Review: 'Presidential Misconduct' declares American government historically free of corruption – with one omission

The new edition of a book that first appeared in 1974 charts eight presidential administrations, from Richard Nixon to today

A detail from the cover of 'Presidential Misconduct'. Courtesy: The New Press
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Since the alleged misconduct of the US President – corruption, serial human rights violations on the country's southern border, a string of embarrassments on the international stage, an endless stream of tweets displaying venality, bigotry and plain stupidity, and so on – is fodder for the news every day, readers would be well within their rights to suspect a book called Presidential Misconduct is a product of crass opportunism. 

Certainly, there has been no shortage of such volumes. Ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, several books have appeared, alleging moronic villainy is playing out in Washington, excoriating the major players and stating without hesitation that the US has seldom, if ever, been the scene of misdeeds of the sort the current administration are accused of. Some of these authors have grown rich from their efforts, many have charted on the bestseller lists, but all can be legitimately suspected of striking while the iron is hot.

Presidential Misconduct, an irresistible volume from The New Press, can be mostly exonerated from such charges, since the heart of the book – 360 of its 465 pages – first appeared in 1974. It was a fateful year, with the US president at the time, Richard Nixon, facing impeachment by the House of Representatives. The House Committee on the Judiciary commissioned Yale historian Comer Vann Woodward to take the lead in assembling a report on presidential misconduct throughout American history. That report was submitted in June that year, but since Nixon resigned in August, it didn't gain much attention, either when it was submitted or when it was published under the title Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct. The book sank without a trace until historian Jill Lepore mentioned it in a recent New Yorker article, and the idea for an enlarged edition was born.

2007  Photographer: Beverly Reznick
'Presidential Misconduct' is edited by James M. Banner

That book, now called simply Presidential Misconduct, has been augmented to include the eight completed administrations since 1974. Joan Hoff writes about Gerald Ford; Kevin Kruse writes about Jimmy Carter; Jeremi Suri writes about Ronald Reagan; Kathryn Olmsted and Eric Rauchway write about both George H W Bush and his son; Kathryn Brownell writes about Bill Clinton; Allan Lichtman writes about Barack Obama; and, most importantly, Olmsted and Rauchway write about Nixon. Trump, interestingly, doesn't feature.

It's a great boon to presidential studies that the 1974 edition of this book has now been given a second chance to reach a wider audience. The earlier historians of the project worked to keep their accounts free of partisan interpretation. The chapters by Richard Ellis on Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams are especially good, while Michael Holt turns the unenviable task of writing about the great presidential unknowns – William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – into one of the book's most enjoyable stretches. And the men most closely associated with actual misconduct, presidents such as Andrew Johnson and Warren Harding, or even John F Kennedy, are chronicled with high-minded fairness and a good deal of understated eloquence. 

But for all that eloquence, the crux of this book – its principal draw in 2019 – is not simply those new sections but one in particular: the 20 pages on Nixon. As editor James Banner reminds his readers in the new edition, the Nixon administration represented a radical, categorical departure from the spectrum of misconduct that applied to all modern presidents. That administration, Banner says, "not only concealed knowledge of its actions, many of which were criminal; the president himself directed and fully participated in the misdeeds of his subordinates". Banner says with telling calm that since 1968 "the acts of two presidents, the only two in American history, have led them to be named – as disputed as the use and legal standing of the term may be – as explicit or implicit unindicted co-­conspirators in filings in courts of law".

The aim of dispassionate evaluation is laudable, but it should be noted that Banner's wording here is too cautious: the legal use of the term "unindicted co-conspirator" is not in dispute, and its application to these two men, Nixon and Trump, is not "explicit or implicit" – it's simply explicit. Both men have been described as criminals in open court. 

circa 1790:  The 1st President of the United States George Washington (1732-1799). The painting is similar to the one used for United States postage stamps by Gilbert Stuart and is known as a 'Stuart Type'.  (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
The 1st President of the United States George Washington (1732-1799). Courtesy: Three Lions/Getty Images

If there's any visible trajectory in these post-1968 accounts, it bends towards a degree of innocence that will strike some readers as dubious at best. Looking at the entire history of the US, Banner writes, "perhaps, given the size, complexity and age of the US, we should conclude that, overall, American government has been remarkably free of corruption, especially in comparison with other nations".

Even restricting our time frame to the past century, that remarkable freedom from corruption encompasses US presidents who are alleged to have financed death squads, authorised torture, killed US citizens with drones, launched open-ended wars in the Middle East and dropped two atom bombs on civilians.

The Trump administration is not assessed in the book, but it seems more than likely that the allegations of cruelty, petulance and incompetence levelled against it mean it will fit right in when the 2030 edition is published.

'Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today' is published by The New Press