The Measure of a President's 'Greatness'

The Measure of a President's 'Greatness'

Landy co-authors book on five chief executives whose legacies stand out

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

One can only speculate just how well Al Gore or George W. Bush will perform as president, says Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), but either candidate will have to go a long way to claim the mantle of a "great" president.

Only five presidents truly deserve such a distinction, Landy says - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson , Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Furthermore, he adds, only one of them - FDR - held office during the past century.

So although the Clinton scandal may have Americans clamoring this election year to reaffirm the greatness of the presidency, Landy says the odds our next chief executive will fit the mold of any of these five are slim.

"The demand for greatness," said Landy, "far exceeds the supply."

In their recent book, Presidential Greatness , Landy and Sidney Milkis, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, discuss how these five men set the standards for presidential leadership and achievement. Although each have been the subject of numerous studies, Landy says, their links with one another as great presidents have seldom, if ever been explored.

"These men left genuine legacies, and their vision expanded the office of the presidency as they initiated the changes," Landy continued. "They were leaders who knew how to reconcile innovation with constitutional tradition. They could educate the public about their agendas and win their allegiance. They also built and led their parties during periods of significant political realignment."

Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science)

For example, Landy says, Washington - who, the authors say, "was president before there was a president" - deserves the "greatness" tag because he appreciated the dual character of republican executive leadership and acted on the basis of that appreciation. As head of the Constitutional Congress , Washington played an integral role in designing the office he would hold, and later put its authority to the test by quelling the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania through a combination of federal force and personal presence.

"Washington put forth the model of an energetic executive who preserved and promoted constitutional democracy," said Landy.

Jackson democratized the presidency, Landy and Milkis say, even as he reversed the erosion in presidential power and authority that had taken place since Jefferson's last term. If FDR's legacy is an ambivalent one, as the authors acknowledge , he rescued the presidency from the captivity of principles and institutions dedicated to limited, decentralized government, championing the president as "the nonpartisan, independent steward of the American people."

Lincoln, generally regarded as the greatest of the great, was paradoxically a revolutionary statesman who sought to preserve, not abolish, the heritage of American constitutional government, say Landy and Milkis. The Civil War generated the radical momentum that eventually redefined politics and government in the US, but Lincoln's words and leadership directed the course of events.

"But Lincoln's greatness was tied to the advent of the Republican Party," said Landy. "The party was a source of popular support and political unity for the president and the Union. He was a great leader because he was an extraordinary democratic and party leader."

While the release of Presidential Greatness during a presidential election year may be timely, Landy says the project began several years ago as the outgrowth of discussions with Milkis, who, like Landy, has taught numerous classes on the presidency.

"Our objective was not so much to define greatness as to show the common characteristics of great presidents," Landy said. "Similarly, these five were not really our choices, but rather reflect a longstanding consensus among scholars, and to a great extent the public."

Landy and Milkis also explain how modern presidents fall short of attaining "greatness." Those assessments, Landy acknowledges, are likely to cause controversy, since among those excluded are Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, all hailed at one time or another by scholars, pundits and the public.

At the same time, Landy says, recent revelations about Jefferson and Jackson might cause some readers to question their designation as great presidents.

"The test is not whether the president was a great, or even good man, but whether he was a great president," he said. "Our greatest presidents sought to change the nature of the regimes they inherited, and had the luck to assume office under conditions that allowed these renovations."

 

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