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Book Review

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Presidential Travels--from George to George

September 22nd 2008

Books - Richard Ellis

Ellis, Richard J.  Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George W. Bush (University Press of Kansas, 2008)

Presidential travel is big news today. George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain in November 2003 filled papers on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet it was not a story pertaining to the “illegal” war in Iraq that dominated the front pages. Neither was it the exaggerated scale of the “Stop the War” march that colonized newsstands. Rather it was the litany of requests from the White House: from diplomatic immunity for 250 Secret Servicemen to blast-and bullet-proof windows installed in Buckingham Palace.

The commander-in-chief and a 700-strong entourage worthy of a traveling medieval monarch flew into London Heathrow. Once Bush stepped off Air Force One, Marine One flew the Bushes to the Palace where they enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s hospitality.

How Thomas Jefferson would turn in his grave. The regal six-story jet offends the Jeffersonian image of a citizen’s executive traveling modestly among his people. Unlike the 43rd President of the United States, the 3rd shunned the trappings of monarchy and the “flattery and scheming of courtiers” (p.168). Even at his first inaugural, in 1801, Jefferson dramatized his “republican simplicity” (vii) by refusing the customary horse and carriage, choosing instead to walk the route. Unlike the 3rd President of the United States, the 43rd, at his first inaugural, in 2001, dramatized his “present-day celebrity” (vii) by choosing instead to drive the route, refusing the customary walk — up until the last block that is, after protests even larger than against Nixon, the 37th, in 1969.

“Moving a president today,” Richard J. Ellis, author of Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George W. Bush, writes “is a hugely complex operation that makes Queen Elizabeth I’s royal progresses look like a casual romp in the countryside” (p.13).

Long gone are the days when you could physically strike the president. Since this was exactly what Lieutenant Robert Beverly Randolph did to Andrew Jackson in 1833. The Randolph incident provides a glimpse into the presidency that was but is no more. Presidential Travel tells the tale of that transformation. But the Willamette University Professor’s thesis is far more nuanced than a 170-year-odd history pertaining to the (lack of) guards surrounding the president. Think more U.S. identity in microcosm. Especially since Ellis sees presidential travel as an “obvious but underut ilized lens through which to examine the evolving relationship between the president and the public” (vii). It is for this reason that the title can be summed up by Three R’s: Republicanism, Royalty, and Representation.

Fear of monarchy is as old as American exceptionalism. Such a fear kept the executive in check. Concerns of a regal presidency underlay the norm against incumbents traveling abroad, Congress’s disapproval of a presidential travel allowance, and the nation’s resistance to provide protection for the “First Citizen.” These were just three of the cards the nineteenth-century polity played to keep the president exceptional and not monarchical. Each is recounted with detached erudition by Ellis.

Let us take the first and third cards: Abroad and Assassination (in reverse order).

Three presidential assassinations (Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901) in just over thirty-five years put paid to the nineteenth-century expectation that the president should mingle freely with his people and thus narrowed the gap between the Old World and the New World.

Assassination attempts on Gerald Ford (1975) and Ronald Reagan (1981) swung the pendulum further toward an imperial presidency and Praetorian Guard away from a republican chief magistrate and a man of the people. “The rise of the regal presidency has many causes,” Ellis contends “but chief among them is that a regal president is easier to protect than a republican one” (p.135). Yet, as far as our narrative is concerned, “The emergence and institutionalization of a protective guard around the president called into question the cultural significance of presidential travel” (p.239). We are indeed a world away from the time when William Howard Taft greeted an audience from the back of a train in Eaton, Ohio, in 1911 (p.213). But is this a bad thing? Since Ellis himself states that “This book is not a jeremiad, not a call to go back to simpler or more innocent time” (p.4).

It was the nation’s changing role in the world that led twentieth-century presidents to travel abroad, not changing transportation technologies. As Ellis reminds us, “Faster and safer ships had not led nineteenth-century presidents to head for Europe” (p.198). Theodore Roosevelt did help bend the “Ironclad Custom” (pp.172-177). And Woodrow Wilson did help break the “Ironclad Custom” (pp.177-193). Yet Franklin Roosevelt truly shattered the “venerable precedent” (p.171).

“After World War II, the ironclad custom no longer applied. The war’s enduring lesson, according to conventional Cold War custom, was that the United States could not retreat from entangling alliances or run from the Old World’s problems” (p.196).

The New World’s loss is the Old World’s gain. Yet this was not a story that filled papers on either side of the Atlantic when Bush visited Britain in 2003. And neither is it one reported by Ellis in his brilliantly illustrated 250-page hardback. Still this is the philosophy of those behind “AmericaInTheWorld”— the international alliance opposed to American isolationism — soon to be launched by UK Conservative leader, David Cameron, in London.

Presidential Travel goes to far greater depths than presidential travel; presidential travel is merely the tip of the iceberg. Think more presidential power-lite. So much so it could be read as a subsidiary work to the heavyweight tomes penned by the ilk of Richard Neustadt (Presidential Power) or James Pfiffner (Understanding the Presidency). There is no mistaking that Ellis’s subtle, yet encyclopaedic, knowledge of the presidency rivals that of Sean Wilentz and others.

Historically rich with lively anecdotes, Ellis's book is an immensely impressive, informative and important work. Presidential Travel is big news today.

Lee P. Ruddin is a UK-based analyst who also writes for www.historynewsnetwork.org

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