Family Ties: The last thing that the Founding Fathers envisioned was a hereditary chief executive. After all, they had fought a war in part to rid themselves of a king. Yet power inevitably passes from generation to generation, and several families have returned to the White House as though born to it. The stories of these four men reveal both the blessings and the curses of inherited power. Two of them were ill-at-ease with their lofty legacies and struggled as president, while the remaining two flourished in the exercise of power. Happenstance: Nearly one in five American presidents has died in office. The vice presidents who succeeded them were often chosen for the ticket less because they were equal to the most powerful office in the land than because they provided some electoral advantage. What happens when such a man takes office -- frequently facing widespread conviction that he is unworthy of the powers he inherits?
An Independent Cast of Minds: "The American public, from time to time, wishes to see the trustee who looks neither right nor left, but only up to the heavens and down to the work before him," says presidential scholar Richard Neustadt. But is an independent cast of mind the best approach to the presidency? These four men pursued a course that took little account of political affiliation -- to be presidents, in essence, without being politicians. Taken together, they comprise a cautionary tale -- all had difficult presidencies, and neither of the two who sought a second term was granted one. The Professional Politician: We forget that, in our nation's early years, taking part in political affairs was considered a duty and an honor, but not a way of life. It was not long, however, before the professional politicians, and the parties they represented, began to find their way to the White House. While the skills necessary for political success can be helpful to a president, they are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee success in the office. Episode 4 traces the presidencies of four political professionals, one of whom was also a great statesman.
The American Way: It is often observed that American national identity is less a condition than an idea. No one is better positioned to express that idea than the president. What we have come to refer to as "the vision thing" is an expectation that our presidents will bring to office a particularly strong sense of national mission. The four chronicled here may have understood the special character of America in different ways, but in each case a belief that there was a distinctly American way of doing things guided their decisions. The World Stage: The president has no greater responsibility than representing the nation on the world stage. Securing a stable world in which American interests can be asserted and defended has been a basic part of the president's job description from the very beginning of our constitutional history. These four men engaged in this task at critical times in our national history and their achievements on the world stage stand as their most durable legacy.
The Heroic Posture: From the beginning, the presidential office has beckoned to national heroes renowned for their selfless service to their country. This affinity is especially strong for men of military fame, for the president is formally commander-in-chief as well as symbolically the steward of the national interest. The president-as-national hero exemplifies the value we all place on authenticity in governance. We explore here four personifications of this ideal, suggesting a wide-ranging reality behind an enduring standard. Compromise Choices: With the rise of political parties came the dawn of political compromise: nominees who were selected not necessarily because they were the best or most obvious candidates for the presidency, but because they were less offensive to some voters than those who might have been the most apparent choices. Their primary qualification for the office often seemed not to be their positive qualities but their relative lack of negative ones. Two of these men found the presidency beyond their powers, while two proved themselves worthy of having been called to the highest office in the land.
Expanding Power: Though the powers of the presidency have expanded with the growth of the nation, the process has been anything but smooth. The prerogatives of the presidency are uncertain and their assertion is invariably contested. These four presidencies are benchmarks in the development of executive power. We see here the emergence in practice of our modern conception of the executive office, and we take the measure of the men who fought to sustain it. The Balance of Power: This final episode examines presidential leadership in an era of an increasingly divided government. The American presidency was conceived as one part of a larger system of institutions, and its effectiveness rests in part upon a good measure of cooperation among the branches. As our constitutional system has developed, however, this cooperation has broken down at crucial junctures. The presidents arrayed in this episode suggest four different conceptions of governance within a constitutionally structured balancing act.