douglas Dillon Professor of Government. Before delving into Neustadt’s political philosophy, each of the panelists offered some fond personal memories.
“He was my teacher, he was my mentor, he was my friend,” said historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, who recalled healing from her father’s death with Neustadt, who died in 2003, and his wife in Wellfleet. Former Harvard provost Harvey Fineberg remembered how Neustadt helped arrange his wedding on Cape Cod, when some towns weren’t allowing civil unions. And Gore recalled that Neustadt designed a noncredit course for his benefit when he was switching his Harvard concentration from English to government. “This utterly changed my life,” Gore said.
Looking at the current presidency, the panelists agreed that Neustadt would have provided historical insight. “I have never met anyone who cared more about the presidency as an office,” said Roger Porter, the IBM Professor of Business and Government. “He wanted presidents to succeed and if you look at his book ‘Presidential Power,’ it really aims advice to a single audience, that of the president. He was constantly reminding us that presidents succeed when they view themselves as educators, pointing out the real choices that we face as a country.”
The panelists also agreed that Neustadt would see the historical precedents for this presidency. Fineberg wondered, “What would he make of a president who is utterly incurious, ignorant of history, and uninterested in evidence, who disregards facts and thinks narcissistically and only in the short term? Dick Neustadt would be appalled,” he said, pausing before delivering the punchline: “So Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Warren G. Harding can all rest in peace.”