Proximity to Power

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Proximity to Power

A look at (mostly) presidents and their advisers

What is it like standing behind the head that wears the crown? The following titles look at heads of state and the people who influenced them. Four of them deal with U.S. Presidents and those who counseled them, their cabinet members in particular, and are listed in chronological order. The last title deals with a difficult English monarch and the courtiers who served him.

Washington's Circle: The Creation of the President by David and Jeanne Heidler
The United States of America’s experiment in representative government was anything but assured. What would the Presidency look like? Washington was embarking into uncharted territory in 1789, in a position he did not particularly want, and his inner circle helped him to shape the role of the presidency, setting precedents for later office holders. John Adams assumed the role of vice-president as runner-up in the electoral vote, Washington having received 100% of the popular vote. The first presidential cabinet only had 4 members – Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. These men became his trusted advisers. In addition, others lent their advice and expertise to Washington. John Jay, the first chief justice, was also accomplished in foreign policy, and James Madison, Washington’s “insider” in Congress, helped Washington write his inaugural address. Many of these men were distrustful of government, having just split from a country wielding strong governmental powers. Some of them wanted a strong central government, while others desired more citizenry involvement through state governments. Washington had to command the authority necessary to manage these disparate voices. He also possessed the humility to not only resist a pompous title, but to realize that his power was limited and came from the people that he served.    

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
When Lincoln surprisingly won the Republican nomination for President at the 1860 convention, he was a long shot behind 3 better-known candidates: Salmon Chase of Ohio, a fierce abolitionist; Edwin Bates, a well-known attorney from Missouri; and William Seward, the popular and presumptive nominee from New York. Then Lincoln did something even more surprising: he asked his former rivals to serve in his cabinet, creating a remarkable team that helped both Lincoln and the Union weather the upcoming war. Bates became Lincoln’s Attorney General and Chase started as Treasury Secretary, becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under Lincoln. Seward, disappointed after losing the nomination to Lincoln, went from adversary to devoted friend, coming to admire and respect his former rival. Other very capable advisers served on the Cabinet as well, such as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War for most of the conflict, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Barack Obama was a big fan of the book, having met with Goodwin to discuss it when he was Senator, and reaching out to former rivals after his election, including Hillary Clinton, who became his Secretary of State. In my opinion, this title has set the standard for other similar works on this topic.

The Washington War: FDR's Inner Circle and the Politics of Power that Won World War II by James Lacey
Lacey takes us behind the battle scenes of World War II to the conference rooms where FDR met with his military advisers to plan strategy to defeat the enemy and win the war with the Allies. His counselors Harry Hopkins, Henry Morgenthau, James Byrnes, Henry Stimson and George C. Marshall, among others, were often in conflict. Like Lincoln, FDR was able to take these different personalities and opinions and shape them into a winning team. FDR was able to overlook any trait in the group – ineptitude, sycophancy, anti-Semitism – as long as he had their loyalty. In addition, the rise and fall of several government agencies, as well as a realignment of the government, occurred during this time. Within two-and-a-half years this group was able to not only rebuild the nation’s nominal army and devastated naval fleet but win a war that, at the outset, was no guarantee.

Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek
Kennedy assembled a talented group of advisers, but often found himself loathe to take their advice. Robert Kennedy, JFK’s “adviser-in-chief,” as well as his Attorney General and brother, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, among others, had both ambition and clashing beliefs. Although they were a dynamic group, and Kennedy encouraged them to speak their minds, he was often disappointed in their recommendations. With challenges like the US – Soviet relationship, nuclear disarmament and Cuba, he began to rely more on his own instincts rather than the sometimes poor options presented by “the best and the brightest” counselors. Interestingly, Dallek feels that, since Kennedy couldn’t control events in nearby Cuba, he knew he could never control events on the other side of the world and, had he served a second term, he would probably have found a way out of Vietnam. 

Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman
And now for something different. Most people think of his six wives when they think of Henry VIII, but he was much more than a royal husband. He was King of England from 1509 to 1547 and, during that time, the men who surrounded and advised him had a major impact on him, his reign, and even English history. The Four Thomases – Wolsey, More, Cranmer and Cromwell – played large roles, but lesser-known confidants are here as well, such as Henry’s trusted physician William Butts and his loyal “fool,” jester Will Somer. And then there is Hans Holbein who, although not officially the King’s Painter until 1536, had painted many courtiers before then. As Henry’s paranoia increased with age, he executed not only wives but counselors as well, and his preference for low-born advisers reflected this growing paranoia. He favored ability over nobility; nobles could seize the crown, as his own father had. But the nobility resented the upstarts and, as the two factions sought to influence Henry, friends could become rivals and vice versa.