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On The White House Watch

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Fall 1996

On The White House Watch
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In Hail to the Chief, Dallek identifies five traits C vision, pragmatism, consensus-building ability, charisma and trust C and argues they are central to the making of an effective president. He describes how model leaders like Jefferson and Lincoln brought to bear these qualities in response to the domestic and foreign crises of their day and how washouts like Harding and Hoover failed to meet the test.

The book grew out of Dallek's years of studying and writing about various presidents and his desire to understand what made the strongest chief executives successful. The book also reflects Dallek's 30 years of teaching: In the introduction, he warmly credits the UCLA students in his honors collegium course on the American presidency with having helped solidify his thinking on the subject.

"It's very good reading for an election year," says Schlesinger, "a thoughtful and intelligent meditation on the history of the presidency. " Dallek, however, insists that he's not attempting to capitalize on the election."It's not a campaign book," he demurs.

Which is not to say he doesn't have an agenda. Dallek wrote this book expressly for a popular audience; he sees education as a critical part of the historian's job. "There is so much ignorance of the country's history," he observes fretfully. "When you see polling data, high school graduates can't place the Civil War or World War I in the decades they occurred. I've seen data where they ask students the last two states added to the Union, and they answer Canada and Mexico."

He's also disturbed by the gossipy tell-all trend in political journalism, and offers his book as an antidote. "I'm hoping some of the reviewers will say, Isn't it nice to have a serious book about presidential leadership at a time when we're getting all this scandalmongering?' It seems to me we need some serious discussion of how our institutions work and why."

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