Judging Presidential Greatness

In the December 18 issue of The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney has a piece adapted from comments he made at a November 10 symposium on “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election.” This portion was particularly striking:

We have accustomed ourselves to such a diminished public life that we are scared that we are asking too much of Obama, making too much of him. We need to be reassured and so President Obama must keep talking. It is thrilling to think that his calm voice and graceful manner were not just for the campaign, that as president he will go on talking to us like this. Overnight, public discourse has been elevated. How small and passé Obama makes Sarkozy and Berlusconi seem, for instance. We are enthralled by his voice and his intelligence, his literary gifts, his awareness of history, and a mystery about him that he is not likely to explore with us.

Having never mocked diversity, nor supported a war with reality, nor been a tough guy, I may someday qualify for membership in the reconfigured American mainstream — but maybe not, since I am impressed but not enthralled by Obama’s voice, intelligence, literary gifts and awareness of history, and a bit concerned about the mystery-he-is-not-likely-to-explore-with-us.

In any event, those qualities are not the ones that determine presidential greatness. More important are character, conviction and the courage to make unpopular decisions that may be judged right only in retrospect. Think Truman and Reagan. And think about this exchange between George W. Bush and Charles Gibson in their December 1 interview:

BUSH: I’ll be frank with you. I don’t spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history. I guess I don’t worry about long-term history, either, since I’m not going to be around to read it — (laughter) — but, look, in this job you just do what you can. The thing that’s important for me is to get home and look in that mirror and say, I did not compromise my principles. And I didn’t. I made tough calls. And some presidencies have got a lot of tough decisions to make –

GIBSON: Was there a time when you thought, if I do this I will be compromising my principles –

BUSH: Yes.

GIBSON: — some decision where you really thought that that was at issue?

BUSH: Yes.


BUSH: The pullout of Iraq. It would have compromised the principle that when you put kids into harm’s way, you go in to win. And it was a tough call, particularly, since a lot of people were advising for me to get out of Iraq, or pull back in Iraq, or — and rather than listen to — I mean, I listened to a lot of voices, but ultimately, I listened to this voice: I’m not going to let your son die in vain; I believe we can win; I’m going to do what it takes to win in Iraq.

It is a little early, more than a month before Obama is even inaugurated, to be drawing conclusions about his presidency or his place in history. It is too early even for the Bush presidency, and Bill Clinton is evidence that intelligence and a voice are not by themselves sufficient. I do think Obama has made some sensible selections for his cabinet, and thus is off to a good start, but I wonder if Darryl Pinckney agrees.