Presidential Greatnessby Marc Karnis Landy, Sidney M. Milkis
In the wake of the Clinton scandal, the upcoming election presents an opportunity for candidates and citizens alike to reaffirm their belief that the office of the president demands greatness. But Marc Landy and Sidney
When a new president is elected in November, someone will be called to greatness. But it remains to be seen whether that call will be answered.
In the wake of the Clinton scandal, the upcoming election presents an opportunity for candidates and citizens alike to reaffirm their belief that the office of the president demands greatness. But Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis suspect that the public will be disappointed once again, because the demand for greatness far exceeds the supply. In fact, they claim that we have had no great presidents in the last half of this century. In this provocative new book, they explain why.
Landy and Milkis look to the past to show how five presidents--Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt--set the standards for presidential leadership and achievement. These were men who left genuine legacies, whose vision expanded the office of the presidency as they inaugurated momentous and far-reaching change. They were leaders who knew how to reconcile innovation with constitutional tradition and were able to both educate the people about their agendas and win their allegiance. They were also great builders and leaders of their parties amid times of political realignment.
Searching for common threads in these five presidencies, Landy and Milkis enable us to better understand both the possibilities and the limitations of the office. They show how presidents after FDR have never risen to true greatness--not even Lyndon Johnson, an "overreacher" whose Great Society was a failed revolution, or Ronald Reagan, an underachiever whose conservative revolution never fully got under way. Our greatest presidents, they argue, sought to profoundly change the nature of the regimes they inherited and had the luck to assume office under conditions that allowed such renovation; today's leaders have lacked either the ambition, the opportunity, or both.
Perhaps, the authors observe, the older our country gets the harder greatness is to come by. Our next great president might be sworn in next year, but he or she will face a daunting task in matching the stature of past leaders. Landy and Milkis's book is an evenhanded assessment of our national icons that reestablishes our understanding of presidential greatness and demonstrates the importance-and reality--of inspired democratic leadership.
- University Press of Kansas
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AND DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP
The scandalous politics of Bill Clinton's second term, which saw the president of the United States ensnared by revelations of an affair with a White House intern, deeply embarrassed the nation. Nonetheless, these events also provided an opportunity to revisit the most fundamental issues of leadership in contemporary American democracy: the role of public opinion in representative government, the relative weight of the executive and legislative branches of government, the uneasy relationship between a free press and democratic leadership, and the line between private morality and public authority. The role that morality and character play in presidential leadership is an especially fascinating and troubling matter. Even as he became the first president in 130 years to be impeached by the House, Bill Clinton had remarkable support among the public, which approved of the way he governed.
In truth, Clinton's resiliency testified not only to his record of achievement but also to the public's disdain for the zealousness with which the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, pursued the investigation of the president's peccadilloes and the alacrity with which a Congress bitterly divided by partisanship supported it. But Americans distinguished sharply between Clinton the chief executive, of whom they approved, and Clinton the man, whom they regarded as immoral and untrustworthy. Thus, even though the Senate acquitted the president on the impeachment charges, Clinton faced an erosion of credibility, whichweakened severely his ability to command the nation.
That a constitutional crisis could be brought by such a tawdry episode led government officials, pundits, and a benumbed public to decry the current state of leadership in American politicsto lament the absence of great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as well as the fractious state of American democracy, which appeared to make such extraordinary statesmanship a chimera. This book attempts to recapture our understanding of presidential greatness and to better understand those who have displayed it.
In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the American people "build lasting monuments of their gratitude" for certain presidents and not for others. Only a few presidentsWashington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDRhave been deemed worthy of such enduring respect and reverence. Cities, towns, and babies are named for them. Monuments are built in their memory. They are the subjects of popular novels and TV docudramas. Even when they are reviled, they are spoken of with awe. It is almost as if they occupied a different office and lived on a different political plane from the other numerous incumbents of the presidential office, many of whom seem to be forgotten almost as quickly as they leave office.
Despite the esteem in which they are held and the almost obsessive attention paid them as individuals, America's "great" presidents have never been studied as a group. Each of the next five chapters focuses on a specific great president, but our aim is not only to shed new light on this or that aspect of their individual careers. Rather, we hope to find some common thread that will enable us to better understand the presidential office itselfits higher possibilities as well as its necessary limitations.
The discontent aroused by the current state of American democracy may have deepened the public's wish for extraordinary leadership, but the demand for greatness far exceeds the supply. In the penultimate chapter of this book, we argue that there has been no great president since FDR; still the search goes on. Pundits and public alike are perennially in search of the next one. Almost no modern election takes place without widely expressed dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of the declared candidates and an equally widely expressed hope that some prominent figure, who at least some perceive to have the potential for greatness, will enter the race. Colin Powell is only the most recent object of this so far vain quest.
And yet for all its allure, presidential greatness is potentially a problem for democracy. The very idea of greatness serves to emphasize the vast remove between the anointed one and the people. Greatness is far more compatible with monarchy, in which a leader is required not to serve the people but to take care of them. Alexander, Peter, Catherine, and Frederick were all "great," but who would want to elect them president?
Consider the modern phenomenon of the "summit meeting." On several occasions during the Cold War, the American president met alone with his Soviet counterpart and discussed the issues that placed their two countries at odds. Often these face-to-face conversations occurred during times of great mutual tension. Nonetheless, the American president would occasionally depart from positions established by his government and employ his own personal discretion to strike a deal. On such occasions, he was almost casual about the extent to which he spoke for America, with no real regard for the views of the citizenry. What king ever exercised greater influence over world affairs?
As we explore presidential greats, we are compelled to ask whether they were democratically great. Were their great accomplishments compatible with the aspirations of a democratic people, or is the very term "democratic leadership" an oxymoron. The study of presidential greatness is an attempt to examine both the potentialities and the limits of democracy itself.
The president is the chief executive. The buck stops there. The great presidents were great because they not only brought about change but also left a legacyprinciples, institutional arrangements, and policies that defined an era. As Alexander Hamilton put it, they pursued "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit." The public elevates their memory because they reconstructed the regime in bold and enduring fashion. When decisive action was required, they took it. Even when such efforts are necessary, however, they risk weakening the capacity of citizens to fend for themselves. Indeed, some of the best presidential scholars argue that the presidency is a nondemocratic office, that the need to execute requires presidents to flout the popular will. We do not deny that there is a monarchical side to the presidency. Each of the great presidents took aggressive action in the face of crisis without full-fledged consultation with and guidance from the people. But is this the whole story? Is the president simply a constitutional monarch subject only to the discipline of infrequent elections? We think not. Even as we depict great acts of presidential decisiveness and deplore glaring examples of indecision, we hold open the possibility that there is an important democratic aspect to presidential leadership.
Democratic leadership involves the mutual interdependence of leader and led. It requires first of all that the leader remain answerable to his followers. Even as he takes bold initiatives and ignores public opinion in the short run, he must enable his followers to hold him to account in ways that are practicable and timely. Second, because leadership is inevitably paternalistic, it can redeem itself democratically only if that parental responsibility is properly exercised. Good parents encourage their children to become independent and responsible, not to remain submissive and willful. Presidential words and deeds shape the quality and character of the citizenry. They can make the public more passive and self-regarding and submissive, or they can encourage it to be more energetic and public spirited. Just as a parent is held responsible for the moral and practical education of his children, so a president bears a large share of responsibility for the public's civic education. A democratic leader is one who takes the public to school.
By these criteria, the great presidents did indeed provide meaningful democratic leadership. Washington apart, they all were either founders or refounders of political parties. Parties, we will argue, are the most important source of democratic presidential accountability. And although the great presidents were revolutionaries, they were revolutionaries of a distinctly conservative stripe. They taught the citizenry about the need for great change but also about how to reconcile change with American constitutional traditions and purposes. Their capacity to rule and be ruled by their party, and the rhetorical capacity to tie fundamental changes to enduring political verities, made the presidential greats great democratic presidents. Even as they transformed the country, they remained rooted in a democratic polity that had the wit and self-possession to hold them accountable. Such ties liberate, even as they bind. The great presidents were not apart from democratic politics; they mastered it.
THE PRESIDENT AS CONSERVATOR
In probing the meaning of "conservative revolution," the title "president" is intriguing. To preside is different than to lead, direct, or control. It connotes a responsibility for preserving harmony and coherence. But preside over what? Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the title had been used for the presiding officer of Congress and of many other legislative bodies, including the Constitutional Convention. But the president created in 1787 has no specific presiding responsibilities. Rather, the notion of presiding must be understood in a broader sense. As the president's oath of office states, he has the responsibility "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution itself." The actual language of the president's oath is included in the Constitution. These words were not written frivolously, but were intended to convey his solemn duty to preside over an entire constitutional order. This is his deepest conservative duty: to stand guard over a system that is meant to hold him in check.
As James Madison noted in the famous Federalist No. 10, the political order created by the Constitution was a republican rather than a purely democratic one. By this he meant that the complex system of divided and separated powers in the Constitution had several purposes in addition to promoting democratic rule. It was intended to mediate between partisan factions, as well as between representatives and the people, to "protect the people against their own temporary errors and delusions." Its objective was to cultivate the "cool and deliberate sense of the community ...," to "refine and enlarge the public views."
In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton elaborated on the special responsibility of the president within the constitutional frame. "There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or the legislature, as its best recommendation," he lamented. This "crude notion" of representative government failed to grasp that the "republican principle ... did not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion or every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests." Rather, Hamilton argued, "when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for cool and sedate reflection."
This sense of "guardianship" was not confined to ardent defenders of executive power such as Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson, whose concept of the president's authority was far more circumspect, was no less committed to the idea of the executive's responsibility to protect the constitutional order. Only the president could "command a view of the whole ground" and was thus deserving of the people's "support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts."
In probing the roots of executive authority, therefore, we must try to understand the republican as well as the democratic aspects of the presidency. Yet as the guardian of the people's interests, the executive was not expected to have unlimited power. Just as the Constitution places limits on the arbitrary actions of the people, so it constrained their tribune. To prevent executive guardianship from becoming despotic, the framers regularized it as an office in a constitutional framework, juxtaposing its power with that of the judiciary and legislature. "Ambition would counteract ambition." The hope was that presidents would not simply become frustrated by the limits of power but, in upholding their powers, play a critical part in defending the people's liberties.
It was Lincoln who acknowledged that "public opinion in this country is everything." At the same time, he grasped that the president's constitutional duty was not merely to rouse public opinion but to temper it. The duty to temper imposes various demands on the president. For example, to protect minority rights, the president may need to dampen the ardor of prohibitionists of whatever stripe. Or to combat the democratic disease of wishful thinking, he may need to resist approving desirable public projects that the people lack the will to pay for.
Seen in this broader light, the goal of the overall constitutional order is not merely to preserve limited government by producing "gridlock." Separation of powers and checks and balances are expected to maintain liberty not merely by throwing sand in the gears of government but by perpetuating the principle of deliberative constitutional government. The president is obligated to encourage and provoke such deliberations.
As the following chapters will demonstrate, each of the great presidents not only performed these crucial republican duties but did so in a democratic spirit by taking the people to school and explaining why great changes had to be accomplished in a manner compatible with constitutionally prescribed liberties and republican forbearance. Presiding over the first democratically elected regime change in all of human history, Jefferson used the occasion of his first inaugural to remind the people, including the bloodthirsty among his followers, that "we are all republicans, we are all federalists." Through rhetoric, he cultivated a political climate in which he could establish profound democratic changes without departing from the constitutional framework established by his Federalist predecessors. Andrew Jackson complemented his far more thoroughgoing democratization of the regime with a crucial act of constitutional statesmanship. He acted swiftly and decisively to suppress the protosecessionist efforts of the South Carolina nullifiers. And, of equal importance, he issued the Nullification Proclamation, which explained cogently and comprehensively why all Americans should make preservation of the Union their highest political priority.
Lincoln wielded this precedent in the service of the boldest of all presidentially inspired acts of inclusiveness. He discovered in the principle of Union itself a rationale for expunging the exclusionary constitutional provisions that left America "half slave and half free," a "house divided against itself." He set the standard for presidential civic education in a series of speeches that explained to the people why a house divided against itself could not endure, why defense of the Constitution actually required the freeing of the slaves.
FDR too sought to save the constitutional order by expanding it. In his Commonwealth Club address and elsewhere, he explained that the economic system would destroy itself if it were not subjected to constitutional reform and that this transformed economic constitution would be based on a new rightthe right to economic security.
THE PRESIDENT AS FIRST CITIZEN
We have been using the term "conservative revolutionary" metaphorically. But one of the great presidents, the first, was a conservative revolutionary in the literal meaning of the term. George Washington led the military uprising, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served as the first popularly elected chief executive. His bearing and his principles were so conservative that it is hard to conceive of him as a revolutionary, yet it is difficult to imagine the success of the revolutionary project, and the novus ordo seclorum it established, in his absence. As the chapter on Washington details, he set the precedents that made a democratic republican chief executive possible. Not only was he elected to two terms unopposed, but the certitude that he would indeed serve as the nation's first president allayed the fears of those among the Constitution writers who might otherwise have been disinclined to endorse the establishment of a strong chief executive. Although his tenure in office was hardly free of factional strife, the one matter that remained above partisan discord was the character and leadership of Washington himself. By virtue of his ability to stay above the partisan fray to keep the fragile ties of political unity from being rent asunder, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the greatest of the ancient democratic leaders, Pericles. Thucydides' description of Pericles' leadership of the Athenian democracy applies with equal force to Washington's stewardship of the infant American republic:
Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence and his known integrity could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was only he who led them, rather than they who led him, and, since he never sought power from any wrong motive, he was under no necessity of flattering them: in fact, he was so highly respected that he was able to speak angrily to them and to contradict them. Certainly, when he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence, he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; and when they were discouraged for no good reason he would restore their confidence. So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.
It is hardly a coincidence that Washington also was identified as a first citizen. It has a strong democratic resonance because it emphasizes a leader's identification with his fellow citizens and implies that this authority comes more from his standing among them than his power to coerce them. Indeed, Pericles is at least as famous for what he said as for what he did. His funeral oration remains perhaps the most moving of all utterances designed to encourage democratic citizens to live up to their political obligations.
Washington was hardly an orator of Periclean dimensions. Still, in his Farewell Address, he undertook a similarly ambitious effort to educate his fellow citizens. He reminded them of their most important political responsibilities and warned them against the most appealing and therefore the most dangerous political temptations to which they were subjected.
And yet one's admiration of Washington should not blind one to the inadequacy of the model he provides of democratic presidential leadership. Thucydides' criticism of Pericles applies with equal force to him. Their success was too dependent on the absence of rivals. Both, because of their extraordinary gifts and the circumstances in which they came to rule, were able to suppress rivalry and factionalism. But they left no legacy capable of suppressing those centrifugal forces in their absence. Thucydides ends the paean to Pericles with the following dispirited observation:
But his successors, who were more on a level with each other and each of whom aimed at occupying the first place, adopted methods of demagogy which resulted in their losing control over the actual conduct of affairs.
From ancient Athens to today, the disruption of democracy by rivalry and factionalism has remained endemic. Ironically, the best means for taming factionalism and reconciling rivalry with lawful rotation in power has proved to be an institution that Washington feared and despisedpolitical party. To compound the irony, Thomas Jefferson, who shared Washington's antipathy, created the first great democratic political party. Jefferson was a better builder than he was an architect. His vision was to create the party that would end party, that would erase the Federalist-inspired perversions of the Constitution and restore and strengthen it to such an extent that constitutional liberties would no longer require partisan defense. It fell to his erstwhile disciple, Martin Van Buren, a man who inspired few "lasting monuments," to recognize that one party would inevitably degenerate into no party and that the full defense of the Constitution required the establishment of a party system. The mantle of greatness was bestowed not on Van Buren, the operative and theoretician, but on the one who actually presided over the establishment of the party system, Andrew Jackson. When that system threatened to degenerate into mere bread and circuses, Lincoln presided over the creation of a new great party of principle.
Seminal scholars of the party system such as James Ceaser, Walter Dean Burnham, and Wilson C. McWilliams have described how party came to the rescue of American constitutional democracy and how great presidents founded, led, and were disciplined by party.
James Sterling Young describes how the nonpartisan Era of Good Feelings led to an attenuation of concern for and interest in the national project. It was the Jacksonian revitalization of political life, reestablishing a vital link between local and national politics via party, that reinvigorated national attachments. More to the point, Jacksonian democracy reestablished a responsible relationship between the president and the people. Nomination and election by mass political parties gave the president the stature of a popular spokesman; equally important, the party system made the executive accountable to a collective organization with a past and a futureto a national institution that enlarged even as it restrained presidential ambition.
Parties reflected the concern first expressed by the Anti-Federalists, and later revived by Jefferson and Madison, that the Constitution did not adequately provide for the cultivation of an active and competent citizenry. Forged on the anvil of Jeffersonian democracy, political parties were conceived as bulwarks of decentralization, as localized political associations that could provide a vital link between constitutional offices, especially the executive, and the people. They would do so by balancing state and local communities, championed by the Anti-Federalists, and the national government, strengthened by the Constitution of 1787.
Paradoxically, patriotism in the United States would grow out of the provinces. Even as they supported a decentralization of power, political parties discouraged sectionalism. Jacksonian parties found their strength principally in the political combat of presidential electionsa battleground that encouraged partisans to overlook their differences in the interest of victory. As Van Buren recognized, party provided the only plausible means for tempting southerners and northerners to overlook their grave differences for the greater good of winning elections. This "greater good" was composed of both principle and pelf. The infamous "spoils system" was designed to give aspiring politicians of whatever region a strong incentive to stick by a party capable of winning national elections. Strict adherence to Jeffersonian political doctrine was equally vital for compelling Democrats to overlook sectionally inspired differences.
Partisan principle was also crucial for making national politics meaningful and coherent and thus for providing ordinary citizens with the means of holding representatives accountable. A mass electorate was incapable of making subtle judgments regarding policies and political personalities. It required the clear-cut statement of principles contained in the party platform and the imposition of party discipline on political representatives to turn the exercise of the franchise by ordinary citizens into a meaningful political activity.
As chapter 5 reveals, Lincoln, regarded as America's greatest president, was not a godsend who swept to victory by overawing his party and the public. Rather, he was a veteran politician and political party activist who successfully contended for nomination and election in an open, messy democratic process. His ascendance to the White House showed that presidents could not come to power without coming to terms with provincial liberties; at the same time, Lincoln's attachment to the Republican Party helped draw the country into a passionate yet deliberative debate on the slavery issue.
Thus, great presidential leadership required extraordinary partisanship, democratic leadership that leavened, rather than stood above, the hurly-burly of political life. Van Buren recognized that the threat of demagogy was endemic to democracy and that the only way to hold would-be dictators in check was to make them beholden to those they could not control. As they developed during the nineteenth century, political parties connected the executive to popular organizations that strengthened the decentralizing features of the ConstitutionCongress, as well as the states and localities. This decentralized party system ensured the existence of political "barons" at the state and local levels who possessed sufficient ability to sway their electorates that no aspiring presidential candidate could afford to ignore their prerogatives.
While checking unwonted ambition, party also proved a vital source of presidential authority. It bestowed legitimacy on the institution of the presidency. It provided presidents with a stable basis of popular support and, episodically, during periods of partisan realignment, with the opportunity to embark on ambitious projects of national reform. These episodesour "surrogate for revolution," as Walter Dean Burnham characterizes themhave not destroyed the Constitution but rather have strengthened the attachment between the people and the fundamental law, to ensure, as Jefferson put it, that the Constitution "belonged to the living."
Political realignments have all taken place within the parameters set by the principles of limited constitutional government; they have all been shaped by the creed of the Declaration of Independence, which defines justice as the "free pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness." The great presidents have been the principal agents of these major transformations; they have engaged people in a debate about first principles. But these "extensive and arduous enterprises" have been constrained by presidents' accountability to a popular party and dedicated to a variation on the theme of the Declaration. Indeed, these realignments became surrogate constitutional conventions: during these episodes of mass democracy, the Declaration was drawn into the vortex of a great contest of opinion that, as FDR put it, "transfused with new meaning the concepts of our constitutional fathers."
The party system survived the Civil War and served throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century as the central organizing principle of American politics and the key protector of provincial liberties. It is no accident that the last great president, FDR, was also the last great presidential party leader. FDR's party leadership is reminiscent of one of his greatest idols, Jefferson. Like Jefferson, FDR built a powerful party, one that mobilized those who previously had been marginalized from national political life. FDR too hoped and expected that his partisan accomplishment would be temporary. But Jefferson championed a localized democracy that required the recrudescence of partisanship. In contrast, FDR and his New Deal allies transformed the Democratic Party into a way station on the road to a more centralized and bureaucratic form of democracy that focused American political life on the president and administrative agencies. Roosevelt planned his party to be the means for the creation of an administrative state that would prove more durable than a party could ever be and therefore would be more capable of providing the new programmatic rights he sought to establish.
Chapter 7, which discusses the development of the modern presidency that formed in the wake of the New Deal realignment, pays homage to FDR's success in establishing the administrative state. But it laments the democratic losses that accrue to the victory of administration over partisan politics. To borrow William Leuchtenburg's phrase, the American presidency remains "in the shadow of FDR." We argue that the post-FDR presidential light has remained dim because a vital source of political energyparty politicshas been sapped. The chapters on the individual presidents who displayed greatness revisit times when that energy flowed more freely and may provide hints as to how it might be rekindled.
What People are saying about this
A smart, sober-minded historical treatise about the diminishing significance of our executive branch. For anyone interested in presidential politicswhich should be all of usthis book is essential reading.
A searching analysis of what constitutes presidential greatness. Scholars and informed citizens alike will find it both challenging and inspiring.
At a time when presidents and the presidency itself are on trial, it is good to have this thoughtful, well-documented study of great presidential leadership. While some will challenge the author's view of FDR as the last great president, FDR's administration does supply a model for future presidents to imitate.
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