Remembering Elmer Cornwell

September 26th, 2011

I came to Brown to earn a PhD in political science, excited to study campaigns, elections, and the media. My first semester, I was assigned to TA for Elmer Cornwell's class "The American Presidency" (Obituaries, July/August). After just one semester with him, I wanted to be a presidency scholar.

By the time I arrived at Brown, Elmer was no longer teaching graduate classes, but he made an exception and I was able to complete an independent study with him. I read his ancient copies of Leonard White's work on the growth of the administrative state. We met weekly in his office on the first floor of Prospect House, surrounded by his books and piles of papers while he shared his perspectives on the presidency and encouraged me to develop my own.

We talked a lot about his groundbreaking book, Presidential Leadership and Public Opinion, as I developed my dissertation proposal and he suggested, without any ego at all, that I update his work. First as a grad student and then as a junior scholar, whenever you meet other scholars or go on the job market, you are asked, "Who do you work with?" The name Elmer Cornwell has always evoked the same delighted response, both from those who knew him and from those only familiar with his work.

What Elmer never referred to was that his novel 1965 argument—that the president's relationship with the public was perhaps his most important relationship—seeded an entire subfield of study. Prior to Elmer, scholars viewed the public as an indirect source of presidential power. Today scholars, journalists, and presidents themselves reference the public as a potential source of presidential power to be used in service of the presidential agenda.

This view began with Elmer Cornwell. He branched out into other areas of study over the years, but for presidency scholars, the arguments developed in Presidential Leadership and Public Opinion remain relevant.

For me, Elmer represents more than an intellectual legacy. His warm support and our wonderful discussions in his office or over tiny cups of coffee: this is what I remember most. He was a wonderful mentor and will be missed.

Diane J. Heith '94 AM, '97 PhD
New York City

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September/October 2011