Key Executive Moves over Time

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 10, 2011 | Go to article overview

Key Executive Moves over Time


Byline: John R. Coyne Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Some of the early presidential decisions discussed here may be little remembered, perhaps for good reason. George Washington's decision to put down the Whiskey Rebellion is, no doubt, as Nick Ragone writes in Presidential Leadership, an early landmark in the struggle between states' rights and federal power - a struggle he then traces through Thomas Jefferson approving the Louisiana Purchase, Andrew Jackson rejecting nullification and Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

But no matter how you frame it, the picture of George Washington as revenuer in chief, donning his old uniform to lead troops against a ragged band of tax-resisting, moonshining farmers, is singularly unappealing.

Of the next grouping of decisions - Theodore Roosevelt building the Panama Canal, Woodrow Wilson creating the League of Nations, FDR passing Lend-Lease, Harry Truman deciding to drop the atomic bomb - most of the ground, with the exception of Lend-Lease, has been well plowed. Or, in the case of the Panama Canal, the interest in the details of its construction has naturally diminished over the years.

It's when he comes to his final grouping - Lyndon Johnson and civil rights, Richard Nixon visiting China, Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech - that Mr. Ragone, a respected reporter, commentator and author, brings his skills fully to bear, especially in his treatments of Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

True, he feels compelled to issue the obligatory disclaimer: Just because there is a chapter on Nixon and China doesn't mean I believe Nixon was a great president.

But in fact, despite several such disclaimers, the aspect of the Nixon presidency he chooses to deal with proves just that. The trip to China was a geopolitical masterstroke, making possible the successful end to the war he inherited in Vietnam, creating cracks in the Cold War structure and causing a distinct shift in the balance of global power away from Soviet interests.

As a diplomatic feat, Mr. Ragone concludes, [the China trip] certainly has no rival in the [20th] century - perhaps in American history. It required endless patience, broad vision, a mastery of the subject matter, a natural gift for negotiation. …

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