Leading From the Center

About “Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” By Gil Troy

  • George Washington’s enlightened moderation as he mediates between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton;
  • Abraham Lincoln’s golden path during the Civil War, via principled pragmatism;
  • Both Roosevelts’ powerful, affirmative, nationalist vision positioning the president as the touchstone for citizens and politicians;
  • John F. Kennedy’s bold but politically moderate leadership with Civil Rights;
  • Ronald Reagan’s public swagger concealing a moderate presidency, where bi-partisan relationships are evident in his handling of Gorbachev and ending the Cold War.

“Gil Troy’s latest book, emphasizing the twentieth century presidency, argues cogently that our most successful chief executives have managed to position themselves substantively or stylistically near the political center of their eras. Such is, he asserts, the key to political success in a liberal democratic society that by its very nature must value tolerance, diversity of opinion, and civility. He leaves us wondering, however, whether the center can hold in our own polarized era of political excess.” -Alonzo L. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University, and author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman

Leading From the CenterAfter eight long years of partisan politics and endless discussions of a red state/blue state divide in this country, many Americans are anxiously awaiting an end to a presidency defined by fringe politics, one that persistently and systematically moved away from the will of the center. According to historian Gil Troy, in the distinctly great American presidencies-such as those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan-a president’s ability to move away from partisan extremes and move boldly to the center has been the single unifying quality guaranteeing his success.


In LEADING FROM THE CENTER: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books; Hardcover; June 2008), Troy examines actual American presidencies on this very basis – did the president move to the center and if so, was this move made boldly or weakly? And the results are clear; presidents who exhibit what Troy has termed “muscular moderation”-a bold and decisive leadership from a centrist standpoint-have been rewarded with support from Congress and support from the American people, as seen by high approval ratings.

Troy buttresses his argument with countless examples that give clarity to the discussion:

And while there have been a number of presidents who have been successful in their use of “muscular moderate” politics, Troy uses the examples of Nixon and Carter to make the point that being a centrist does not guarantee success. Troy also devotes further attention to the shortcomings our two most recent presidents. He argues that Clinton’s use of triangulation and lack of principles exhibited a spineless, weak centrism, and that George W. Bush was undone by his movement away from the center toward a polarized polity.

LEADING FROM THE CENTER makes the clearest case possible for the need for centrism in the executive branch, showing time and again why our country is best served by leaders who exhibit a real “muscular moderation,” a powerful affirmation of the values that unite us and a commitment to politics that build from the center.

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan-most would agree their presidencies were amongst the most successful in American history. But what made these very different men such effective leaders? According to presidential historian Gil Troy, these presidents succeeded not because of their bold political visions, but because of their moderation.


Although many presidential candidates often claim to be moderates, the word cannot conceal a political climate defined by extreme rhetoric and virulent partisanship. In Leading From the Center, Troy argues that this is a distinctly un- American state of affairs. The great presidents of American history have always sought a golden mean-from George Washington, who brilliantly mediated between the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to Abraham Lincoln, who rescued the union with his principled pragmatism, to the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, who united millions of Americans with their powerful, affirmative, nationalist visions.

Moderation in politics is difficult to achieve in an age of excess-an anything-goes culture feeds an all-or-nothing politics. In the face of challenges both at home and abroad, Troy calls for a muscular moderation, a powerful affirmation of the values that unite us and a commitment to a politics that builds from the center rather than playing to the extremes.

As America lines up to select its next president, Gil Troy brilliantly reminds us of the finest traditions of presidential leadership from our nation’s past.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Presidents as Muscular Moderates: A “Middle Course” for Our “Common Cause”     1
Washington’s Way: “Liberal Allowances, Mutual Forbearances, and Temporizing Yieldings on All Sides”     19
Compromisers, Zealots, and Ciphers: The Blessing of Parties, the Challenge of Slavery, and the Failure of Presidents     39
Abraham Lincoln’s Middle Measure: A Cautious Politician’s “My Policy Is to Have No Policy” Pragmatism     57
Theodore Roosevelt’s Democratic Two-Step: The Rise of the Romantic, Nationalist Presidency     75
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: The Radical as Moderate     93
Truman, Eisenhower, and America’s Bipartisan Consensus: Building Political Unity through Cultural Conformity     123
John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights: Moderation and the Challenge of Change     147
The Consensus Collapses: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of Moderation     165
Learning from Losers: Where Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter Went Wrong     183
Ronald Reagan’s Moderate Revolution: Resurrecting the Center     201
Bill Clinton and the Perils of Triangulation: The Need to be Muscular as Well as Moderate     223
George W. Bush: Imprisoned by Conviction?     247
Conclusion: Center Seeking in the Twenty-first Century: Is Political Moderation Possible in an Age of Excess?     273
Acknowledgments     287
A Note on Sources     291
Notes     299
Index     327

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