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

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

by Aaron David Miller
     
 

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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

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.

Editorial Reviews

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
Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; author Robert Kagan

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.
From the Publisher

“Miller's intellectual trek wends its way into lush forests of insight and charm, through underbrush and past tall pines of history, biography, political science and human understanding…the journey is its own reward.” —National Interest

“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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781137464460
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
10/07/2014
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
296,814
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

The End of Greatness

Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President


By Aaron David Miller

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Aaron David Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-46446-0



CHAPTER 1

The Indispensables

GREATNESS WITH A CAPITAL G


On February 14, 1933, a month before his inauguration as president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt went fishing, or to put it more precisely, he embarked on an eleven-day cruise aboard the Nourmahal, the 263-foot yacht belonging to his good friend and Hyde Park neighbor Vincent Astor. Imagine any contemporary president, particularly against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis (America was three years into the Great Depression), pulling that off today without causing a scandal. Indeed, measured against today's presidential protocol, it is remarkable that Roosevelt would spend as much as half of his presidency outside of Washington.

At the end of the trip, the Nourmahal docked in Miami where the president-elect was scheduled to make remarks at the annual outdoor encampment of the American Legion at Miami's Bay Front Park. FDR delivered his brief remarks, and then he chatted with Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. Having supported Al Smith for president, the mayor had come to Miami looking for Roosevelt's political forgiveness and federal money for the city.

Suddenly, five shots rang out. FDR later recalled that they sounded like firecrackers. One hit Cermak in his side, grazing the liver and lodging against his spine. The shooter, Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed Italian immigrant bricklayer, had fired at Roosevelt from between 25 and 40 feet away and would probably have hit him (five shots hit five different people, seriously wounding three, including Cermak) had it not been for an intrepid Miami housewife who jostled the shooter's arm.

Roosevelt's chauffeur began to speed away, but FDR told him to stop, twice countermanding Secret Service orders to leave the scene, and had Cermak placed in his car, where Roosevelt cradled and consoled the mortally wounded Chicago mayor en route to the hospital.

Initially, there was an assumption, including by Roosevelt, that Zangara was a Mafia hit man out to kill Cermak for his crackdown on the Capone crime syndicate in Chicago. Interrogation of Zangara, however, left little doubt that Roosevelt was the intended target. The Italian immigrant, clearly emotionally unbalanced and physically unwell, carried an intense hatred of big money, capitalism, and apparently presidents. He had wanted to kill Herbert Hoover too. On March 6, two days after listening to the radio broadcast of Roosevelt's swearing in from his hospital bed, Cermak died. Within two weeks, in what had to be the quickest judicial process in twentieth-century America, Zangara had been tried, convicted, and executed in the electric chair.

FDR's preternatural calm and coolness in the face of the assassination attempt buoyed the nation and sent a powerful message that the American people had chosen the right man with the right temperament to deal with a crisis. "The president-elect feeling that the bullets were intended for him," the New York Times reported, "straightened up, set his jaw and set unflinching with the calm courage in the face of danger which would be expected of one of his family." Raymond Moley, a Columbia University political science professor recruited as a Roosevelt adviser, remarked that he had never seen anything "more magnificent" than FDR's calm that evening.

But the assassination attempt against Roosevelt also raises a fascinating aspect of leadership and presidential greatness: the question of indispensability. French president Charles de Gaulle reportedly once observed that the cemeteries of France were filled with indispensable people. Most people, even those with the highest-ranking cabinet jobs, are probably replaceable, though they hardly look at themselves that way. The same might even be said about some of our presidents, especially a few of our nineteenth-century ones who came and went without leaving much of a legacy behind.

The argument is a familiar one. How important are individuals in the broader current of history? How much do they matter in comparison with the broader forces that shape their times? Had Adolf Hitler never been born, would someone like him have emerged to lead Germany in a similar direction? Had Al Gore been elected president in 2000 instead of George W. Bush, would America have gone to war in Iraq? Some people really do make a difference, a big difference. There may well be moments in history in which certain individuals were so essential to the course of events that to take them out of the story would change it dramatically. De Gaulle would certainly have considered himself one such person (and he probably would have been right).

Had Zangara's bullets killed or seriously wounded Roosevelt instead of Cermak and the others that evening in Miami, the arc of America's story might have changed profoundly. The Texan John Nance Garner ("Cactus Jack"), the vice president — elect, would have gone to the White House. Although Roosevelt's Depression-era economic policies were not nearly as effective as his supporters claimed in getting America out of its economic straits, would Garner have had the political skills, the reassuring and buoyant personality, the capacity to attract the right advisers, and the confidence to lead and calm the public during those dark days? Back then, it was very much a confidence game in the best sense of the phrase. And FDR was the master. Would any of FDR's Democratic challengers or Republican opponents in 1936 or 1940 have been able to prepare America for war, let alone provide his skilled and decisive wartime leadership?

And if the answer is no, then what is true for FDR — or any later American president in the twentieth century governing an established, stable country more than a century and a half old — is doubly true for earlier presidents presiding over a much more precarious enterprise. In June 1789, three months after his inauguration, Washington almost died from what was most likely anthrax. Was there another of his contemporaries with the authority, prestige, and sense of judgment to lead a young republic through perilous times? What if Stephen Douglas, who seemed prepared to reconcile with the South over slavery, had been elected president instead of Lincoln in 1860? Would the Civil War have been averted through yet another compromise (like those in 1820 and 1850), and slavery preserved? Would Lincoln's notion of the scorpion's sting — by which slavery, contained in the South and unable to expand westward, would have destroyed itself — have come to pass? And how long would this have taken? As it is, it took more than a century after Emancipation to pass historic civil rights legislation, and even then, racial equality remained elusive. And it remains so even today.

The imponderable what ifs of history go on and on. And we will never know the answers. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal whimsically posed the philosophical problem that if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter everything in the world would have been different. There is no rewind button on history; counterfactuals are, at best, a guessing game. And leaders can certainly emerge unexpectedly from the most unlikely of quarters.

Still, I suspect that without a Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, especially in the early years, the American story would have changed, and much for the worse. History is not guided or directed by some prearranged master plan. It is a dynamic and pretty chaotic process driven by the interplay between human agency and circumstance that shapes events as they unfold.

We assume inevitability to the American enterprise because of where we now sit, a kind of inexorability that everything was destined somehow to turn out the way it did. We should not. For the first hundred years of our history there was very little certainty and no tradition of strong union or much civility in our politics. We had our bipartisan and collegial moments to be sure. But the American story was also filled with intrigue, conflict, and a variety of centrifugal forces (the Aaron Burr conspiracy, Shays' Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Nullification Crisis, the Civil War) that threatened to pull the country apart. It is remarkable to think about it now, but the existence of the United States as a unified polity was probably not guaranteed until after the Civil War, almost a hundred years after the nation's founding.

In 1962 the American novelist Philip K. Dick wrote a counterfactual novel called TheMan in the High Castle in which Zangara actually succeeds in killing Roosevelt. A series of weak American presidents beginning with James Nance Garner succumb to the country's isolationist impulses and do not try to stop German or Japanese aggression. By 1947, the Germans and the Japanese, attacking from both coasts, force the United States to surrender. We need to be careful about pushing this argument too far. After all, by the 1930s America was already established and stable. The country would have certainly survived without Roosevelt. Some argue that the talented Republican internationalist Wendell Willkie, who challenged Roosevelt in 1940, could have led the country to victory too. In a telling comment, historian H. W. Brands wonders how essential FDR really was and questions how the United States could have sat out the war. But can there be much doubt that in Roosevelt's first seven years the country would have been much worse without FDR? During the 1930s, the world was a very grim place. The ascendancy of right wing and fascist ideologies put the very idea of liberal democracies in doubt and jeopardy. Hitler had come to power two months before FDR's swearing in. And despair, extremism, and violence were brewing in America too. In March 1932, a confrontation erupted between unemployed workers (participating in a Communist Party — organized hunger march) and management at the Ford River Rouge factory in Detroit. Police and company security personnel killed 4 demonstrators and wounded 50. Days later at the funerals, 40,000 marched as the band played the communist "Internationale."

Roosevelt mattered. Add Winston Churchill to the mix, a man whose country would soon face a truly existential threat, and you begin to see the central, even indispensable, role leaders can play at critical moments. There is no way to prove it, but without these early greats getting the big decisions right, the hinge of history might have easily swung another way.

All of these challenges put a premium on the kinds of leaders who had the skill, the drive, and the purpose to devote to strengthening and preserving the fledgling American enterprise. The issue is not whether leaders can make a difference; of course they do. The issue is the degree of difference they make. What is so extraordinary is that during these critical times, leaders emerged who not only aspired to lead but also had the necessary qualities to do so. More than 30 years ago historian James Flexner dubbed George Washington "the indispensable man"; you might as well add Lincoln and Roosevelt too.

By any conceivable measure, the legacies Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt left us were profound ones. Their greatness has stood the test of time, perhaps the ultimate arbiter of what any society values. And these three have also resisted history's power to destroy and deconstruct their reputations. Today their claim to greatness is made without much argument or debate among historians, presidential scholars, political analysts, and journalists. There is just no reason, or for that matter, no margin, for running any of them down.

They were certainly not perfect men. Nor were they one-man wonders. They had plenty of help from talented advisers, political parties, circumstances, and luck. And we should have no stake in idealizing them. Washington owned slaves and pursued runaways; Lincoln would have willingly accepted chattel slavery in the Old South had he been able to preserve the Union without war; and Roosevelt clearly overreached in trying to pack the Supreme Court. And for all his extraordinary wartime leadership, FDR interned thousands of loyal Americans of Japanese descent at home, and could have done more to help save European Jews. In the end, Washington could not prevent the fractiousness that marked his second term and beyond; Lincoln's freedom agenda could not prevent the racism and suppression of blacks during Reconstruction; and FDR couldn't end the Depression.

That two of the three died on the job expanded their emotional reach into American hearts and minds and linked their legacies to sacrifice, duty, and, literally in the case of Lincoln, to martyrdom; they became larger-than-life figures. Washington's stoic and grim death from infection at Mount Vernon (as was the medical practice at the time, they bled and blistered him, draining an estimated five pints of blood, or half his body's total volume) might just as well have taken place on the job, given the way he was regarded even after he left the presidency. Adolf Berle, a key member of FDR's Brain Trust, observed shortly after Roosevelt's death that great men have two lives: the first that ends with their death, the second that continues as long as their ideas and concepts remain powerful. These three remained alive politically long after they physically passed on. Their legacies define much of the American story to this day.

The three indispensables — one in each century — spanned the breadth of the American story, governed under vastly different circumstances, and each occupied a presidency that changed radically over the years. Indeed, they could not possibly present a more diverse (even odd) trio: an ambitious Virginia planter from a pretty good (but not the very best) family, with no formal education but plenty of practical experience in agriculture, surveying, and military matters; a driven and very successful railroad lawyer, born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana and Illinois, eager to leave his mark on state and national politics; a Hudson Valley patrician with access to the best schools (Groton, Harvard), summers at Campobello, and a resume (much like his distant cousin Teddy) almost unparalleled in the history of the presidency, and like his two great predecessors, a very physical and commanding presence, even though after the age of 39 he would never walk or stand unassisted without the help of crutches, leg braces, or a friendly arm. Ambitious men all, driven men really, each in his own way committed to the American enterprise and determined to play a central role in its success.

It would be a mistake to stretch comparisons too far or to pigeonhole them into some clever paradigm or box. We would lose the sense of difference and distinction that made them unique and special, that separated each from the other, and that separated all of them from presidents of our own day. The particular sense of time and place for each president is important because it situates them and explains their actions and motives within the right context. You might easily argue that each led in three different Americas. The beginnings of their presidencies are separated by almost 70 years or so, roughly three generations.

Washington presided over a fledgling nation of farmers, artisans, and traders whose capital (then in New York, America's second-largest city behind Philadelphia) was about 30,000 souls, and where loyalty to individual states still trumped a strong national affiliation. Lincoln governed a nation coming apart, the only president whose first and last days in office were dominated by both the prospect of civil war and war itself. Roosevelt, a man closest to our own times, presided over an industrialized nation and an established world power that had already fought and helped win a world war. Lincoln and Roosevelt seem close to one another as brilliant politicians, and nearer to our time, which make them more accessible than the often wooden and distant eighteenth-century Washington. Lincoln's ordeal was greatest, even though Roosevelt would be a nonstop crisis president for almost twelve years. Unlike Washington, both were deeply hated from the beginning of their presidencies; like Washington, they were very private men. This reserve and detachment, the mystique of leadership, was essential to preserve the image of the lonely, even suffering, great man. And that is simply no longer possible, perhaps not even desirable, in today's hyper-connected and intrusive media world. Still, that detachment may well be a necessary part of the greatness image.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The End of Greatness by Aaron David Miller. Copyright © 2014 Aaron David Miller. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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.
Aaron David Miller is currently 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, helping formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Miller lectures widely at universities and symposia across the country and appears regularly on CNN, CNN International, NPR, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, and The Lehrer News Hour, as well as BBC and Canadian Broadcasting. He also writes for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune. His weekly column Reality Check appears in Foreign Policy Magazine. He is also the author of the book, The Much Too Promised Land, described by Publishers Weekly in its starred review as “approachable and deeply smart.”

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