Cover image for The end of greatness : why America can't have (and doesn't want) another great president
The end of greatness : why America can't have (and doesn't want) another great president
Miller, Aaron David.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Physical Description:
viii, 280 pages ; 25 cm
"There is one thing that has haunted all of America's modern presidents: Americans' expectations of greatness in the man and the office. While it was impossible for the Framers of the Constitution to predict the circumstances that would make America the greatest and most consequential power on Earth, the Founders never intended this spotlight on the presidency. Venerating our past great presidents has always been safe, compelling, and inspiring. But when it also tempts us with the possibilities of their return, it may not be so benign. The End of Greatness offers a new way to appreciate and evaluate the presidency, a mode of understanding that gives conventional achievement ratings their place but ultimately makes the counterintuitive argument that, in expecting greatness, we have made goodness simply impossible. This book looks at the concept of greatness in presidents--the ways in which it is essential to a nation and the ways in which it has been detrimental. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is an overrated virtue, one that eclipses--and perhaps even thwarts--the real contributions of our presidents"--
Greatness revealed. The indespensibles: greatness with a capital g ; The three c's of greatness in presidence ; Capacity: getting things done ; Close but no cigar -- Greatness gone. FDR's high bar ; Not your grandfather's crisis ; The president of America the ungovernable? ; Boxers or briefs: media and the personalized presidency ; Traces of greatness? -- What's so great about being great, anyway. Too ambivalent about greatness ; Too rare to be relevant and too dangerous to be desirable ; Distorts history and our politics too ; Disappointer in chief? -- Greatness with a small g.
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The Presidency has always been an implausible--some might even say an impossible--job. Part of the problem is that the challenges of the presidency and the expectations Americans have for their presidents have skyrocketed, while the president's capacity and power to deliver on what ails the nations has diminished. Indeed, as citizens we continue to aspire and hope for greatness in our only nationally elected office. The problem of course is that the demand for great presidents has always exceeded the supply. As a result, Americans are adrift in a kind of Presidential Bermuda Triangle suspended between the great presidents we want and the ones we can no longer have.

The End of Greatness explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and the nation's politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue. Indeed, greatness is too rare to be relevant in our current politics, and driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable.

Our preoccupation with greatness in the presidency consistently inflates our expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. And our focus on the individual misses the constraints of both the office and the times, distorting how Presidents actually lead. In wanting and expecting our leaders to be great, we have simply made it impossible for them to be good. The End of Greatness takes a journey through presidential history, helping us understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it's gone, and how we can better come to appreciate the presidents we have, rather than being consumed with the ones we want.

Author Notes

Aaron David Miller is vice president for New Initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For two decades, he served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State. His pieces on the presidency have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico , and Foreign Policy , and he appears regularly on CNN, CNN International, NPR, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, and PBS NewsHour , as well as BBC and Canadian Broadcasting.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

An American president must combine the roles of head of state (with many symbolic functions) as well as chief executive, necessitating the plunge into the sometimes unsavory world of political combat. Miller, who has served as an advisor to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, asserts that both the expectations and demands of the presidency today make greatness less and less likely. As Miller indicates, the public wants our presidents to be great, or at least to appear to make great things happen. Yet our contemporary political culture, which is a reflection of public attitudes, makes it difficult for presidents to even be good. Miller, accepting the consensus that Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were great presidents, identified great crises, personal character, and the ability to navigate political waters as the common elements in their success. Today, however, from the primary system to the election and beyond, potential and actual presidents are exposed to and diminished by the constant glare of the media, which no longer is inclined to protect a president. The partisan divide in the public and our political leaders sometimes guarantees political deadlock. Perhaps, as Miller asserts, we should ask that a president be effective, rather than great or transformative. This is a thoughtful and provocative work that will certainly engender considerable discussion.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2014 Booklist

Library Journal Review

"We can no longer have a truly great president," writes political commentator Miller, "we seldom need one, and-we may not want one, either." The United States has had just three great presidents, he argues-George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each possessed the "three Cs" that to Miller define presidential greatness: they encountered a severely threatening crisis, possessed the character necessary for greatness, and had the capacity to turn crisis into transformative change for the nation. Other presidents showed "traces of greatness," most recently, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, but none passes all of Miller's tests, and he predicts that no future president will, owing to polarized politics, unrealistic expectations, a fishbowl media environment, the complexity of today's problems, and the unlikelihood of another crisis as bleak as those faced by our three greats. VERDICT The best part of Miller's book is his final chapter on President Barack Obama, in which he discusses unrealistic expectations. He would have been better served expanding that analysis into a long essay. Much of the rest of the volume is repetitive and not especially novel.-Robert Nardini, Niagara Falls, NY (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Introduction: The End of Greatness?p. 1
Part I Greatness Revealed
1 The Indispensables: Greatness with a Capital Gp. 25
2 The Three Cs of Greatness in the Presidencyp. 35
3 Capacity: Getting Things Donep. 53
4 Close but No Cigarp. 81
Part II Greatness Gone
5 FDR's High Barp. 105
6 Not Your Grandfather's Crisisp. 111
7 The President of America the Ungovernable?p. 123
8 Boxers or Briefs: Media and the Personalized Presidencyp. 137
9 Traces of Greatness?p. 155
Part III What's So Great about Being Great, Anyway?
10 Too Ambivalent about Greatnessp. 179
11 Too Rare to Be Relevant and Too Dangerous to Be Desirablep. 191
12 Distorts History and Our Politics Toop. 207
13 Disappointer in Chief?p. 227
Conclusion: Greatness with a Small gp. 241
Notesp. 255
Indexp. 275