On February 11, CBS News Senior Political Analyst and “60 Minutes” Correspondent John Dickerson spoke to students, faculty, parents and alumni about the American presidency as part of the 2021 Speaker Series. Dickerson’s presentation, which came just two weeks after the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and less than a month after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, was based on the research for his third book, The New York Times bestseller, “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.”
In the book, Dickerson reflects on the history of the presidency “to show how a complex job has been done, and why we need to reevaluate how we view the presidency, how we choose our presidents, and what we expect from them once they are in office,” Penguin Random House said. Dickerson’s assertion: “The American presidency is in trouble. It has become overburdened, misunderstood, almost impossible to do.”
Speaking to the FGS community from a hotel room in Georgia, where he had spent the day talking with high school students while on assignment for “60 Minutes,” Dickerson described how events in our history - the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II - have led to the expansion of the office of the president, giving individuals in the role more power than our nation’s founders ever intended.
“Basically the argument of the book is that the job has gotten far away from its original design, and that the process for picking presidents is crazy, and not related to the job they actually have to do,” said Dickerson, who has covered the past eight presidential campaigns and moderated two presidential debates in 2016. The former moderator of “Face the Nation” and Political Director of CBS News as well as a co-host of “CBS This Morning,” Dickerson is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic, co-host of Slate’s “Political Gabfest” podcast, and host of "Whistlestop," a podcast of campaign history.
To illustrate what it’s like to be president, and the extraordinary pressures of the job, Dickerson shared examples of difficult decisions past presidents have made, and the impact some of those decisions had on American lives. After President Harry S. Truman left the office, he kept a letter in his desk, written by a man whose son died in the Korean War. “You might as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room as a memory of one of your historic deeds,” the father wrote, returning to Truman the Purple Heart his son had received posthumously. “Truman kept that letter in his desk drawer until the end of his life, to remind him, and to just kind of sit with the depth of the decisions that he had to make,” Dickerson said of our 33rd president, who also made the decision to drop two atomic bombs at the end of World War II.
Dickerson chose to study the presidency in part because it is filled with high-stakes decisions that “go to the core of American life.” But, he continued: “The other reason that I have gravitated toward the presidency is because there is so much opportunity with each president that comes into office. If you are passionate about solving a problem in America, as a president you have a chance to actually do it. You have a chance to affect millions of people’s lives. You have a chance to right wrongs, you have a chance to make generations better.”
Dickerson went on to note that for all of the challenges and opportunities that come with being president, there are only three legal requirements for the job. “It’s harder to get a job as a manager of McDonald’s. The test is more rigorous than the test for the presidency,” he said, noting that often, the decision comes down to how popular or entertaining a candidate is, or how much people dislike the other candidate. And yet, Americans have a chance to set the criteria for the job with each new election, he said.
The problem is that our current political system bears little resemblance to the system based on reason that our founding fathers envisioned. “For the first 158 years of American existence, presidents didn’t campaign for office,” Dickerson said, noting that the founders viewed ambition as an indication that candidates would abuse their power, put their own needs above the good of the country, and use emotion to stoke public opinion.
“The founders had created a system that put a primacy on reason over emotion because they knew we were all hotheads,” he quipped. “You had to design a system that would keep us from being too emotional, because when you’re emotional, you make no good decisions. You can’t think clearly.”
Our current system has evolved in exactly that way. It is so ruled by emotion, it encourages divisiveness and makes it harder to compromise and solve problems, he said. The events of January 6 in Washington were “the ultimate representation of this emotion-based politics,” Dickerson said. “The emotion became such a central part – and continues to be such a central part – of our public life that it not only fuels people’s anger in response to politics, but it has replaced, in some situations, facts and reason as the thing that is at the foundation of our politics.”
While those events were very serious, and troubling, they do not represent the entirety of America, he said, concluding, “There are lots of people in politics who, in an extraordinary year, did the right thing, followed facts and reason, and didn’t do the emotional thing, going outside the system, breaking facts and reason.”
In their advisory meetings on February 12, students were asked to discuss whether they agree that the president has the hardest job in the world, and what standards presidents should be held to by the voters. They were asked what responsibilities we have to help our fellow citizens, and how they feel about politics becoming filled with emotion over reason, as Dickerson described.
The 2021 Speaker Series will continue on February 25 with Edward Conard, author and businessman, who will speak about the definitions of conservatism, conservative economic policy and the Republican Party after the Trump presidency; and a presentation by Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann on April 1. Events are open to FGS students, faculty, current parents and alumni and will be held via Zoom webinar.