On November 30, former president and war hero George H.W. Bush passed away after a long life in service of his country. He had in the words of Time Magazine “almost every tool a great president needs”.
He had fire, drive, ambition and an insatiable appetite for excellence. He was a de facto war hero. He had decades of experience in both the private and public sector. He was prudent and had what Aristotle would call “practical wisdom”. He saw the Berlin Wall torn down. His vision for a new world, a better world, united an entire world to drive Iraqi greed from Kuwait. His prudence and abhorrence for war kept him from continuing the chase of Saddam Hussein.
Yet, with his passing, the question that keeps arising is “Why was he not one of the greats?”. Does asking ourselves this not take away from his incredible achievements? What is with our misplaced obsession with greatness?
Being great is a part of the American myth of the American dream, one that most people will likely agree is unattainable. The very idea of greatness seems to be so woven into the American fabric and the lexicon that it seems that only Americans have the right to call things “great”. It is almost as if people believe that Thomas Jefferson and the founders, when declaring their grievances and rights to the British Empire, insisted that man had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of greatness.
We can only have one great person in each industry, each sport, each category. Gen Z lovingly use the acronym GOAT or the “greatest of all time”. Is Kanye or Eminem the GOAT? Lebron or Michael Jordan? Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus? The Cavs or the Bulls? Lincoln or FDR? Yes, the question of GOAT now applies beyond cultural phenomena and to our presidents. Believe it or not, Americans have been discussing who is the presidential GOAT since George Washington.
There are more perspectives on what it means to be a great president as there have been presidents. Historian Richard Reeves stated, “Presidential greatness is determined by being in the White House at the right time—or the wrong time. The presidency is a reactive job”. Similarly, Joseph Ellis, author of countless presidential biographies, wrote that the nation’s two greatest presidents, FDR and Lincoln, rose to power in times of great crisis. H.W. Brands more broadly argued that great presidents change the course of American history...Lincoln’s reversal of secession and emancipation of slavery, FDR’s founding of the welfare state and ending of fascism.
Famed historian Arthur Schlesinger pioneered the idea of surveying historians and political scientists to rank presidents in order of greatness. In 1948, Time Magazine asked historians to assign each president to one of five categories: great, near great, average, below average and failure. Lincoln was the unanimous victor.
Thirty years later, the New York Times published its own survey, followed by the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, C-Span, Fox News, and every other major publishing organization. The result has been a complete change in the conversation of presidential leadership.
Historians agree that the rising obsession with these polls over time has affected the way we view what makes a president great. We yearn for presidential heroes and not competent administrators. We need our presidents to stop daring to be great and as HW Brands says, “dare to be good...for the time we live in doesn’t call for greatness.” And the presidency is the hardest job in the world.
We expect many things from our president. We ask them to be shrewd negotiators and dealmakers, and even when their opposition refuses to meet with them, we expect them to somehow wine and dine them to bipartisan solutions. We expect our presidents to rush to the scene of a natural disaster or tragedy to comfort the afflicted. We expect that when the very fabric of our nation is torn in half, that the president, with needle and thread, will sew it back together. We expect the president to alter the very landscape of social and cultural change. We expect the president to improve the economy and lower taxes, to better education and lower unemployment. We expect him to carry a big stick but seldom wield it. We expect the president to descend the stairs of Air Force One with grace. We expect the president to have the perfect family, a mold of our American dream. We expect the president to represent the many varied and competing ideals and interests of over 300 million people. We expect too much.
We have become more obsessed with our presidents in recent years to the point that we notice the days they don’t show up. We are so obsessed that some historians contend that we may even undermine the very ideals of our constitution. The president is asked to lead a nation of 400 million citizens while managing a branch of government that employs over 3 million people. The role of president has grown exponentially in its duties. Long gone are the days of Lincoln and FDR with one or two immanent enemies posing threat to the nation. Terror groups cloaked behind technology present hundreds of veiled attacks a day.
And while the job has increased in responsibility, complexity, and sheer scope, there has not been a congruent increase in power. Presidential power hasn’t changed drastically in 60 years but every time a president has added something new to the job description, it has become an expectation for the incumbent. The president in his first 100 days has to worry about national security, the economic and social welfare of the nation, and how the country will perceive the way he decorates his office. He must deliver the nation from crisis like Lincoln, send bolts of lightning through its economy like FDR, and comfort a war-torn nation like Reagan.
The burden of the presidency is unimaginable—physically, mentally, and emotionally—and the social media microscope constantly scrutinizes the chief executive’s every move. Presidents must travel the world while running a country from the confines of a 747. He must console those who have borne the burden of national tragedy one day and the next pardon a turkey or entertain a championship team.
He is told he is the most powerful man in the world but his most valiant efforts to effect change are thwarted at every turn. George Bush’s chief of staff stated that there is an illusion of being in charge, but all presidents must accept they are not. Leon Panetta, who has served in almost every role imaginable in the White House, stated, “The modern presidency has gotten out of control. Presidents are caught in a crisis-by-crisis response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle on the job.” Even Donald Trump admitted the unexpected difficulty of the presidency stating, “I thought it would be easier.”
The presidency is flawed. The machine that is the executive branch is a contraption badly in need of repair. The flaws have led to a Trump Presidency and to a new and even more fiery debate over presidential greatness. And while we debate, modern presidents become increasingly frustrated by the demands as Americans become increasingly disappointed in their leaders. HW Brands describes the modern executive branch as one in dire condition: “overburdened, unrelenting, and unlike anything the Founding Fathers imagined 230 years ago.”
Americans need their presidents to succeed, but what if their very role limits their ability and sets them up for predestined failure?