By Julia Kravitz, Political Science, ’19
Democracy in Peril? at James Madison University welcomed Dr. Robert Dallek and Dr. Matthew Dallek in March to discuss the modern political landscape and the presidency of Donal J. Trump. In an interview format, Dr. Matthew Dallek interviewed his father, Dr. Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, about President Trump’s legacy in relation to other modern presidents as well as the implications President Trump’s style of leadership will potentially have on the prestige of office.
Dr. R. Dallek began by discussing his experience observing and writing biographies about other modern presidents, including J.F.K., Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and F.D.R., and how each of them led during threatening and uncertain times in American history. Dr. R. Dallek reassured his audience by asserting that the democratic institutions in this country are strong, stronger than any one executive. He asserted that if American political institutions and the system of checks and balances survived the Great Depression, the Watergate scandal, presidential assassinations, and a nuclear Cold War, they will survive the Trump administration.
Dr. M. Dallek proceeded to ask his father about Trump’s presidential character in comparison with other modern presidents, specifically those that his father wrote biographies about. Dr. R. Dallek cautioned President Trump and his overly transparent attitude. He described the presidency as an acting role, “the role of a lifetime” as President Reagan put it. A president must be able to contain himself/herself whilst addressing the public, other elected officials, and foreign diplomats. In other words, no matter the circumstances the president must appear to be a calm and collected leader, traits that Dr. R. Dallek does not believe Donald Trump has. He believes that future presidents’ decorum will return to more stately manners or stately “aura” due to how low President Trump’s approval ratings are. However, he also noted that 2020 will tell that tale.
The subject of presidential character dominated much of the lecture. Dr. R. Dallek made sure to mention how the tales of President Trump’s sexual indiscretions made public by the Steele dossier and the Access Hollywood tape compare to the “dirty laundry” of other modern presidents. He surmised that President Trump took comfort in the fact that the public knows about his sexual history knowing that J.F.K. was a notorious womanizer and the scandal in the Oval Office that ultimately lead to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
It was really interesting how both Dr. R. Dallek and Dr. M. Dallek were able to put the Trump Administration in the perspective of other modern presidents and time periods. They took care not to make excuses for his rhetoric and leadership style, yet were able to reassure the audience about what the future of the presidency and democracy holds based on the past.