What were the major traits that these presidents shared? They all understood the nature of their time, what was really going on in the country, what the country needed, what the voters collectively were hungry for. There are a lot of presidents who don’t understand their time; they think they do, but they don’t. You have to have a vision. All of these leaders of destiny were elected at a time when the country needed tremendous leadership, and these presidents are the ones who stepped up and gave it. Then, they have political adroitness, the ability to get their hands on the levers of power in America and manipulate those levers in a way that gets the country moving affectively in the direction of that vision.
In your opinion, FDR and Ronald Reagan are the two greatest presidents of the 20th century.
The voters hailed them both at the time. What is interesting, in my view, is that Roosevelt was probably the most liberal president of the 20th century, and Reagan was probably the most conservative president of the 20th century. It indicates that the country is not particularly ideological. It is looking for the right solutions to the problems of the moment. The country is willing to turn left or to turn right.
What is the difference between good and great?
We have had a lot of good presidents. I’ll give you a good example of a good president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was elected because the country wasn’t quite satisfied with George H.W. Bush. They didn’t think he was a terrible president, but he didn’t quite lead the country in a way that made him eligible for rehire. The country gets Bill Clinton, and he tries to govern in his first two years as if his aim is to repeal Reaganism. The result was that the American people basically slapped him down very, very decisively in the midterm elections of 1994, at which point Bill Clinton did an about-face and said, “The era of big government is over.” He crafted a center left mode of governing that was very effective. He had significant economic growth. He wiped out the deficit. We didn’t have major problems overseas. There was no agitation in the streets that led to violence or anything of that nature. He gets credit for being a good president.
Once he righted his mode of government and moved the country solidly forward, he was beginning to build up some significant political capital, and he never really felt the need or desire to invest that capital into anything very bold. So, he governed effectively as a status quo president and ended eight years as a very good steward of American polity, but not a great president. To be a great president, you have to take risks and make changes.
Just as we can learn from the successes, there are lessons to be learned from the failures. What can you say about character traits that do not bode well for a successful presidency?
Scandal harms you tremendously. But I would say that the real failures are people like James Buchanan who faced a huge crisis—the debate over slavery that was descending upon America—and just simply didn’t want to deal with. He wasn’t willing to put himself out in any kind of politically risky way in order to address it. The result was it just got worse. It festered and got worse.
Occasionally, a president will make a comeback in historians’ minds. What would you say is the most reputation-altering presidential biography?
Grover Cleveland is the only president we have who actually is a two-time, one-term president. He is the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms. Each time he served four years, the voters said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to turn away to either another person in the party or another candidate.”
Meanwhile, however, the first poll by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 had Grover Cleveland at Number 8. That ranking came a few years after the great historian Allan Evans wrote a two volume biography of Grover Cleveland, in which he hailed him as a man of destiny and a man of character. I am sure that biography had a significant impact.
So, you describe a manner of assessing the greatest of past presidents. But, it is an election year. How do you suggest we evaluate current presidential candidates?
I don’t think the American people need a lot of instruction from me or anyone else in terms of how to make an assessment on the presidents when they come up for reelection. Presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent. The American people don’t pay a lot of attention to the challenger. They basically make their judgment collectively, based on the performance of the incumbent or the incumbent party. They pretty much screen out the trivia and the nonsense—a lot of the stuff that we in the political journalistic fraternity (and I’ve been a part of it for a long, long time) tend to take very seriously—and make their assessment based on sound judgments on how the president has fared, how well he has led the country and whether the country is in better shape than it was before. I am pretty confident that the American people know what they are doing.
Do you have any comment, then, on what qualities we might look for in a candidate, so that we maximize our chances of electing a leader of destiny?
One thing that we know from history is that the great presidents are never predicted as being great. They are elected in a political crucible. While supporters are convinced he is going to be great—or she; someday we will have a woman—his detractors and opponents will be absolutely convinced that he is going to be a total and utter disaster. Even after he is succeeding, they are going to say he is a disaster.
You can never really predict what a president is going to do or how effective he is going to be. Lincoln was considered a total country bumpkin from out there in rural Illinois. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously judged Franklin Roosevelt as having a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect. Ronald Reagan was viewed as a failed movie actor who just read his lines from 3-by-5 cards. And all three were great presidents.