January 14, 2003

Head of GVSU’s Presidential Studies Has Passion for the Presidency

By Steve Harmon

President Dwight Eisenhower’s open-air motorcade passed through downtown Houston, campaigning for Richard Nixon, the 1960 Republican presidential nominee.

The 5-year-old Whitney had a perfect vantage point — the sixth-floor display window of the Nieman Marcus department store, where his mom was an advertisement writer.

The president looked up and acknowledged Whitney with a nod, and the young boy was hooked on presidents for life.

“I was of course too young to understand how important the man was below, but I vividly remember everybody cheering on the street and from other office windows as he went by,” Whitney said. “It is my first political memory. He was the first president I ever saw.”

The director of the Ralph Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, Whitney has collected Forest Gump-like experiences with presidents throughout his life.

In the mid-1960s, George H.W. Bush moved his family from Midland to Houston, a mile away from Whitney’s family. Whitney remembers the father campaigning for Congress, but not the eldest son, George W., who spent only a year at a private school in Houston before transferring to an East Coast prep academy.

And he remembers stories from his grandfather, an old friend of Harry Truman’s, who used to visit the Trumans at the White House.

In a roundabout way, Whitney’s personal connection with presidents led him to his $110,000-a-year position at the center. But his background as a scholar and his work for conservative think tanks shaped the perspective he brings to the job.

Whitney is a graduate of Colorado State University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar. He has a master’s degree in history at the University of Michigan and is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Michigan.

He was a senior scholar of the Center for the American Idea, a consulting historian for the Foundation for Traditional Values and was named the first permanent senior fellow of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in 1995.

Each of the think tanks is associated with conservative causes, such as limited government, “an enduring moral order,” restoring Judeo-Christian values and free market economics.

Whitney is personally conservative, though he says he’s not “doctrinaire.” His favorite modern president is Ronald Reagan, and he is a regular contributor to the online service of the conservative magazine National Review.

The former chief speechwriter for Gov. John Engler, Whitney wrote the book, “Engler: The Man, The Leader & The Legacy,” which explored the impact Engler had in his 12 years in office. Whitney interviewed 150 people for the book, including Democrats and Republicans, enemies and friends.

“He was a canny politician, one of the best,” Whitney said.

Whitney played a central role in presenting Proposal A and other education initiatives Engler rolled out to the public in 1993. He remembers the date of Engler’s first speech — which he helped craft — on Proposal A because it coincided with the birth of his third son, Andrew.

“We used to joke that my wife would give birth after the day John Engler gave his big speech,” Whitney said.

Engler gave the speech Oct. 5, 1993, and Whitney’s wife had a C-section Oct. 6.

“Guess who was the first person who called my wife?” Whitney asked. “Gov. Engler. He said, ‘I appreciate the fact that you lent me your husband over the last six weeks.’ He also sent a card with a Teddy bear.”

An enthusiastic admirer of President George W. Bush’s administration, Whitney says Bush has lifted the nation to unprecedented emotional peaks during a unique time in history.

He wrote a glowing review of Bush’s speech aboard the deck of a Navy ship in The National Review’s online magazine, calling it a “remarkable milestone in the rhetorical presidency. Not only did he choose the high seas as his forum; he landed in Navy 1 on the deck of a moving carrier — a first for a sitting U.S. president. In military parlance, Bravo Zulu! Well done, Mr. President!”

Since then, the death toll has continued to climb, prompting critics to mock the carrier landing and its “mission accomplished” message.

Whitney said “as the situation got more difficult, (Bush) has not been able to convince a majority of Americans the country’s policies are the best. He needs to use some of his rhetorical powers. He needs to be clearer about what his long-term policies are.”

His support of conservative causes notwithstanding, Whitney vows to ensure that the center’s offers a full spectrum of political views.

“We have to be absolutely non-partisan,” Whitney said. “It’s so important to have all these views so the debate can move forward. If we’re seen as furthering one side of the debate, we’d lose credibility and scholars would not seek us out.”

The Hauenstein Center was a brainchild of Ralph Hauenstein, a former newspaper editor turned World War II intelligence veteran who made his fortune as the owner of a bakery machinery company.

Hauenstein, 91, is active in a number of community boards in the Grand Rapids area, but the presidential studies center is a cherished endeavor that he expects to have a long-lasting impact. He provided $1 million to start the center, which operates in conjunction with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

“The president is not understood very well in this country, let alone abroad,” Hauenstein said. “We should have a greater depth of knowledge about the presidency.”

Hauenstein said he has full confidence that Whitney will run the center without bias that a person with his background might bring.

“We got the right guy,” he said. “I think great things will come from him.”

Historian Richard Norton Smith, who also directed the Gerald R. Ford Museum, ran the center in its fledgling first few months in 2001, but its take off was slowed after he left that year to run the Robert J. Dole Institute of Public Policy and Public Service in Kansas.

After Pat Oldt, vice president for planning and equity at GVSU, ran the center as interim director, Whitney took over in July. He gave new life to the center with a summer lineup of star speakers, including presidential author Gary Wills, former Nixon, Ford and Bush official Roger Porter and historian Robert Dallek.

Whitney is trying to lure David Gergen, a magazine editor who has served under four presidents. The center’s most recent speaker was conservative Hillsdale College professor Bert Folsom, who last week lectured on Franklin Roosevelt’s little-known legacy of raising taxes on the wealthy.

“I want to make the Hauenstein Center one of the premier presidential centers in the nation,” Whitney said. “I hope we can attract speakers, historians and political scientists who can enhance the way we view the past and force us to ask good questions about scholarship on the presidency.”

The presidency is a “great lens” through which to view the challenges of the times, Whitney said.

“It’s where people look to for answers to questions we have,” Whitney said. “This is why Bush had the opportunity after Sept. 11 to shape Americans’ perception of war. Are we a Republic or an empire?”

America is in a period of flux, Whitney said, “trying to get ahold of what kind of country we are” in the era of terrorism.

Bush’s drop in the polls since the end of major combat operations in Iraq — and since he announced an $87 billion price tag for the post-war reconstruction — suggests people have not come around to his vision of the world, Whitney said.

“It’s hard to tell which party will come up with a vision that a large majority of American people will latch onto,” Whitney said. “It’s not like Democrats of the 1930s or the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.”

©2003 Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the Grand Rapids Press.