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Review of Playing President by Robert Scheer

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Review of Playing President by Robert Scheer. Originally appeared under the title From the Executive Branch to the Texan Ranch at the Columbia Journal of American Studies web site, CJAS Online, in April 2007.
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   Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton -- and  How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush .Third edition containing new material and an added index.By Robert Scheer Akashic Books; $14.95; Paper; ISBN 1-933354-01-12006300 pp. by Tim W. Brown  Playing President  is a new collection of previously published interviews and op-edessays by long-time  Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Robert Scheer. Scheer's closeencounters with these ex-presidents have resulted in many valuable documents gathered in   one book. The notorious  Playboy Magazine interview with Jimmy Carter, in which he confessed, I've committed adultery in my heart many times [98], surely qualifies as historicallysignificant. Sometimes, though, I’m not sure if Scheer knows what treasures are in his possession.In his preface, Scheer asserts that becoming President of the United States involves playing a role. To be president, one has to act  presidential  : it revolves around a performer and alargely untutored electorate that is his jury and his audience [15]. This statement is a huge clichéand has been known to political observers since at least Franklin Roosevelt's day (if notTheodore Roosevelt's), when FDR's handlers never let him be filmed or photographed in hiswheelchair, because he would appear physically diminished, i.e., less than presidential. To pin hiswhole book around this thesis is like someone at Scientific American announcing his newdiscovery that gravity is a fact of physics.Thus, Scheer spends a good percentage of the book arguing a point that virtuallyeverybody concedes is true. Scheer would have done better simply to reprint his articles andinterviews without editorializing. For there are dozens of passages in these writings by 1  themselves that reveal a lot about the men who would lead us. Richard M. Nixon was self-serving. Jimmy Carter was the manufactured product of political consultants. Ronald Reaganwas a scary true believer. George H. W. Bush was prickly and uninformed. Bill Clinton was atraitor to his liberal base. George W. Bush has basically slummed it as President. Most of thesedepictions largely accord with the public's perceptions. Yet these generalities were constantlyundermined by the men's words and demeanor, and it is clear that Scheer has the appropriatetalent and chutzpah for interviewing them and eliciting deeper truths. In particular, Reagan andClinton are shown as complex individuals who cannot be easily summarized in one sentence.As a resident of California, Scheer already had some experience with the personality of the elusive Dutch Reagan due to following and reporting on his gubernatorial career. In TheReagan Question, srcinally published in the August 1980 issue of   Playboy , Scheer dwelled onthe contradictions of Reagan and his appeal to voters. On the one hand, the puritanical and agedwarrior intoning a death chant against the godless Communists, permissive government, theimmoral homosexuals, the welfare cheats, unrelenting and simplistic in its enmity but alwaysself-righteous and pure. On the other hand, the people drawn to him tended to be more variedand hip than one would expect from the campaign rhetoric [39].During the early years of his presidency, Reagan indeed drew a hard line against a longlist of conservative bugaboos. Eventually seeing that this governing tactic only went so far, hemoderated his stances, especially toward the Soviets, by 1986. And notwithstanding many dire predictions that Reagan would start World War III, he proved, nowhere covered by Scheer, tohave greater vision than his contemporaries in how to hasten the demise of the Soviet regime--including rock-solid Cold Warrior Richard Nixon to whom Scheer referred with newfoundaffection during Reagan's presidency in Nixon: Scorn Yielding to New Respect.” 2  In Forget Dole; Here's the Ideal GOP Candidate, an  L.A. Times op-ed from Aug. 6, 1996,Scheer wrote about Bill Clinton that [t]he Democrats are better positioned to hurt the poor andfavor the rich because they have so much credibility with liberals who care. Just as it took ahawk like Nixon to embrace Mao Tse-tung [  sic ] and legitimize Communist rule in China as avictory for the Free World, it required a 'New Democrat' like Clinton to force millions of additional children into poverty as an act of charity [225-226]. This statement probablymischaracterized Clinton's intentions regarding welfare reform, but it summed up the liberalconsensus at the time.Scheer finally gave Clinton his due, not least for balancing the budget, in an  L.A. Times essayreprinted from 2000, Admit It; He's Not Perfect, but He's a Great President. Toward the end of Clinton's presidency, all was forgiven by Scheer, which makes me wonder why he spent so muchenergy raking Clinton over the coals in his articles from 1992 to 1999. The internecine battleswaged among liberals over the minute degrees of their liberalism may have been responsible.Here is a good point to pause and observe a general failing of the book. Scheer evidently believes in a Manichean universe -- Left versus Right, men in white hats versus men in black hats, you're either for 'em or agin 'em. It's been said that Reagan spoke from the Right butgoverned from the Center. The same could be said about Nixon and George H. W. Bush.Conversely, Clinton governed from the Left and spoke from the Center. My argument being that,in the U.S. political system, successful governing has required a delicate balancing act of  pursuing your principals while simultaneously appealing to the middle position favored by amajority of the electorate. Scheer doesn't seem to recognize this point, or, if he does, he ignores itin favor of peddling a dualistic conception of American politics. 3  Unlike the earlier presidents discussed in  Playing President  , George W. Bush speaks from theRight and governs from the Right, yet he somehow got elected twice while defying the usualformula. Perhaps it was due to this fact that Scheer's Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, BushI, Reagan, and Clinton did not, as he claims in the book's subtitle, Prepare Me for George W.Bush.  Playing President  's last section deals with the current president and consists of recent op-ed essays that allow Scheer to rip W without the constraints of journalistic objectivity that besethim when conversing with Nixon, Carter, et al. The weakness of this section is that Scheer never sat down and talked personally with W like the others.Still, he describes W deadly accurately, calling him a perpetual adolescent. Bushaffected a deliberate air of diffidence from an early age, suggesting that he took on assignmentsonly reluctantly, whether as student, businessman, or politician, interpreting each challenge inturn as more of a bother than an obligation. Winging it, but always propped up by a considerableretinue of those more disciplined than he, has proved an enormously effective ploy [233].The ploy to get elected twice may have been effective, but as a governing style it surelyhasn’t worked, as Scheer observed in piece after piece of outraged opinion published through2006, when the book leaves off. Scheer criticized W for engaging in irresponsible fiscal policies,coddling the Taliban prior to September 11, 2001, taking his marching orders from the ReligiousRight and, especially, constantly changing his rationale for attacking Iraq. In at least twoinstances he demanded the president's impeachment. Never mind that this was an unrealisticoption when these articles were written and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress --another example of Scheer's curious political naïveté.Though he often guesses wrong about these men’s trajectories, Scheer still successfullymanages to share many psychological insights. The generously long articles allowed him by 4
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