CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | With Election Day upon us, what makes a great president?
In a non-sports column, WDRB's Eric Crawford reflects on the election, and on the great presidents of the past, and what made them great.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WDRB) — United States presidential elections, when you think about them, are usually a crap shoot.
It’s just that this cycle, we’ve endured more crap than most.
There are very few slam-dunks when it comes to the presidency. George Washington was elected unanimously by the Electoral College. Twice. It was an easy call. Then he had the good sense not to run for a third term.
When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off to determine who would succeed Washington, in 1796, it was the first contested presidential election in U.S. history.
And the American people were horrified.
They had to have wondered what in the world they’d gotten themselves into. There was no CNN, nor FOX News, and the candidates didn’t campaign themselves. But their surrogates, as we’d call them today, more than made up for it.
The first attack ad in U.S. presidential history is believed to have been an editorial written for The Gazette of the United States out of Philadelphia, charging that Jefferson was a racist, a hypocrite, overrated as a moral philosopher and for his reputation as a naturalist, all building to the implication that he was having an affair with one of his slaves. That essay, written by an author who dubbed himself Phicion (but who actually was Alexander Hamilton) was followed by others as the war of words escalated.
The spin from the Jefferson camp was that Adams was too loyal to the British, that he wanted to be a king, that he was a coward for not serving in the armed forces, that he was overweight, that he lacked the even temperament needed for the job and that he had small hands.
All right, they didn’t write that last one. But you get the spirit of things. Adams’ people countered with a birther argument, that Jefferson was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” They branded him an atheist and questioned his moral character. His followers were labeled as “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.”
A veritable basket of deplorables, you might say.
Adams won the election, but Jefferson came loaded for bear four years later, accusing Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” He won the election of 1800, thus limiting one of our greatest Founding Fathers to a single term.
The point is, from the outset, each side saw the victory of the other as perhaps the end of our American experiment. And in this first contested election, the country actually wound up experiencing both candidates in the top office. And here we are. We survived. We should still survive — if we the people are able to keep our eyes on our freedoms and take care to safeguard the institutions that ensure them.
Then again, our choice today is hardly Adams vs. Jefferson. To say the least.
Still, Winston Churchill, as often quoted by American historian David McCullough, liked to say of the British people, “We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”
I’d like to think the same is true of us on the other side of the Atlantic. I try to keep these things in mind when modern elections reach their nastiest nadirs. Even this one.
Washington foresaw all of this. He might not’ve seen Donald Trump coming, and certainly couldn’t have envisioned Hillary Clinton, but he saw the direction things could go if the nation wasn’t careful. Three months before the first real presidential election in U.S. history, he warned of the danger of too much partisanship, of parties, and even special interests. His words:
“They are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterward the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
George Washington was a great president. We haven’t had too many. My theory is that we get one every half-century, two if we’re lucky, along with a handful of very good ones (also if we’re lucky).
In the 1700s we had Washington. In the 1800s we had Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In the 1900s we had Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
That’s really about it for the great ones — if you ask me. If you go by the ratings of historians or other experts who concern themselves with such things, Woodrow Wilson, James Polk and Andrew Jackson rise closest to that level. The only president to even get mention in that rank since 1968 is Ronald Reagan.
If you want an outsider’s view, the Times of London in 2008 ranked U.S. Presidents. They scored it 1). Lincoln; 2). Washington; 3). FDR; ; 4). Jefferson; 5). Teddy Roosevelt; 6). Eisenhower; 7). Truman; 8). Reagan; 9). James Polk; 10). Woodrow Wilson.
A Wikipedia aggregate of 18 different rankings since 1962, from academia to the media, rates them: 1). Lincoln; 2). FDR; 3). Washington; 4). Jefferson; 5). Teddy Roosevelt; 6). Truman; 7). Woodrow Wilson; 8). Andrew Jackson; 9). Eisenhower; 10. Polk.
The rankings aren’t important. (How presumptuous, when you think of it, to undertake a ranking of those who have attained the highest office in the world.) What is important, I guess, on the eve of an election, especially one that has made so many of us uneasy for one of any number of reasons, is to consider what signs we might have seen in them to identify that greatness beforehand.
It was evident in Washington. People couldn’t always put their finger on what it was, but they knew when he walked into the room. He blundered so often as a general that he’d have been hammered by today’s media. But he was dogged. And he was politically shrewd. He was, most of all, magnanimous and thoughtful. He had a charm and bearing that struck all who met him. Despite his wealth, he had a concern for every level of society. For 24 years, he was at the center of American events, and his character in that time did not waver. He was an optimist. He was a patriot. His vision for the nation was grounded in the values of its founding. He insisted on being Mr. President, not His Excellency. The historian Steven Ambrose reminds us, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, he was the only one to free them, though not until his death. Washington was meticulous about details. He looked the part. He lived the part. Those two things, for a president, are very important.
Jefferson was brilliant. He also was flawed. His friends and foes of the day knew both. Adams’ surrogates warned that if Jefferson were elected the nation would descend into civil war and that a “national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery,” would ensue. He served two terms. We survived. Jefferson worked to reduce the size of government and the national debt, largely kept the U.S. out of foreign military entanglements. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S., and established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers. But it may be for his words that Jefferson is most remembered, and a president’s ability to express the national ideals, and in some way to frame them, is a great indicator of greatness, if other circumstances allow.
Nobody would’ve pegged Lincoln to be a great president. No president in our history may have faced more withering criticism from Day One. An editorial in the Salem Register, from his home state of Illinois, no less, pilloried him: “He is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion. People now marvel how it came to pass that Mr. Lincoln should have been selected as the representative man of any party. His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. . . . The truth is, Lincoln is only a moderate lawyer and in the larger cities of the Union could pass for no more than a facetious pettifogger. Take him from his vocation and he loses even these small characteristics and indulges in simple twaddle which would disgrace a well bred school boy.”
If only they’d written how they really felt. When security concerns forced him to sneak into Washington under cover of darkness as he arrived to take office, the press was unmerciful. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote that Lincoln should receive, "the deepest disgrace that the crushing indignation of a whole people can inflict." The New York Tribune added, "Mr. Lincoln may live a hundred years without having so good a chance to die.”
Of course, we know how the story ends. Lincoln saved the union. The humor they ridiculed as he went into office became a foundation of his ability to cope with the extreme stresses of civil war. His political strategies are still studied today. None started lower. None finished higher.1
The media doesn’t always know what it is talking about. The prevailing sentiment about any candidate is just as likely to be the opposite of the truth as it is the truth itself.
Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly child, born with asthma, who built himself up through exercise and rough, outdoor living. He was brilliant, probably the most accomplished writer ever elected president, having practiced as a journalist and authored more than 30 books by the time he reached the White House. His energy was boundless. He was charismatic and popular, already a celebrity by the time he succeeded William McKinley after McKinley was assassinated just six months into his second term. Some rivals of Roosevelt had worked to get him selected for the Vice Presidency, figuring once he was there they’d be rid of him. It didn’t quite work out that way. When he became president upon McKinley’s death, one of his rivals, Mark Hanna, said, “That damned cowboy is president."
Few presidents were more beloved. He could take unpopular stands, but still remain popular. He became a reformer. He brought large corporations under more strict regulation. He did the same with the railroads. He established the Department of Commerce and Labor. He reformed laws related to pure food and drugs. He established five new national parks, founded the U.S. Forest Service, and signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, allowing presidents to set aside lands for national monuments, creating 18 of them himself. He negotiated treaties and paved the way for American construction of the Panama Canal. He invited Japan and Russia for a conference in Portsmouth, N.H., and helped them hammer out an agreement to end their war, becoming the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
I could go on at some length, not just on Roosevelt, but all of these.
FDR? He wasn’t popular at school. Nobody pegged him for a president, either. He had personal failings. Then polio took his legs. You’d be hard-pressed to find a much more unlikely figure to become the century’s greatest president. But his ability to rally the American people, out of the midst of depression, then out of the midst of desperation after Pearl Harbor, helped cement the fortunes of the Greatest Generation. He created Social Security. All of those New Deal initiatives. National minimum wage. Establishment of the United Nations. Establishment of the FDIC.
When Roosevelt died, Kathleen McLaughlin, then a reporter for The New York Times, exclaimed, “My God. Harry Truman is president.” It’s probably what everyone thought. He’d been vice president for just 82 days. His resume was hardly distinguished. Yet he saw World War II to a close, executed the Marshall Plan to save Europe from extreme famine, supported and recognized the sovereignty of Israel and oversaw the Berlin Airlift and the creation of NATO. He also won re-election despite not having the full support of his own party, and despite the polls and everyone else assuming he was finished. Truman took his case straight to the American people, embarking on a 30,000-mile Whistle Stop train tour, sometimes speaking in eight towns a day. Truman led the U.S. through its post-war challenges, integrated the military and Federal agencies (both on the basis of race and gender), signed the Presidential Succession Act (limiting presidents to two terms), the Atomic Energy Act, the National School Lunch program and the Housing Act of 1949, which expanded low-income housing and created Federal mortgage insurance.
At Potsdam, Churchill told Truman: “I misjudged you badly. Since (FDR’s death), you, more than any other man, have saved Western Civilization.”
Eisenhower had never held political office when he ran for the presidency. But he was a savvy and polished politician, having balanced the egos of Churchill, FDR and Stalin while Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. He wasn’t perfect. He had an affair in Europe during the war, though that wasn’t widely known at the time. Strategically, he made decisions that cost the lives of Allied soldiers. But mistakes, even fatal mistakes, don’t disqualify people from the presidency. He also was the most sensible man in the room on most occasions. At Potsdam, he alone opposed dropping any atomic device on Japan. Later, as president, he resisted military calls to use atomic weapons in various situations. If he were running for president today, he might well be grilled for losing American lives, or because his relationships with the Russians were far warmer than those between our two nations. For many years, he was underrated as a president. But time has added perspective. He established the U.S. interstate system that bears his name. He instituted numerous science education initiatives, including the National Defense Education Act. He integrated the public schools and public accommodations in Washington, D.C., and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. When Arkansas’ governor refused a court order to desegregate Little Rock schools, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to escort the children to class. He admitted Alaska and Hawaii to the union as states.
Despite being best-known as an actor, Reagan had been a fixture in politics for some time when he faced Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan added 16 million new jobs during his eight years as president and oversaw the end of the old Soviet Union and the Cold War itself. But Reagan, more than anything, understood the presidency as symbol. He looked the part. In the age of television, that meant something. He restored confidence in the office that had been eroding since Watergate by giving Americans a John Wayne personality. He inspired confidence. Reagan played the president better than anyone in the office in his half of the 20th century. He knew how to deliver a line. When he said it was Morning in America, well, many Americans believed it. I don’t, probably, rank him in a class with those others, but for those who do, that’s why. His ability to communicate confidence to the American people hasn’t been duplicated since, and seems to be aging well.
So what do we make of all these? I draw a few distinctions.
1). THE GREAT ONES COMMUNICATE. They have a marked facility with words. If they aren’t eloquent, they are at least clear. Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, all were superior writers. FDR was unmatched in his ability to draw close to the American people, to speak to them in a Fireside Chat, and to inspire confidence. Reagan had a similar ability with the spoken word. Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling, but he worked at his writing. He was deliberate. He loved poetry. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” was one of his favorites, and his economy with words, and ear for a memorable phrase, elevated us as a nation, as in his first Inaugural address, when he spoke of, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over his broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
2). THE GREAT ONES HAVE AN APPRECIATION FOR THE OFFICE. They sense their place in history, and they are students of history. Roosevelt and Eisenhower had done extensive writing on history before taking the office. Jefferson was as well-read as any person to occupy the position. Lincoln had a sense of where his position was in the larger scheme. Eisenhower had been in a position of world leadership for so long that the Presidency was comfortable.
3). WE CAN’T ALWAYS PREDICT WHO WILL TURN OUT TO BE GREAT. There aren’t many George Washingtons or Dwight Eisenhowers, candidates who truly can be considered a slam dunk. More often, greatness took the country, or at least its media, by surprise, as in the case of Lincoln or Truman. Often, in fact, greatness isn’t recognized even in its own time. The view of Truman while he was in office was not so flattering. It has only been in the years since that his reputation has grown. It’s been a similar story for Eisenhower, whose approval rating never dropped below 60 percent in eight years in office, but who cultivated a “simple soldier” image so well that it stuck. Nor do we always know what kind of president a person will be. The Roosevelts grew up wealthy, but both championed the common man.
Let me wrap this up, or you’ll be reading until Election Day. We’ve heard a lot this cycle about whether this candidate or that candidate is “fit for the office.”
Perhaps this will not come as news to you — neither is. No one, truly, is. If you win the presidency, and don’t realize fairly quickly that you’re in over your head, then you haven’t begun to think about the responsibility you face and the challenges awaiting.
Washington himself didn’t believe himself fit, telling the Continental Congress after being made Commander-in-Chief of the Army in 1775: “Lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
And if he did not think himself equal to it, know right now, no one is equal.
Our best hope is that whoever wins this election will rise to the many challenges. Some of the best people elected president haven’t been, strictly speaking, our best presidents. Jimmy Carter. Herbert Hoover. George H.W. Bush. Calvin Coolidge. Even John Adams. And some who, if Wikileaks could draw back the curtain on their lives completely, we wouldn’t consider so admirable, have been some of our most effective or best-liked. John F. Kennedy. FDR. Lyndon Johnson and a long line of others.
This country has thrived despite the personal failings of its leaders. They don’t have to be perfect, goodness knows.
Despite all their acrimony, Adams and Jefferson, a couple of years after Jefferson stopped Adams from winning a second term, began to correspond with each other, and they were close friends for the rest of their lives. A dramatic representation of their letters to each other may be seen in this short video.
This is the best of America -- to debate, fight and strive, but always to return to a place of peaceful existence and evolving discussion. George W. Bush, a few days before leaving office, called a handful of prominent pundits into his office for a strange, off-the-record purpose. He wanted to ask them to go easy on the new guy, and remind them, the job is difficult. For a while during this campaign, the nation became enamored of a letter George H.W. Bush left for Bill Clinton.
Barack Obama consulted Reagan’s advisers to learn how he focused on the bigger picture without being drawn into daily crises. Most Americans would be surprised how tight a fraternity the group of living former Presidents has. (I have purposely left Obama out of much of this discussion. It's hardly fair to undertake a historical assessment of a president before history has even had a chance to judge, for good or ill.)
This election has been divisive. The rhetoric I see on social media is severe. Each side is openly judging the other for its support of a different candidate. Long friendships are being severed or damaged. We cannot long survive if we cannot remain friends despite our political differences. The climate that is crippling Washington should not more permanently divide us as individuals.
On Tuesday, we will vote. On Wednesday morning, we will digest the results, drink our coffee, eat our breakfast, and start life again. Hopefully, we can emulate those who have held the office, and treat each other with grace, in the hopes that whoever winds up in the job will outperform our expectations. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.
NOTES: I consulted various books in putting this together, the most important: Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton," David McCullough's "John Adams," Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit," Doris Kearns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time," Nancy Gibbs' and Michael Duffy's "The President's Club," and Jean Edward Smith's "Eisenhower in War and Peace, Steven Ambrose's "To America," and William Manchester's, "The Glory and the Dream."
1 This passage from "The President's Club" by Gibbs and Duffy is instructive on Lincoln's impact on presidents even in the present day:
Maybe it's not surprising that they all find themselves drawn to Lincoln, the one who started lowest, rose highest, faced the great test, and triumphed. Abraham Lincoln was the archetype of presidential greatness. Eisenhower identified so strongly that he bought a farm in Gettysburg, painted an portrait of Lincoln and gave prints of it to the White House staff for Christmas. As Kennedy flew home from his grueling summit with Khruschchev in June of 1961, his secretary found a slip of paper that fell to the floor, in his handwriting: it was a quote from Lincoln. "I know there is a God -- and I see a storm coming. If He has a place for me, I believe I am ready." It was as though Lincoln had given him a pep talk, across a century. Among Nixon's most prized possessions was the framed picture of Lincoln his grandmother gave him on his thirteenth birthday. On the strangest, most revealing night of his presidency -- May 9, 1970, in the wake of the Kent State shooting -- Nixon and his valet, Manolo Sanchez, left the White House at 4:15 a.m. and to the horror of the Secret Service, drove down to the Lincoln Memorial and talked to some student protesters camped out there. He copied the monument's inscription in his diary: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.
Clinton read David Herbert Donald's epic Lincoln biography: "I don't know if he could get elected today with his mental health history," Clinton said of Lincoln. "But what I learned was that when Lincoln became president and the country was coming apart at the seams and he was trying so hard to hold it together, he almost became so absorbed in the work and the mission and the suffering of others that it lifted the burden off him." George W. Bush admired his vision so much, he read seventeen different biographies of him while in office. "I've got his painting right there," he said one day in the Oval Office. "I have sat here and thought about what it would be like to be President when brother was fighting brother and cousin killing cousin. He clearly saw what needed to happen to keep this country united." Barack Obama, the first African American president, looked to the Great Emancipator to console himself about his own instincts; even the acts for which Lincoln was most exalted were themselves compromises.