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Book Review

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The End of Greatness: and Why it Doesn't Matter Any More

April 30th 2015

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The End of Greatness Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Aaron David Miller. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 288 pp. $28

Grading Presidents

"Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not..."

"I doubt many readers will agree with all of his arguments – I don't..."

"You may disagree with him at times, as I did..."

That's three out of the four book jacket blurbs on Aaron David Miller's new book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. And it is the first clue that this book is an invitation (challenge) for you to go where Miller goes and envision American history as he envisions it — or not. In a political era that demands followers — left or right — it is refreshing to read a book that doesn't worry about what you think, but provides a clear and compelling picture of what the author thinks.

Best known as a Middle East policy adviser to both Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State, Miller takes on American political history, ranking Presidents as Indispensable, Near Great, Politically Astute, and the Rest of The Guys. Along the way, he wonders if the U.S. is ungovernable.

There are only three Indispensables: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Non-controversial. Most Americans would, and in fact do, say the same when asked. But why? According to Miller, these presidents fundamentally changed the country through a confluence of crisis, character, and capacity to shape events. "We assume inevitability for 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." "Nation-encumbering crises," the sort that make the country markedly different by their end, are ones that Miller finds can call forth the character and capacity of Great Presidents.

The aftermath of the American Revolution and laying the political groundwork for the Federal Government; the Civil War and movement toward the idealistic goals of the Revolution; and the Great Depression and World War II changed the country in fundamental ways. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights marches, and 9-11 did not. The Kennedy assassination did, or did not, depending.

The Near Greats

Along with the "Indispensables," is a category of "Near Greats," harder to define but you probably know when you see them: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe Woodrow Wilson and Harry S. Truman. These five "shaped the nation and presidency in dramatic and consequential ways" without hitting the top category:

"Their times were challenging, but not nearly as dire or consequential for the country ... their legacies were impressive, though not nearly as transformative or groundbreaking... and their failures and mistakes were much more significant and noteworthy."

Still: "The fact that most led without the nation-encumbering calamities or crises faced by Washington, Lincoln, or FDR makes the accomplishments of this 'close but no cigar' crowd, in many ways all the more remarkable because, denied the urgency and pressure for consequential policy changes, these presidents had to do more to create their own constituencies."

Miller picks the "best five-president sequence in history" as FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, with a nod toward Richard Nixon's "great moment or two." Since FDR, however, Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson took himself out of the running because of Vietnam, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, Ford and Carter were short term, almost "interim" presidents. Of the four who served two terms (Obama excluded for the moment; he pops up later), Reagan and Clinton were classed as brilliant politicians with self-inflicted scandals (Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky). Bush 41 is "competent with some notable foreign policy successes" and Bush 43 with "domestic and foreign policy achievements [that] will likely...suffer some of history's harshest and unkindest cuts." (To be clear, it is not Miller making that judgment — this is mostly a non-partisan book until the end.) That leaves Eisenhower as a "very popular and much underestimated president."

Is this a parlor game? If so, it's pretty good. If not, what are we supposed to learn? Mostly that there are exceptions to every rule, including rules about great and not-so-great presidents.

Miller appears truly ambivalent about Lyndon Johnson. The Kennedy assassination created a crisis that allowed bipartisan passage of major Civil Rights legislation in Johnson's first term, but he doesn't consider it:

a) a "nation-encumbering crisis"; and

b) some of the follow-on Great Society legislation "actually increased rather than reduced economic hardship."

And, of course, there was Vietnam.

Johnson gets "a trace of greatness," as does Ronald Reagan — who missed greatness through the illegality of Iran-Contra. But many of FDR's Great Society programs proved unworkable, and Lincoln took extra-Constitutional steps to win the Civil War. Why do the latter get a pass and the former not? Miller also credits Gorbachev with "winning" the Cold War through bad late-Soviet economics, but the foreign policy implications of Reagan's defense buildup and introduction of the idea of missile defenses should not be shortchanged.

Miller asks whether the United States has become "ungovernable" through partisan politics, but reminds us that the country was always remarkably partisan. In fact, one of the attributes of "greatness" in a president is the ability to bring partisan factions to view a crisis from a unified perspective. In the chapter "Boxers or Briefs" he asks whether social media makes it impossible for a man or woman who aspires to the presidency to be too ordinary — too much like the rest of us — for greatness. One gets the idea that Clinton should have declined to answer.

Disagreements

This reviewer joins the book jacket blurb group on page 177. Miller postulates: "That we cannot have another giant seems self-evident. That we seldom need one, now that the country has moved beyond the kind of profoundly nation-threatening and encumbering crises that confronted it in the past, seems clear too."

No, it doesn't. Earlier politicians understood that the disconnect between the founding documents of our country and the continuation of slavery was setting the country up for either dissolution or war. The Civil War, when it came, was not a surprise. On the other hand, if World War II had not rescued the failed economic policies of FDR, would he have been an "Indispensable"? Who was betting on Hitler in 1935? Who bet on Pearl Harbor in 1941?

Who says we're out of crises?

Furthermore, he stipulates: "Occupy Wall Street — the closest thing to a sustained protest movement in America since the 1960s — was always too diffuse, unorganized, and unrepresentative to reflect the need or capacity to drive change on the national level. And the Tea Party, the putative Republican insurgency on the right, is too partisan and polarizing to appeal to Americans outside of a narrow range."

More evidently, OWS was a short-lived phenomenon while the Tea Party's bottom line — smaller government and fewer taxes — appears to have remained intact. Miller himself refers to polling that "continues to reveal strong opposition to the way the nation is governed and great frustration with Congress and with a federal government that's perceived to be doing too much." That sounds like a good wrap-up of the Republican tidal wave of the 2014 mid-term election. And fairness requires noting that the conservative social bent of the Tea Party came after its anti-tax-and-spend, anti-big-government origins when the movement attracted people with multiple agendas. Most of the social agenda was gone in the 2014 midterms, but the basic Tea Party agenda objectives ruled the day, even for many Democrats.

President Obama

In the penultimate chapter, Miller addresses President Obama as "The Disappointer in Chief," a man who set the highest possible expectations and couldn't deliver on them. The media helped raise the bar (15 times on the cover of Time in 2008 alone), as did a Nobel Peace Prize delivered before he had comfortably settled in the Oval Office. But if Obama over-sold and under-delivered, Miller generally blames Republican "obstructionism" for the failure of the President to do more.

This is contradicted by Miller's own use of Gallup data showing "strong opposition to all of the president's signature initiatives." In that case, were Republicans being "obstructionist" or looking out for what their constituents were telling them?

In the end, he settles for saying the President didn't "read the terrain accurately" and "failed to assess whether his administration had the political muscle to negotiate it, and missing what the public expected and wanted from a president." A classic no-win-but-little-blame, and saying the President is "not a partisan" is just over the top.

Conclusion

Times have changed, media has changed, Americans have changed, what Americans want and expect have changed, crises have changed — they are still there and deadly, but not for the moment and no president can dominate the diffusion of these factors. Fair enough. So go for "greatness with a small g," in the words of CNN's John King. "OK, how?"

Here Miller shines, putting the emphasis on what we, as Americans, can do to sort out our own thinking about what sort of president we want and need. His suggestions? Nope. Buy the book.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Magazine, from where this article is adapted.


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