Historians and Presidential Misconduct

AHA Session 156
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Metropolitan Ballroom West (Small) (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
James M. Banner, Jr., Washington, DC
Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University
Kathryn S. Olmsted, University of California, Davis
Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin
The Audience

Session Abstract

In 1974, during the final weeks of the Watergate crisis, a group of historians under the general direction of C. Vann Woodward presented to the Impeachment Inquiry of the House Committee on the Judiciary, at its request, ousHoa report on the misconduct of presidents and their senior officials. The report covered the misdeeds for which executive offices had been charged, as well as their responses to the charges, from the administration of George Washington through that of Lyndon Johnson. In the context of the nation’s present crisis, that report has been updated.

The proposed panel grows from the expanded report. The panel chair contributed to the 1974 report and has directed its 2019 up-dating. The panelists are all authors of fresh essays in the new report, which extends through the administration of Barack Obama and, at the time of the panel, will have appeared as Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today (The New Press, 2019).

The panel is designed to provide reflections on presidential misconduct over the entire span of American constitutional government since 1789. The panelists, all scholars of the presidency, will offer comparisons of presidential scandals (especially between the administrations of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump), reflections on what constitutes a presidential scandal, and consideration of changing standards of misconduct and laws to prevent malfeasance. They will also consider the roles, civic as well as professional, that historians can play and have played in helping to hold presidents and other public officials accountable for their acts.

It should be noted that the study of presidential misconduct—as a broad subject of inquiry, not in the form of studies of individual instances of it—remains neglected in comparison with other aspects of presidential history. In his introduction to the published version of the 1974 report, Woodward termed that account “unprecedented” in its focus. That characterization can fairly be applied to the subject still. But is it accurate to assume, as Woodward also did, that there occurred a significant break between the misconduct of the Nixon and earlier administrations? The panel will address that issue as it relates to both the Nixon and (to date) the Trump presidencies. Moreover, little effort has gone into comparisons between misconduct in elective presidential and parliamentary systems, autocracies, and dictatorships. The panel will try to open this subject also for discussion and further thought.

Given the crisis in American governance today, the panel is likely to attract a large audience of students and scholars. It is also likely to prove attractive to members of the press in the nation’s capital. Audience participation will be encouraged.

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