Cornwell’s aim is to help students take a longer and deeper view of what is arguably the most powerful job in the world. The key, he believes, is for them to first understand the origins and evolution of how U.S. citizens think about their commander in chief. “It’s a really neat way to get insight into American government,” says Faye Jaffee ’02, a linguistics concentrator and one of the eighty students in the course. Cornwell, an old-school lecturer, emphasizes how a handful of officeholders, from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, shaped the job into the prestigious post that it is today. His insights combine observations about individual presidents with the story line of the office’s development. Thomas Jefferson, he tells his students, was the first to emerge as a strong party leader. “He almost turned the system on its head,” he says. “He dominated Congress in a way that the Constitution’s framers probably imagined Congress would dominate the president.” Abraham Lincoln, Cornwell observes, was the first of many commanders in chief to bend the Constitution during wartime: he spent money and declared a blockade on the South without the go-ahead from the House and Senate.
To many students in the class, Cornwell’s lectures bring new immediacy to presidents who have been little more than names in a book. “We learn about U.S. history in high school,” says Anjali Tuljapurkar ’02, “but I never thought about Lincoln as compared to Jefferson as compared to F.D.R."
One of the little-known facts about the Eisenhower period is that it marked the beginning of Cornwell’s career at Brown. At the age of seventy-six, he is one of the oldest professors on campus, and during his classroom lectures he seems to relish the part: he wears a necktie and thick eyeglasses, uses a lectern, and glances at note cards. Multimedia visual aids are nowhere to be found.
Given Cornwell’s depth of knowledge and his easy way of wandering across decades, even centuries, such equipment would be redundant anyway. He’s as comfortable discussing Clinton’s failed health-care plan as he is holding forth on Lincoln’s funding of the Civil War. He contrasts Clinton’s management of Congress to Jimmy Carter’s, believing that current events can also illuminate the actions of presidents who have been dead for centuries; among the texts students must read is George Stephanopoulos’s insider account of the Clinton administration. “You can talk about the president in general terms,” Cornwell says, “but that doesn’t capture it all. Each administration is a kind of unit unto itself shaped by the philosophy, the aspirations, and the skills of the occupant.”
When he does talk generally about the presidency, however, he does so in a way that surprises many students. He tells the class, for example, that the founding fathers would hardly recognize the presidencies of Clinton, Bush, and Reagan. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, worried that the public would view any chief executive as yet another monarch, handed over most of the power to Congress, Cornwell argues. “Read the Constitution,” he instructs. “The president – and I’ll be stressing this all along – has very little power.” The history of the office is to a large extent the story of attempts to overcome this constitutional limitation. The key is politics. A charismatic president has a secret weapon: the public. If a president musters widespread voter support for something he wants, Congress is likely to go along with it. Among recent presidents the two who understood this best were the most ideologically far apart: Reagan and Clinton.
Earlier presidents were also skillful at setting the country’s mood, Cornwell observes. Franklin Roosevelt was a calming influence and a confidence-builder during the Great Depression and World War II, while John Kennedy’s vigor energized the American public. Though a president’s power may be constrained, Cornwell explains, “the symbolic importance of the presidency has always been very great. The president has a lot of impact just by proposing laws to Congress.”
Cornwell devotes the latter part of his course to the modern president’s roles of chief legislator, policy coordinator, and chief administrator. Although such roles make the president appear powerful, he has been firmly held in check by the legislative and judicial branches. The president, for example, may be able to use his veto power to set the legislative agenda, but he is himself held in check by the members of Congress the public chooses to seat around him. Voters have often placed at least one house of Congress under the control of the opposing party, making it increasingly difficult for presidents to get their plans enacted. Cornwell stresses that while presidential candidates speak as if they’ll “wave a magic wand” to make their policies a reality, the recent record suggests that the more sweeping the proposal, the less likely it is to get the support needed to be successful.
Such lessons draw a broad variety of students to PS 113, everyone from aspiring politicians and math concentrators to freshmen getting their first taste of college life. Some, including Albert Liao ’04, a Canadian educated in England, have little knowledge of the workings of the American political system. For Liao, the course is “probably a good way to understand America,” but to other students it is an especially nifty way to spend the fall semester of an election year. Faye Jaffee, in fact, is using the course as a tool to develop insight about George W. Bush, Al Gore, and what to expect of the next president. “This is the first time I’ve ever voted for a president,” she says. “It would be really valuable to understand what influence he actually can have and what role he can take in shaping policy and influencing the American people.” Her classmate Anjali Tuljapurkar is also relating the ideas of the class to her own world. “If I ever get into a political debate with someone,” she says, “I’ll have some theory behind it.”
FOR FURTHER READING
The Clinton Legacy edited by Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman (Seven Bridges Press, 2000)
The American President by Robert E. DiClerico (Prentice-Hall, 1999)
Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine by Howard Kurtz (Free Press, 1998)
Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents by Richard E. Neustadt (Free Press, 1991)
All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos (Little Brown, 2000)
The President as Interpreter-in-Chief by Mary E. Stuckey (Seven Bridges Press, 1991)