Book excerpt: John Dickerson’s “The Hardest Job In the World”
“60 Minutes” correspondent John Dickerson‘s new book, “The Hardest Job In the World: The American Presidency” (published by Random House), looks at the responsibilities of the nation’s chief executive, and how the role of president has evolved according to the men who met – or did not meet – the challenges of the office.
In this excerpt, Dickerson looks at the personalities of two of the 20th century’s most admired presidents, who each undertook the responsibilities of the job with different expectations.
Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Dickerson’s commentary on lessons in presidential leadership on “CBS Sunday Morning” June 14!
“Pray for Me” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
On election night 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to his New York townhouse. The incumbent, Herbert Hoover, had just conceded defeat. His son James helped him to bed and kissed him good night. His father looked up and said, “You know, Jimmy, all my life I’ve been afraid of one thing – fire. Tonight, I think I’m afraid of something else.”
James asked him what he was afraid of.
“I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job.”
As Jimmy left the room, his father said to him, “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I’m going to pray. I’m going to pray that God will help me, that He will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and do it right. I hope you will pray for me too, Jimmy.”
“Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
On September 29, 1956, the Cedar Rapids Gazette announced front-page news about the presidency: IKE SETTING UP A POLICY OF FIRING BACK. With Election Day just a month away, the incumbent, Dwight Eisenhower, had finally decided to engage his Democratic challenger, Adlai Stevenson. This wasn’t big news just in Iowa. In Delphos, Ohio, they woke up to this headline in the Daily Herald: FIRE BACK WHEN RIVALS GO TOO FAR – IKE’S NEW POLICY. In Tyrone, Pennsylvania, their Daily Herald heralded: IKE DECIDES TO ANSWER DEMO “LIES.”
Editors opened the big-type drawer for Eisenhower’s decision because the president had previously resisted what he called the “noise and extravagance” of the campaign. Weeks earlier, Eisenhower had waved away an easy chance to attack Stevenson: The Democratic nominee had complained about the state of the economy, and Eisenhower’s press secretary had accused Stevenson of cheering for bad news. When reporters asked the president about this, Ike said his rival must have been misquoted. (Ike’s press secretary held his next briefing from under the bus where his boss had just thrown him.)
Ike switched his strategy, but the former Supreme Allied Commander hardly stormed the beaches. “Firing back” amounted to instructing the Labor Department to rebut Stevenson’s claim about cost of living adjustments.
It’s not that Ike was mild-mannered. He wrestled to control his temper all his life. The White House staff felt the sting of his wrath so often they dubbed him “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang.” He once flung a golf club in anger and almost broke his doctor’s leg. When the sport vexed him – which is to say, when he played it – the veins on his temple engorged until one observer said they resembled whipcords. Still, Eisenhower believed he must master his impulses. “Anger cannot win,” he wrote in his diary almost a decade before becoming president. “It cannot even think clearly.”
Eisenhower believed the presidency was too serious to be concerned with the trivialities of politics. He also believed a president needed self-control to be effective. He didn’t attack his opponent, Stevenson, for yet another reason. That reason, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, was “Mr. Eisenhower’s reluctance to engage in name-calling contests that he considers beneath the dignity of the presidency.”
Excerpted from “The Hardest Job In the World: The American Presidency” © 2020 by John Dickerson. Published by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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