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Richard E. Neustadt, 84; Author and Expert on American Presidency

November 03, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Richard E. Neustadt, scholarly advisor to Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, author of the still influential "Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership," and one of the founders of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has died. He was 84.

Neustadt died Friday of complications following a fall a week earlier, his friend and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced Saturday in Boston.

The expert on the American presidency died in London, where he had spent much of his time since retiring from Harvard in 1989. He married his second wife, Shirley Williams, in 1987. She is leader of the Liberal Democrats in Britain's House of Lords. The couple also own a house on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Neustadt, who based his Harvard doctoral dissertation "Presidential Clearance of Legislation" on his work with Truman beginning in 1950, was a Columbia University professor of government when he first published "Presidential Power" in 1960. The book initially sold modestly -- until the public learned that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was reading it, and it quickly became a bestseller. Even today, updated editions remain classic textbooks on the presidency.

"Presidential power is the power to persuade," Neustadt wrote, "[to make others think] that what he wants of them is what their appraisal of their responsibilities requires them to do."

Originally a supporter of Hubert H. Humphrey for the 1960 Democratic nomination, Neustadt switched his allegiance to Kennedy and, after meeting him that fall, began advising him on assuming the reins of the presidency from Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the Kennedy years, the educator split his time between New York and his Columbia classes and the White House as presidential consultant. After Kennedy's 1963 assassination, he became an advisor to Johnson.

Neustadt later published updated editions of his book, incorporating records of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan.

Bill Clinton, who also relied on Neustadt's counsel, said in a statement Saturday that "Professor Neustadt spent a lifetime advancing the public understanding of the American presidency."

As administrations came and went, Neustadt retained his belief that presidents possessed the power to accomplish goals only through persuasion and would always be held in check by American democracy. An attentive press and public, he said, assured what he termed "presidential weakness," and belied claims by other historians including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. about "The Imperial Presidency."

Interviewed after Schlesinger's 1973 book of that title was published in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, Neustadt told the late Times associate editor Robert J. Donovan: "The presidents who most contributed by their acts to what Arthur called the imperial dimension to the office were also those who suffered political retribution. Somehow I don't see a trend to increased power for the institution in the political fate of Truman, Johnson and Nixon.

"It is true," he said, "that Truman carried off the Korean War [without a congressional declaration of war], Johnson shoved us into Vietnam and Nixon allowed his staff to go all over the place doing all kinds of shenanigans without the respect shown to the other parts of the government that other presidents have shown. But if you look at what happened to the presidents who asserted their authority more sharply, with less circumspection about Congress, it turns out that Truman and his party were thrown out of office for the Korean War, Johnson was, in effect, forced to quit over Vietnam, and look at Nixon [who resigned under pressure]! ... These three presidents pushed their claim to independent judgment and authority hard and were terribly penalized politically for doing so."

Neustadt's most recent book was the 2000 "Preparing for the Presidency," a compilation of memos he had written for Kennedy, Clinton and Ronald Reagan for their transitions into office. He also wrote the concluding chapter of "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," after its author, British historian Roy Jenkins, died in January. The book is set for release later this month.

Last year, Neustadt received the first award for portrayal of the presidency from the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. In 1961, he received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award from the American Political Science Assn.

Born on the East Coast to a mother who was a social worker and a father who was a Social Security official who advised Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, Neustadt grew up in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. He earned his bachelor's degree at UC Berkeley and master's at Harvard before serving in the Navy as a Seabee supply officer in the Aleutians during World War II.

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