Against Presidential Greatness
Until election day is past, candidates for President campaign among their fellow citizens with the simple end in view of being elected. Once they are inaugurated, however, Presidents frequently yearn for an even higher office—a niche in the pantheon of “great” Presidents. Membership in this exclusive society is, on the whole, not to be achieved through sheer popularity. Was there ever a more popular President than Dwight D. Eisenhower? Yet we all “know” he was not a “great” President, nor even a “near great” one.
How do we know this? Essentially I think the answer is: we know it because historians tell us so. In each generation, or possibly over a shorter span, a consensus arises among the authors of political and historical texts about how well various Presidents met the alleged needs of their times. These opinions are in turn the distillate of writings of journalists and other leading opinion-makers who were contemporaries of the various Presidents, filtered through the ideological predispositions of the current batch of history writers.
This means that running for great President is a chancy business, since the admissions committee is small and self-conscious, somewhat shifty-eyed, and possibly even harder to please than, let us say, the wonderful folks who guard the lily-white portals of the Chevy Chase Club. Some Presidents are smart enough to take out a little insurance. Surely that was one extremely good reason for John Kennedy to invite Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to join his White House staff and to encourage him to keep notes. Schlesinger’s father, also a distinguished historian, was after all the author of two well-publicized surveys of historians—in 1949 and 1962—that ranked Presidents for overall greatness.
Lyndon Johnson and, evidently, Richard Nixon, pursued somewhat different strategies. Apparently neither found a court historian wholly to his liking—though after an unsatisfactory experience with Eric Goldman, perhaps Johnson found Doris Kearns more tractable and useful for somewhat similar purposes. Both recent Presidents caused their administrations to engage in what might be called over-documentation of their official activities. Johnson hauled tons of stuff down to his museum in Texas where a staff composed “his” memoirs at leisure. One assumes the Nixon tapes, had they remained undiscovered, would have been employed to some such similar end.
In general, authorized ex-presidential memoirs are pretty awful to read, and nobody takes them seriously as history. At best they can be self-revelatory, and hence grist for the analyst’s mill, but they are mostly stale, dull, self-serving documents. By common repute the best ex-presidential memoir ever written was that of Ulysses S. Grant. It was about his Civil War service, not his Presidency, and so it is probably too much to expect that it would have saved Grant’s Presidency from the adverse judgment of “history.”
We must conclude that writing memoirs may be a respectable way to fatten the exchequer of an ex-President, but that it is of negligible value in running for great President. Hiring, or charming, a court historian is a somewhat better investment, and especially if, by calculation or misfortune, the court historian’s account appears after the death of the President in question. Reflective readers may find it slightly loony that Presidents would want to control what people think of them after they have died, but the desire to leave an admiring posterity is surely not all that unusual among Americans. Moreover, among those Americans who land in the White House one can frequently discern an above-average desire to control the rest of the world, future generations, if possible, included.
What is it that historians like to see on the record when they make their ratings? It is impossible to speak with assurance for all future generations of historians. Fads and cross-currents make it difficult even to read the contemporary scene in a perfectly straightforward way. Nevertheless, over the near term, I think it is fair to say that the predominant sentiments of historians about Presidents have been shaped by the experience of the New Deal, a longish episode in which presidential leadership was generally perceived to have saved the country not merely in the sense of restoring a modicum of prosperity to the economy, but more fundamentally rescuing the political system from profound malaise and instability.
The evidence that the New Deal actually did either of these things is, as a matter of fact, rather thin. But I shall not argue that attentiveness to evidence is a strong point of the gatekeepers of presidential greatness. They do, however, appear very much to admire Presidents who adopt an activist, aggrandizing, constitutional posture toward presidential power. As the senior Schlesinger wrote: “Mediocre Presidents believed in negative government, in self-subordination to the legislative power.” My view is that this reflects a New Deal-tutored preference for a particular sort of political structure rather than a statement of constitutional principles about which there can be no two opinions.
William Howard Taft, later a notably activist Chief Justice, put the classic case for the passive Presidency when he wrote:
The true view of the executive function is, as I conceive it, that the President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise. Such specific grant must be either in the federal Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof. There is no undefined residuum of power which he can exercise because it seems to him to be in the public interest. . . .
Poor Taft! That sort of argument got him low marks for presidential greatness, and especially since he evidently acted on his beliefs. Says James David Barber, author of the recent study of The Presidential Character, “. . . he was from the start a genial, agreeable, friendly, compliant person, much in need of affection. . . .”
Whereas the senior Arthur Schlesinger’s 1962 survey rated Taft an “average” sixteenth, between McKinley and Van Buren on the all-time hit parade, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft’s friend and patron, comes in a “near great” seventh, just below Andrew Jackson on the list. Roosevelt’s theory of the Presidency undoubtedly helped him in the sweepstakes. He said:
I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition. . . .
The beginnings of this conflict in constitutional interpretation and practice have been traced back to the founding of the Republic. In those early years, Leonard White found:
The Federalists emphasized the necessity for power in government and for energy in the executive branch. The Republicans emphasized the liberties of the citizen and the primacy of representative assemblies. The latter accused their opponents of sympathy to monarchy and hostility to republican institutions. . . . Hamilton . . . insisted on the necessity for executive leadership of an otherwise drifting legislature; Jefferson thought the people’s representatives would readily find their way if left alone to educate each other by free discussion and compromise. . . . By 1792 Jefferson thought the executive power had swallowed up the legislative branch; in 1798 Hamilton thought the legislative branch had so curtailed executive power that an able man could find no useful place in the government.
In the present era there is no real conflict at the theoretical level. The last sitting President even half-heartedly to argue against a self-aggrandizing Presidency was Eisenhower. To be sure, a few voices—notably Eugene McCarthy’s—could be heard proposing structural limitations on presidential powers in the dark days of Vietnam, but the resonance of his argument has faded quickly.
Even the remarkable shenanigans of the Nixon years seem only slightly to have diminished the enthusiasm of opinion leaders for strong Presidents. Theodore Sorensen has gone so far as to advance the comforting view that we have nothing to fear from a strong President because Nixon was not in fact a strong President. In the light of such ingenuity one can only conclude that even today the mantle of presidential greatness is available only to those Presidents who subscribe to a constitutional theory affording the widest scope for presidential action.
Does the historical record suggest any other helpful hints to the aspiring presidential great? Indeed it does. Crises are good for presidential reputations. Over the short run, as countless public-opinion surveys have shown, a small crisis in foreign affairs followed by a small show of presidential decisiveness is always good for a boost in the President’s ratings. These ratings, moreover, are evidently indifferent to the efficacy of the presidential decision; triumph or fiasco, it makes little short-run difference.
Presidential greatness, however, is not decided over the short run. Yet the things that mass publics like today are frequently attractive to historians when painted on a larger canvas. Our three “greatest” Presidents were reputedly Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. The service of all three is intimately associated with three incidents in American history when the entire polity was engaged in total war.
Total war—that is, war engaging some major fraction of the gross national product in its prosecution—creates vastly different conditions of psychological mobilization than the nagging, running sores of limited wars, which, in time, invariably become extremely unpopular. Lyndon Johnson was one President who showed awareness of the irony implicit in the popularity risks of restricting, as well as pursuing, a limited war.
To those scrupulous souls who shrink from manufacturing a war of total mobilization in the service of their future reputations, is there anything left to be said? Surely lessons can be drawn equally from our least successful as well as our most successful Presidents. Harding, Grant, and, one surmises, Nixon, lurk somewhere near the bottom of the heap. The smell of very large-scale scandal (not the small potatoes of the Truman era) attaches to the administration of each.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Presidents want to run an administration untainted by scandal, can they do it? Considering the scale of operations of the United States government, the general absence of corruption in the conduct of its business is an admirable achievement. One doubts that if some illegal and greedy scheme were discovered somewhere in the vast labyrinth of the executive bureaucracies, the President would be held strictly to account. One doubts it unless one of three conditions obtains: the President. once apprised of the scandal, failed to act promptly to set things right, or, second, trusted friends and close associates of the President were involved, or, worse yet, the President himself were involved.
Only Richard Nixon, it will be observed, with his well-known penchant for presidential firsts, hits the jackpot on this list of no-no’s. Neither Harding nor Grant escaped blame for the criminal acts of others close to them, but both are commonly held to have been themselves free of wrongdoing.
A final arena in which Presidents achieve greatness is in the legislative record. Normally, what is required is a flurry of action, like FDR’s hundred days, or Woodrow Wilson’s first term. A kindly fate can sweep a new President into office along with a heavy congressional majority of his own party. With a little more luck there can be a feeling abroad in the land that something must be done. Whereupon, for a little while at least, the President and Congress together do something. Great strides in the enactment of public policy are commonly made in this fashion. And it is now settled custom that the President gets the long-run credit.
Thus many of the factors that go into presidential greatness appear to boil down to being in the right place at the right time. Much of the rest consists of having others put the right construction on ambiguous acts. Understandably, quite a lot of White House effort consequently goes into cultivating favorable notice for the incumbent. And here, at this point, a worm begins to emerge from the apple. The scenery, cosmetics, and sound effects that go into good public relations, unless strongly resisted, can begin to overwhelm more substantive concerns. The aspiration to presidential greatness, which under ideal circumstances can provide an incentive for good presidential behavior, under less than ideal circumstances leads to a great variety of difficulties. For fear of being found out and downgraded, there is the temptation to deny failure, to refuse to readjust course when a program or a proposal doesn’t work out. There is the temptation to hoard credit rather than share it with the agencies that actually do the work and produce the results. There is the temptation to export responsibility away from the White House for the honest shortfalls of programs, thus transmitting to the government at large an expectation that loyalty upward will be rewarded with disloyalty down. There is the temptation to offer false hopes and to proclaim spurious accomplishments to the public at large.
As Henry Fairlie and others point out, a Presidency that inflates expectations can rarely deliver. Worse yet, such a Presidency gives up a precious opportunity to perform essential tasks of civic education, to help ordinary people see both the limitations and the possibilities of democratic government. George Reedy and others have observed that a Presidency made of overblown rhetoric and excessive pretension can lose touch with the realities of politics, can waste its resources on trivialities, can fail, consequently, to grasp opportunities to govern well.
This, such as it is, is the case against the pursuit of presidential greatness. It is a case based upon a hope that there can be something approximating a restoration of democratic manners in the Presidency. There are, however, good reasons to suppose that such a restoration will be hard to accomplish.
Part of the problem is structural. The complex demands of modern governmental decision-making require that Presidents receive plenty of help. They need advice, information, criticism, feedback. They also need people to take care of the endless round of chores that fall to a President’s lot: press secretaries, congressional liaison, managers of paper work and the traffic of visitors. Presidents also need to be able to trust the help they are getting, to be able to feel that what is being said and done in their behalf does genuinely place presidential interests first. From these requirements comes the need for an entourage of people whose careers in the limelight are solely the product of presidential favor. And from this entourage invariably comes what I suppose could be called the First Circle of presidential Moonies.
These are the people who “sleep a little better at night,” as Jack Valenti so memorably said, because the charisma of their chief powers the machinery of government. During the day, we can be sure, they wear sunglasses to keep from being dazzled by “that special grace” (as members of John Kennedy’s entourage frequently put it).
Anybody who doubts Kennedy’s impact to this day on his successors should look again at the “great” debates of 1960 and 1976. For his encounter with Richard Nixon, Kennedy was stuffed like a Christmas goose with small discrete facts. In the course of the debates, out they came, two and three at a time. By all accounts, Kennedy “won” the 1960 encounter, albeit by nearly as small a margin as he won the election itself.
This evidently established a standard presidential-candidate debating style which the candidates of 1976 dutifully aped: neither risked the variety of facial expressions that did Nixon in, both spouted facts—not all of them true or relevant—rather than risk explaining their points of view.
It is probably foolish to expect some sort of civic enlightenment to come from debates. They are, rather, as near as our society gets to a trial by ordeal. The debater’s central task is neither to inform nor to enlighten, but rather to survive, to avoid saying something that newspaper and television commentators will fix upon as an error or that will require an endless round of “clarifications” and become the “issue” of the following week or two. No wonder both Ford and Carter stood like tethered goats for the twenty-seven-minutes’ silence that interrupted their first debate. To have been there at all no doubt temporarily exhausted their capacity to take risks.
The needs of White House staff to bask in reflected glory, plus risk-aversion in the face of the work habits of the mass media, are a potent combination tending to sustain a President’s interest in President-worship. Moreover, the mystique of the Presidency can be useful politically, vesting the visit in the rose garden, the invitation to breakfast, even a beseeching telephone call to Capitol Hill, with an added value that can spell the difference between political victory and defeat. And of course a President may simply grow fond of being coddled.
Added to these are the powerful factors in the world and in the American political system that have brought the President to the forefront: the increased importance of foreign affairs in the life of the nation, an area in which the President has no serious constitutional rival; the creation and proliferation of federal bureaucracies, all of them subject to presidential influence and supervision; the growth of the mass media with their focus upon the personalities at the center of our national politics, and the decline of political parties as a countervailing force. No wonder the entire political system seems President-preoccupied.
Against this formidable array of forces a plea for modesty of presidential aims, for prudence and moderation in the choice of instruments, for a scaling-down of promises and claims of achievement, seems unlikely to attract widespread agreement, least of all from Presidents and their entourages bent on making their mark on History.