The questionof presidential greatness has been an obsession and a plague since 1948, when Arthur Schlesinger Sr. conducted his first historians' survey ranking the presidents. After Schlesinger's death, his son picked up the mantle with a survey of his own in 1996. It ranked Ronald Reagan in the bottom half.
That alone should show just how questionable the entire enterprise is. Indeed, as long ago as January 1977, the estimable Nelson Polsby wrote in these pages the essay "Against Presidential Greatness," arguing that such an idea raised unreasonable expectations of what a president could achieve.
In his short contribution to the discussion, the perennial Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller argues that there have only been three great presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and that it is unlikely America will have another.
In The End of Greatness, Miller offers cursory reviews of the presidencies of the three greats and then goes on to explain why all the others were not worthy of the Hall of Fame. Miller then launches into his argument about why we should not even want a great president.
Miller's choice of three, and only three, great presidents is peculiar to begin with, as there have been many who accomplished great things. And while most everyone agrees on Lincoln and Washington, FDR is another matter. Miller himself undermines his own case for FDR's greatness when providing a list of potential disqualifications so substantial that it merits being quoted in full:
FDR lacked Washington's strict ethical standards and Lincoln's humility; he carried on his affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford years after he promised Eleanor it had ended. His economic policies couldn't end the Great Depression, and in 1937 he overreached badly with a Supreme Court–packing scheme and an attempted purge of his political rivals that would shatter the illusion of his invincibility and weaken him politically. His wartime decision to set up detention camps for thousands of Americans of Japanese descent was perhaps the most abominable of his presidency.
Compare this with Miller's main reason that "greatness eludes Reagan": "He crossed a line into illegality and extraconstitutional action during Iran-Contra that places him beyond consideration." Perhaps so, but given the positive impact of the Reagan presidency, any such controversy is of a smaller order than the far longer listing Miller provides of Roosevelt's deficiencies.
The point is not that Reagan was a greater president than FDR, but that there is a profound artificiality to all such efforts to create these exclusionary categories—they exist to serve contemporary arguments and biases, not to provide an objective understanding of the past. Miller's argument works backward: He wants there to have been only a handful of great presidents to make his case, and so that is what he finds.
Given Miller's interest in arguing that great presidents are rare, it should come as no surprise that our most recent presidents do not shine in his analysis. Miller is dismissive of George W. Bush, to be sure, but he also believes that Barack Obama—despite his vast talent and his "humility"—has been a disappointment as well. In fact, it appears integral to his argument to make the case that even the gifted Obama has emerged as a less than great president.
Going forward, Miller argues that the limitations of our system, the intrusiveness of the media, and the degrading effects of pop culture will combine to prevent future presidents from attaining greatness. Now, having written a book about presidents and popular culture, I agree that this mixture can tarnish the standing of a president and a presidency. Miller cites the illustrative example of Bill Clinton's answering a question about whether he wore boxers or briefs on MTV—a moment that certainly diminished the office. But presidents make conscious choices about their levels of engagement with popular culture and social media. Clinton did not have to give an unpresidential response to the unpresidential question; and it was not the question that lowered him, but his decision to answer it. Barack Obama, himself no stranger to lowering the office's stature via forays into popular culture, wisely chose not to answer such a question when it was presented to him.
There is little doubt that the divisive nature of our culture has had deleterious consequences for our politics. But one could easily argue that such discord actually creates both the need and the hunger for a great president. Before Reagan, it had become fashionable in intellectual circles to argue that the presidency had grown too big for one man. Today, a president who could communicate, persuade, and even rebuild our federal system would surely deserve the designation "great." Furthermore, the immensity of our problems, including, especially, massive debt and wavering leadership in a dangerous world, means that we do indeed need someone who can be a more-than-ordinary president and reassert America's status domestically and around the world. Such a president cannot be invented in a laboratory; nor can the possibility of his arrival on the scene be dismissed.
Seemingly modest citizen-politicians can reveal vision and bring attributes to historic challenges that are of great consequence. Harry Truman, who came to the White House almost by accident and rose to the challenge of his time, comes to mind. And Reagan's ascension was made possible by two decades of work on his part and on the part of intellectuals and activists who prepared the ground for the policies he put into effect.
Yes, great presidents are few, but even Miller acknowledges that "we need and must have good ones who can lead effectively." Indeed, the election of a merely good president to the White House—one who, as Miller says, will "respect the law and the Constitution, and keep us ever focused on the America that can be even while working to better the America that is"—would practically represent a revolution after the past six years.