Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Political Education

I'm still mulling over Kenneth Waltz' big book on international relations--specifically, his sophistication about international relations and his seeming (um, incuriosity?) about life at home.  Okay, I should be fair--he wasn't writing about home life.  Still, I'm sticking to my point that I can't imagine anybody talking about "states" or "the state" with so little nuance today.

My first thought was that I'm observing an anachronism--a book written fifty-odd years ago.  My second thought is that Waltz is almost conemporaneous with the great modern classic on the inner workings of govesrnment--Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power, which taught the Kennedy generation of Americans that the first thing to know about Presidential power is that he doesn't have all  that much.

Amazing to think back to a time when we didn't know that.  By now, I think we all recognize that look of stoic horror that you see on the face of every new president six-eight weeks into his term, from which we learn that for all the hoopla, there really isn't much he can do with his great office.  We had heard--I think we had heard--Harry S. Truman, famously saying: of the Chief Executive, "he'll sit here and he'll say "Do this!  Do that!"  And nothing will happen!"  But it took Neustadt to explain to us just exactly how this is true. WikiSummary quotes Neustadt on the sources of Presidential power:

[F]irst are the bargaining advantages inherent in his job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do. Second are the expectations of those other men regarding his ability and will to use the various advantages they think he has. Third are those men's estimates of how his public views him and of how their publics may view them if they do what he wants.
I think the companion piece to Neustadt may be another eye-opener published just about the same time--Theodore White's Making of the President 1960.    I can't think of anything like White before White; I don't think anyone but the cognoscenti had the slightest notion what the inner workings of a campaign looked like until White showed them.  In particular, consider White's insight that no political candidate arises ex nihilo: he comes from a "candidate ecology" that supports him and sometimes even creates him.  Barry Goldwater is perhaps the supreme example (see Rick Perlstein's superb account), but White showed how Jack Kennedy made no sense apart from Massachusetts and Humbert Humphrey,  none apart from Minnesota.

Of course we've had a torrent of campaign accounts imitating White (including those by White himself (link, link)--whether anybody has ever succeeded in equaling the master is left as an exercise to the reader.  Worthy successors to Neustadt are harder to come by.  Would Graham Allison qualify? Maybe, but my own favorite candidates come from television--most obviously Yes, Minister, which I think I've argued before is the best textbook on organizational behavior I ever encountered. It's perhaps a personal choice but I'd add my personal favorite classic of bureaucratic slash-and-grab, Sandbaggers.   And in America--well, it took more than a generation, but at last we got West Wing.  What's interesting about West Wing is not just that we enjoyed it but that we understood it--something I can't imagine we could have done without Neustadt.

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