Most twentieth century presidents are best remembered for the promises they failed to keep. Woodrow Wilson boasted in 1916 that "He kept us out of war"; Herbert Hoover predicted--perfectly plausibly, given the golden conditions of 1928--that his term would witness the final triumph over poverty in the United States; Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party pledged to deliver balanced budgets after 1932, as well as "a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the federal government"; Lyndon Johnson assured the nation in 1964, "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys"; Richard Nixon promised to mold an effective national crusade for law and order, and to win peace with honor in the jungles of Southeast Asia; Ronald Reagan promised above all else to balance the federal budget. Of all of this nation's twentieth century presidents, perhaps only Calvin Coolidge fully satisfied the expectations of those who gave him their ballots: he promised little more than to sit down and keep quiet.
None of these promises can be dismissed as patently dishonest in their inception. Yet each stands as an ironic and troubling counterpoint to its author's most famous deeds. Presidents, even imperial ones, eventually must confront problems outside the narrow context of partisan rhetoric. They must adapt to changing realities, respond to unexpected crises, and design policies that will somehow satisfy Congress, the courts, and their own bureaucracies. And thus trapped within the awkward perimeters of practical choice, every president eventually discovers that even his most sincere promises bear little resemblance to the decisions he must make.
One political truth seems clear. It is by their husbandry of the nation's