A “Great” Debate

Aaron David Miller’s latest book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, makes the case that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were America’s only truly “great” presidents, and as the title implies, we’re not about to get another. In an article adapted from the book, Miller lays out the rudiments of his argument:

Like the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, great presidents continue to hover, to teach, and to inspire. And we have much to learn from their successes and failures. But there is a risk in thinking, let alone succumbing to the illusion, that we will see their likes again, even in an altered contemporary guise. The world and country have changed and so have we. And besides, we should not want to see them again. Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our modern times and — driven as it is in our political system by big crisis — too risky and dangerous to be desirable. Our continued search for idealized presidents raises our expectations and theirs, skews presidential performance, and leads to an impossible standard that can only frustrate and disappoint. To sum up: We can no longer have a truly great president, we seldom need one, and, as irrational as it sounds, we may not want one, either.

In response, Julia Azari points out that assessments of “greatness” often rely on historical distance, which can make leaders look more independent and decisive than they really were:

In his book, Miller observes that we have no “real-time connection with greatness” in contemporary American politics. But I think someone writing in 1864 or 1935 might have said the same thing. In their times, Roosevelt and Lincoln were quite divisive, and often looked politically vulnerable. So our assessment of leadership may require some historical distance.

In particular, it’s easy to overlook the divisions of history once we know how the debates were resolved. Conventional wisdom says that polarization has eclipsed statesmanship. Here’s where the focus on the personal qualities of individual presidents is particularly misplaced. Accounts of presidents as lone statesmen, swimming against the tide and making Great Decisions is the stuff of hagiography and cartoons. Politics is not an individual enterprise; it is a collective enterprise. All presidents – great, mediocre and otherwise – have dealt with parochial interests, partisanship, and clashing ideologies. The ones who have been most successful weren’t acting alone; rather, they understood the political situation – the stakes of policy and the necessarily coalitions for passing and implementing new legislation. They also brought a sense of who the winners and losers would be, and used tools at their disposal – patronage, rhetoric, etc. – to make it harder politically for the losers to build their opposition, either by marginalizing them or finding a way to bring some of them on board.