The British historian John Keegan has observed that the history of much of the 20th century was the handiwork (for good or ill) of half a dozen men : Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill.
The debate between the Great Man theory of history and those who put more faith in the broader cultural, economic, and political forces that shape our world will, like history itself, continue without end. Perhaps Karl Marx found the right balance. Men make history, he observed, but rarely as they please.
Nowhere is this debate more salient than in the history of the American presidency. What is greatness in the presidency ; why has it been absent, at least since Franklin Roosevelt ; and can it ever return ? The an-swers to these questions have much to do with the interaction between leaders and their times. Indeed, from George Washing-ton to Barack Obama, greatness in the presidency – the act of guiding the nation through a calamitous experience and transforming it in the process – has been driven first and foremost by national emergency. Without crisis of this calibre, presidents don’t gain admission to the presidential hall of fame ; with it, they at least have a chance. As Teddy Roosevelt said of Lincoln, even as he lamented the absence of his own momentous crisis : without the civil war, no one “would have known his name.”
Before identifying the mix of ingredients that comprise the presidential greatness cocktail, it is important that we take note of several critical considerations.
First, greatness in any aspect of the human enterprise is rare ; its very value is defined by that rarity. Greatness in politics, where, unlike in art, music, literature, even athletics, leaders have to contend with many variables beyond their control, is rarer still.
In American politics, greatness has become so rare that it has ceased to have much meaning. Americans have lost a good deal of faith in government generally, even as they become more dependent on it and resentful of the political class that delivers it. Instead, we choose to confer greatness on those in our entertainment culture – our athletes, actors, and other celebrities. We often conflate this fame with great achievement – and we devalue the word in the process : have a great day ; she’s a great tennis player ; that was a great film. We no longer know what the word is meant to convey, certainly not in our politics. Ask yourself who was the last American political figure you would describe as great. The answer might be Martin Luther King Jr ; and he died in 1968.
Second, in the American political system, there is an anti-greatness theme built into political culture that runs through our history like a steel thread. Our 18th century founders feared great men (They are “a lie”, Benjamin Rush argued ; the “greatest threat to mankind,” Benjamin Franklin intoned, right behind plague and famine) and the mob. And they sought to create a political system designed to constrain both.
That system was to be anchored in constitutional principles that mandated, shared and separated powers. While Article II of the Constitution, which deals with the presidency, made what Alexander Hamilton termed an “energetic” executive possible, a system of checks and balances was also created to constrain its power. The structure put a premium on balance and gradual change, even at the risk of great inefficiency ; it turned American politics into what constitutional scholar Edwin Corwin called an open invitation to struggle among an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, not to mention, as years passed, public opinion, special interests, and lobbies.
Yes, presidents would come to have great power, particularly as government grew to meet the domestic and foreign policy challenges of the 20th century ; but that power would be constrained. And the gap between performance and delivery grew. Wildly exaggerated public expectations of what the president could achieve reinforced the image of a man who had vast power but was often unable to use it effectively. “They geld us first,” a frustrated Lyndon Johnson quipped to journalist David Brinkley, “and then they expect us to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Forty-three different men have held the presidency (we’re on our 44th because Grover Cleveland held the office twice in non-consecutive terms). Of those, America has had three undeniably great presidents, roughly one a century.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt held the office un-der very different circumstances, governing, if you will, in three different Americas. And yet they are linked in time and political space by what I call the three Cs of presidential greatness. Fortuna, the contingent in history, also played a major role – right place at the right time – as it does in all human enterprise. Together, these elements combined to make a strong case not just for greatness, but for indispensability, or at least as close as any leader can come to it. Take these three out of the American story, and America would have been a much different and darker place, and not just at the margins.
Each of these three presidents weathered a national emergency so profound that it threatened the existence and identity of the nation. Washington presided over a loose collection of entities whose loyalty was primarily state, not nation, centered. He inherited an untested political system that lacked a strong centre or a political culture that trusted centralised authority. Lincoln guided a nation through a civil war that saw 620,000 dead, preserved the Union, and created a new foundation for a more secure, unified and freer America. And Roosevelt, shepherded the nation through 12 years of crisis, guided America through its worst economic crisis and won America’s greatest war. In each case, crisis was relentless, inescapable and nation-encumbering. National exigency gave each president a chance to tame an unruly political system, accorded him significant political power and freedom of action, and identified his persona with success in overcoming each of the three crucible moments in America’s story.
Crisis isn’t enough. Ask James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, the presidents who preceded Lincoln and FDR. Managing a calamity needs leadership, defined by a president’s character, that elusive mix of a public persona and internal attributes that allows a man to embody his times. All were hated, even the saintly Washington ; but they were also respected, even beloved. They had unique public profiles which allowed them to project confidence, reassurance, strength and authority ; they each had a physical presence, large and imposing (Washington at 6ft 3in was a giant at a time when the average height for males was about 5ft 6in ; Lincoln wore a size 14 shoe). Indeed, Roosevelt’s paralysis, the extent of which was skillfully concealed from the public, served in a way as a symbol of a crippled nation, resilient still and determined to overcome any challenge. Roosevelt’s buoyant smile and lustrous voice took him where his legs couldn’t. Meeting Franklin, Winston Churchill once remarked, was like opening a bottle of champagne. These public qualities were backed up by an internal strength, ambition, dis-cipline and resolve which enabled each man to weather the challenges he. Each was ambitious in the extreme ; but that am-bition was driven by honorable aims and anchored in a love of and commitment to the American enterprise.
The ability to work the system, to identify the right cabinet, to emerge as party leaders (even Washington, though he was loth to recognise it), and to cultivate Congress, the press, and create bonds with the public, is the final element.
But capacity involved something else, too : an ability to use the crisis at hand to transform the nation in some enduring way on an issue critical to the nation’s security, well-being and identity. In this regard, each was not only a transactional leader dealing with the moment ; each was a transformational leader with a vision that looked to the horizon.
In Washington’s case ; it was creating precedent for a strong but respectful presidency and cementing authority for a nation whose political culture was wary and opposed to it. Washington’s decision to step down after two terms also embedded the democratic transfer of power in a republic many believed couldn’t survive the centrifugal forces threatening to pull it 2012apart. Lincoln’s transformative achievements and legacy remain unsurpassed. His entire national career spanned a mere seven years – roughly from 1858 until his death in 1865 – yet within this period he kept the union whole through the terrible ordeal of the civil war. He was as hands-on a military commander as any of the generals that so frustrated him until he found Grant. At the same time, in that crisis, Lincoln saw the possibility of not only strengthening union ; but creating a basis for an America that was freer and more morally sound. The Emancipation Proclamation, sold as a wartime expedient, would be followed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, something Lincoln worked hard to achieve. It would take another hundred years before civil rights began to take root. But Lincoln created a framework which would ultimately reconcile the liberties and rights in the Declaration of Independence with the principles and laws of the Constitution.
For Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the transformative challenge was less whether there would be an America, and more what kind of America it would be. By 1933, the United States was a sovereign and secure nation. Still FDR guided it through a decade of crisis : first the Great Depression in which he reshaped Americans’ relationship with their government through a series of New Deal interventions which developed the idea that Americans were entitled to economic security and that government had a key role to play in its delivery, and second through leading America and its allies to victory in the Second World War, and establishing a new role for the United States as the world’s pre-eminent power.
Roughly 66 years on average separate Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. This year, 2012, we will have gone through the longest stretch in American history without an undeniably great president. A half dozen American presidents – Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, Reagan – can be considered top performers too. But compared to the three indispensables, their accomplishments were not as transformative, their failures and mistakes more significant, and their times were not as momentous.
Since FDR, the story of the American presidency has been an uneven one. On balance, it has been a tale of talented, dedicated leaders, some of whom were great at being president ; but not great presidents (John Kennedy) ; others achieved great things in one area (Lyndon Johnson on civil rights) only to be brought down low in another (Vietnam). With the exception of Richard Nixon – and even here in foreign policy much of value was accomplished – there were no truly failed presidencies. But there were no truly great presidents either.
The absence of greatness isn’t all that surprising. Roosevelt was an impossible act to follow, setting a standard no modern president could hope to match. Indeed the political environment in which the post-FDR presidents operated made the alignment of crisis, character and capacity almost impossible to achieve.
The nation’s challenges – economic crisis, Cold War, Vietnam, 9/11 – weren’t as nation-encumbering or as relentless ; in fact in many ways these emergencies became routine and perhaps with the exception of Kennedy’s performance in the Cuban missile crisis, didn’t afford presidents the opportunity for heroic action. The 24/7, non-stop, in-your-face media made the distance and detachment necessary for the mystique of great leadership much harder to attain. Consider that when Kennedy addressed the nation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the three networks immediately returned to normal programming. There were no pundits interpreting his words. Americans were left to ponder the president’s demeanor by themselves. The increasing polarisation of American politics also made it harder for presidents to gain either the partisan dominance required for transformative change or even to forge transactional bipartisan successes. The presidency became even more personalised, driven by media coverage and men who stood apart from and above their own political parties with independent channels to the public. The president was highlighted as the key actor in the system ; expectations grew without a real capacity to deliver. Multiple crises, many of which occurred abroad and were beyond a president’s control, made the job even harder.
Barack Obama is the perhaps best poster child for the travails of the modern presidency. Three years ago, it may have seemed that the gods were conspiring to produce the first great president since FDR : a huge crisis at home, two wars abroad ; a powerful and historic persona as America’s first black president ; and hopes that the bril-liant campaign he had run would convert to an effective governing style. As we enter the fourth year of the Oba-ma presidency, scholars and pundits now compare him more to Jimmy Carter (unfairly) than to Franklin Roosevelt. The Obama administration raised expectations about an economy they could not fix ; instead of taming the political system, the bad economy exacerbated its intractability, giving Republicans a greater chance to op-pose almost everything the President did. Obama may have wanted to be a post-partisan president ; but he was dealing with a partisan Washington ; and his character was far too conciliatory to be a fighter like FDR ; he lacked the experience and the times to be the master legislator like LBJ.
Healthcare legislation is a historic achievement, but in the face of a divided Congress, a public worried about federal big footing, and the many legal and political challenges with regard to implementation, the measure still lacks the solid majority support to make it a transformational accomplishment along the lines of FDR’s social security or LBJ’s civil rights Bills. Barack Obama deserves credit for stopping the economic bleed and managing a competent foreign policy. He may have wanted greatness ; but it has so far eluded him.
It is hard to imagine any of Obama’s Republican opponents getting to greatness either. It may well be that the nature of our political system and the challenges we face (slower bleeds that don’t unify but polarise) will not allow unsurpassed excellence and incomparable achievement in the presidency.
The irony is that if greatness requires a national emergency, do we even want an-other great president ? Do we want to risk destroying the country so that a great leader can save it ? The fact is America rarely needs great presidents ; but we can always use good ones. Indeed, it is time for us to lower our own expectation and create a much more realistic sense of the man (someday woman) and the job we have elected a president to do. Maybe then we can allow our presidents to be good without expecting them to be great