The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President

Overview

The Presidency has always been an implausible—some might even say an impossible—job. Part of the problem is that the challenges of the presidency and the expectations Americans have for their presidents have skyrocketed, while the president’s capacity and power to deliver on what ails the nations has diminished. Indeed, as citizens we continue to aspire and hope for greatness in our only nationally elected office. The problem of course is that the demand for great presidents has always exceeded the supply. As a ...

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The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President

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Overview

The Presidency has always been an implausible—some might even say an impossible—job. Part of the problem is that the challenges of the presidency and the expectations Americans have for their presidents have skyrocketed, while the president’s capacity and power to deliver on what ails the nations has diminished. Indeed, as citizens we continue to aspire and hope for greatness in our only nationally elected office. The problem of course is that the demand for great presidents has always exceeded the supply. As a result, Americans are adrift in a kind of Presidential Bermuda Triangle suspended between the great presidents we want and the ones we can no longer have.

The End of Greatness explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and the nation’s politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue. Indeed, greatness is too rare to be relevant in our current politics, and driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable.

Our preoccupation with greatness in the presidency consistently inflates our expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. And our focus on the individual misses the constraints of both the office and the times, distorting how Presidents actually lead.  In wanting and expecting our leaders to be great, we have simply made it impossible for them to be good.  The End of Greatness takes a journey through presidential history, helping us understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it’s gone, and how we can better come to appreciate the presidents we have, rather than being consumed with the ones we want.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“It's time to abandon our illusions and take a more realistic view of the presidency…A provocative and highly readable analysis.”—Kirkus

 

“You may already know Aaron David Miller as one of our shrewdest analysts of the Middle East. Be prepared now to encounter him as a probing and highly original student of the American presidency. In The End of Greatness we have a brisk, perceptive, and often wry, look at why our presidents—including, most importantly, Barack Obama—come into office raising our hopes for magnificent transformations, only to disappoint us with their limitations. With their insight, historical depth, and realism, Miller’s ideas will surprise you and—above all, make you think.” —David Greenberg, Professor of History, Rutgers University, Author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image

 

“Will American ever again have a great president?  To this intriguing question, Aaron David Miller brings a delightfully provocative sensibility, a lively and engaging pen, and, not least, thirty years of government experience. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, this book should spark a thoughtful debate about what we can realistically expect from our presidents as we enter the next electoral season.”—Robert Kagan, Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; author of The World America Made

 

“Is the obsession with ‘greatness’ making us forget that what we need first from presidents are competence, balance, and a strong sense of what's right? Aaron David Miller is challenging much of what we regularly read about the presidency—and good for him. You may disagree with him at times, as I did, but you'll be grateful that he helps us see the toughest job in the world in a new light.”—E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Our Divided Political Heart

 

"Why has America gone some 70 years—the longest time ever—without a president in the league of Washington, Lincoln and FDR? Aaron David Miller dissects our political history with a finely sharpened scalpel, coming up with penetrating answers.  More provocatively, he argues we may be better off not to have another “great president”. I doubt many readers will agree with all of his arguments—I don’t—but they certainly deserve our serious attention.  And they are a pleasure to read!"—David Gergen, Professor & Co-Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School, and Former White House Adviser, Four Presidents

From the Publisher

Praise for The Much Too Promised Land:

"A revealing and well-written memoir.... Miller fills his pages with real characters and sly observations... [and] sobering tales from the front."—The New York Times

Kirkus Reviews
2014-08-11
The vice president for new initiatives of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars examines Americans' obsessive hope for the next great president.We live in a "post-heroic leadership era," writes Miller (The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, 2008, etc.), who claims that the last great American president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet Americans persist in their overblown expectations of bold leadership in the White House: "We continue to expect more, demand more than any of them could possibly deliver." Defining greatness in the presidency as "the mastery of a nation-encumbering crisis and using the results to produce a transformative change that leaves Americans fundamentally better forever," the author argues that we have had three great presidents (Washington, Lincoln and FDR), three near greats (Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt) and three with traces of greatness (John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Reagan). He examines each president in detail, noting the factors that must be present for presidential greatness, most notably a wrenching national crisis (war, economic crisis, etc.) that creates an opportunity for heroic action. The president himself must have character and the capacity to do the right thing. However, writes the author, the world has changed drastically since the glory days of the heroic American presidency. Our globalized society is far more complex, and most crises—e.g., terrorism—are more diffuse in nature. American politics are marked by polarization and partisanship, and the 24/7 media cycle has stripped away the aura of the leader. Besides, great leadership is rare under any circumstances. It's time to abandon our illusions and take a more realistic view of the presidency, writes the author; there are limits on a president's capacity to fix things. We should seek good—not great—leaders who can transact the business of governing. A provocative and highly readable analysis.
Library Journal
10/15/2014
"We can no longer have a truly great president," writes political commentator Miller, "we seldom need one, and…we may not want one, either." The United States has had just three great presidents, he argues—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each possessed the "three Cs" that to Miller define presidential greatness: they encountered a severely threatening crisis, possessed the character necessary for greatness, and had the capacity to turn crisis into transformative change for the nation. Other presidents showed "traces of greatness," most recently, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, but none passes all of Miller's tests, and he predicts that no future president will, owing to polarized politics, unrealistic expectations, a fishbowl media environment, the complexity of today's problems, and the unlikelihood of another crisis as bleak as those faced by our three greats. VERDICT The best part of Miller's book is his final chapter on President Barack Obama, in which he discusses unrealistic expectations. He would have been better served expanding that analysis into a long essay. Much of the rest of the volume is repetitive and not especially novel.—Robert Nardini, Niagara Falls, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781137279002
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 33,440
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron David Miller is vice president for New Initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For two decades, he served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State. His pieces on the presidency have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and Foreign Policy, and he appears regularly on CNN, CNN International, NPR, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, and PBS NewsHour, as well as BBC and Canadian Broadcasting.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Chapter 1:  The End of Greatness?

Chapter 2: Greatness Revealed

Chapter 3: Greatness Gone

Chapter 4: What’s So Great About Being Great, Anyway?

Conclusion: Greatness with a Small g

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