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.”
Neustadt might have saved his harshest criticism for the current media, suggested Goodwin. “He always stressed that the presidency was no place for amateurs and that experience matters,” she said. “And he worried about how the media focused on who raised the most money, and who did better in the debate. … He cared more about what kind of leader they were — do they have humility and can they learn from their mistakes? That is the way we should be covering these people.”
At the same time, she said, Neustadt would likely be encouraged by the fact that record numbers of women and veterans voted in the recent midterms. “I think there’d be an optimism on his part.”
Continuing the media theme, Gore recalled discussing Marshall McLuhan’s writings with Neustadt. “When broadcasting was first introduced, it changed peoples’ perception of the presidency,” he said. “Now, with the influence of social media, we’re seeing an even larger revolution. I had hoped that the negative impact of television could be ameliorated by social media, but that has not been the case.”
Neustadt, he suggested, would point out the underlying social problems. “Without getting into an analysis of why [the Trump era] happened to us, we have gone more than 40 years without an increase in take-home pay for middle-class Americans. If someone comes along with a demagogic set of proposals wrapped in falsehoods and promises a better day, people will say, ‘I’ll try that.’”
Gore saved the panel’s most pointed criticism of the current presidency for his closing remarks. “I am tempted to say that Dick Neustadt would say, ‘This is not normal, this is not a phenomenon that has been demonstrated within the range of American history,’” he said. “I would say that the dangers presented by this presidency are just too far off the charts, and there has to be a way to recognize this without feeding the fervor and anger on the other side. I think Dick Neustadt would know, and I wish he was here to tell me.”