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'The Problem Of Democracy' Looks At Personality's Role In U.S. Leadership

Most job openings — at least in theory — go to the more qualified applicant. That isn't always the case with the presidency of the United States, as scores of presidential losers have discovered.

Given the choice, Americans tend to gravitate toward the fresher, more exciting face. Charisma and change can hold more value than on-the-job training, relationships with world leaders or understanding of congressional dynamics.

It's a weird way to hire the most important person in the world, but it's the system the United States has developed, and repeatedly doubled down on, over the course of its history.

The first two men to learn this the hard way: John and John Quincy Adams. Both father and son were elected president. But voters resoundingly ousted both from office after just one term during a 50-year stretch where every other president served eight years.

The Adamses had both spent years abroad making the young country's case in European capitals. They had more international experience and understanding of the philosophy and political theory behind the nation's untested form of government than almost any other person in the United States. And yet both saw themselves rejected in favor of more charismatic and populist rivals.

This is the central theme of The Problem of Democracy, a new joint biography of the second and sixth presidents written by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein. Its subtitle: The Presidents Adams Confront The Cult Of Personality. A more accurate subtitle might note that the Adamses grappled with party politics, as well as the need for elected officials to court and influence popular opinion.

The book functions more as an intellectual biography than a standard history. Major moments in the two presidents' careers, as well as American history — John Adams' role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, for example, or John Quincy Adams crafting the Monroe Doctrine that guided U.S. foreign policy for more than a century — are quickly dispatched in a matter of sentences or a few paragraphs. Philosophical and political feuds with contemporaries like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, get detailed treatment, with extended quotations from the Adamses' letters and journal entries. There's an entire chapter focused on authors, most notably Cicero, who influenced 2 and 6 (borrowing from how the Bushes have referred to themselves as 41 and 43).

At the heart of the book are essays and books that 2 and 6 wrote throughout their careers wrestling with the idea of democracy: what form governments should take; what sort of men should serve or even vote; and how much of a buffer should exist between governing and popular opinion. These questions weren't theoretical. John Adams was establishing the foundations that American government would be built on, and both men were holding high office and setting policy at a time when norms and customs were taking hold. In one of the more striking passages that Isenberg and Burstein liberally quote from, John Adams warns: "the institutions now made in America will not wholly wear out for thousands of years. It is of the last importance, then, that they should begin right. If they set out wrong, they will never be able to return, unless by accident, to the right path." Both men were skeptical of the masses and generally thought government should be left to the experts. They were technocrats before the term existed.

While the book spends a bit too much time inside the heads of 2 and 6 — at the expense of Federal Hall, the newly built White House, and the European capitals both served as ministers in — it still does an excellent job capturing how those institutions fell into place over the long scope of the father's and son's careers. The flawed men that John Adams fought and compromised with had, by the time that John Quincy Adams was in the White House, begun to take on the more mythical and unimpeachable "Founding Fathers" personas they enjoy today.

By the time that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence signing, America had, as the authors put it, settled on its "civic religion."And despite the fact that 2 and 6 often overlooked the importance of building public support around political agendas, their stubborn, idealistic approaches to government left a lasting imprint on institutions that are being routinely tested and challenged 200 years later.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.