Julian Zelizer: Presidents & Precedents

The Princeton history professor talks about his new book, how we expect too much out of our presidents, and why Congressional gridlock isn't anything new.

Julian Zelizer has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
Julian Zelizer has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
Photo courtesy of Julian Zelizer

Growing up in Metuchen in the 1980s and 1990s, the son of a rabbi and a sociology professor, Julian Zelizer developed a fascination with American history. In his senior year at Metuchen High School, two teachers inspired him to delve into the Civil Rights era. Zelizer, now a history professor at Princeton, is the go-to guy for people seeking perspective on the 50th anniversary of landmark events of that period. Zelizer’s detailed take can be found in his latest book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press).

New Jersey Monthly: Are we overly critical of our presidents?
Julian Zelizer: The frustration with presidents is that we have great expectations and then they are deflated because presidents have to make compromises. There is a myth of presidential power in this country that forgets about the role of Congress. Johnson ended up hated. No one thought much of Ford. Carter was unsuccessful. Even Reagan—conservatives were furious with him. Later it can change. LBJ has undergone a transformation, and Truman, who was roundly hated, is now looked upon as a great political architect.

NJM: Jimmy Carter is often perceived as a presidential failure. Is that fair?
JZ: He had trouble getting his domestic agenda through Congress. On the other hand, the Camp David Accord, which he is responsible for, is the most successful treaty in the Middle East we have had. Historians also are interested that he was the most aggressive president in dealing with conservation and our seemingly unending consumption, and was a president who dealt with human rights.

NJM: Would Ronald Reagan be out of step with his admirers in today’s Republican Party?
JZ: No, Reagan was very conservative. He pushed for a lot of deregulation in the economy and asked whether government is at all useful. Because of him, conservatives are more successful today than he was. The party has shifted to the right, but it started with him. Remember, in the 1970s, before his term, he was talking about eliminating the IRS.

NJM: Is Congressional gridlock something new?
JZ: We do this all the time. Back in the early 1960s, during the Kennedy years, the complaint was, “Congress is worse than ever.” There was a gridlock on lots of things, not the least of it being Civil Rights. It is just that now Congress is so partisan. Back then, there was an alignment between Midwestern Republicans and Southern Democrats against more liberal people in both parties. The result was the same, though. What we remember now of all that got passed in Johnson’s first years is actually more unusual.

NJM: What about incumbency?  Aren’t most districts drawn these days so the incumbent can’t possibly lose?
JZ: The name “gerrymander” goes back 200 years, so districts have been drawn to favor incumbents for a long time. What is different is that technology has allowed parties to perfect it. Computer programs can tell exactly where to draw those boundaries. Still, it is more that people hate Congress, but love their own legislators. You really have to do something wrong to get voted out.

NJM: Are we condemned to having Bushes and Clintons running for president forever?
JZ: We had Roosevelts and Adamses before, too. Mostly this is about having known commodities, which are attractive for the media telling stories about them, rather than the next maverick on the trail. We feel like we know Hillary Clinton, good or bad, and we don’t know, say, Martin O’Malley. Still, this is ultimately different than a dynasty. We still have a choice. Barack Obama came out of nowhere, and even the Clintons started the same way, with Bill Clinton coming in when it might have been another Kennedy running.

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