Crucible: The President's First Year
edited by Michael Nelson, Jeffrey L. Chidester, & Stefanie Georgakis Abbott
University of Virginia Press, 2018
Former White House correspondent Ann Compton, in her Foreword to Crucible: The President's First Year, strikes the tone of public stewardship so clearly prized by the Miller Center of Public Affairs, which commissioned the book's essays on the various crises and learning curves faced by modern US presidents in their first year on the job. She also strikes a note of immediate relevance: she points out that Donald Trump had never served a day in government before becoming president, nor had most of his cabinet or senior advisers.
“But there was a new source of guidance never before available to a president – a rich trove of essays, by scholars and practitioners, commissioned by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia,” Compton writes. “Drawing on its own wealth of archives, presidential oral histories, and secret White House tapes, the Miller Center has published pragmatic, constructive, nonpartisan roadmaps connecting history to policy and impact.”
Creating this “new source of guidance” is the main aim of the Miller Center's First Year Project, but even so, the Foreword's kind of rhetoric is a troublingly delusional way to open a volume of this kind. Compton covered many presidents in her career; she knows perfectly well that a) Donald Trump has never heard of the Miller Center, b) Donald Trump would never under any circumstances read anything in that rich trove of essays, c) Donald Trump doesn't think he needs a roadmap – even before his administration reached its 100th day, he had already commented several times that it was a greater administration than any in American history, including those of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. He is the one person in America who can be unreservedly guaranteed not to read Crucible.
The book is for everybody else, and thankfully, on every page its contents live up to the steep standards that inform the Miller Center's dream of being a kind of archival briefing book. In what could be seen as a smart gesture at topicality, the collection's first two pieces deal with Trump, and both are scrupulously nonpartisan and brilliant, particularly “What Time Is It? Tracking Trump in Secular and Political Time” by Stephen Skowronek, who draws intriguing parallels between Trump and, of all people, Jimmy Carter, noting that both as candidates “substituted his own unique skill and personal acumen for his party's collective resolve.”
This kind of expectation-rattling happens regularly throughout Crucible, mainly in the thought-provoking pieces examining many administrations through the keyhole of specific issues, rather than the pieces that examine specific administrations across a wide range of issues. Guian McKee looks at the dogged legislative persistence of the Kennedy and Johnson teams in “Prescription for Success: Enacting Medicare and Medicaid,” for example, and in a far more recent context, Mary Kate Cary writes fascinatingly on the digital electorate in “Reaching Americans Where They Live – On Their Smartphones.”
Although most of the book ranges widely in this kind of way, it's a good bet that most 2018 readers will have only one President in mind when they're reading about Presidential first years, and this makes some of the pieces assembled here ironic enough to be downright cruel. First place in this regard must certainly go to Peter Wehner's obviously well-intentioned “Dear Mr. or Madam President: A Letter to the New President on Your First Year,” in which he imagines himself imparting hard-learned advice to a new occupant of the Oval Office. It's easy to picture this advice being read by most of the men who've held the job, and it's utterly, tragically, enragingly impossible to picture any of it being read by the racist, sexist, serial liar who currently holds the job, a man who insists that a Nazi rally in Virginia featured many fine people and who just recently commented that a failure to applaud him constitutes treason – and, more to Wehner's point here, installed alt-right fascists and egregiously unqualified family members to key West Wing positions. “When staffing your administration, you will naturally want to reward political loyalty. There is a place for that. But in the key posts you need people who were chosen above all for their excellence,” Wehner writes, unintentionally twisting the knife: “By this I mean their intelligence, wisdom, and character, in addition to their qualification and proven performance.”
There's plenty of intelligence, wisdom, and character on display in Crucible, if not in the current incarnation of the world it wants to advise. Readers can only hope the Miller Center finds more apt pupils another day.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.