Our Greatest Presidents?
[First published as "Our Greatest Presidents?" in the Libertarian Review, 1977. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Steven Ng, is available for download.]
It was as if, for 25 years, time had stopped. As if the author serenely expected that we would suddenly unlearn everything the past decade had taught us about the uses of power at the highest levels of government. As if we had not, by 1977, reached the point where even a perennial sycophant of state power like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has ended by bemoaning "the Imperial Presidency."
There it was again — as dated as a double-breasted suit — an article on "Our Greatest Presidents," and written by none other than Henry Steele Commager himself!
A quick background briefing for those too young to remember. In the 1940s and early '50s, a school of establishment historians existed who made it their business to act as a sort of intellectual Secret Service for the American presidency. Close upon every great public rape of the Constitution by a president — for instance, when Harry Truman seized the steel mills, or when he began to wage war on North Korea and China without a declaration of war by Congress — these historians would rush into print with learned accounts of the 129 times the Constitution had been similarly raped in the past, under dire necessity and with no ill effects to the body politic — quite the contrary, actually: she never felt better in her life.
The most outstanding among this school were Allan Nevins of Columbia University, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of Harvard, Eric Goldman of Princeton, and — topping them all — Henry Steele Commager of Amherst College. When they were in a classy, quasi-philosophy-of-history frame of mind, these men would sometimes rationalize the power moves of the chief executive through an eye-catching gimmick. The public would be presented with the answer to a question nobody had asked, now just who were the really Great Presidents?
This was a favorite game of around 1950 for Nevins, Commager, and the rest, and the lists were always the same. Washington, Lincoln, and another one or two of the earlier presidents would be thrown in to give a tone of objectivity and sageness. The point of the whole enterprise, however, would come with the Great (or Near-Great) Presidents of the 20th century.
Then it would be given out, as the conclusion of historical science, that — taking the good with the bad, of course — the one indisputable Great in our own time was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the indisputable Near-Greats were Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. Surprise! Surprise!
Those were halcyon days for the mystique of the presidency, such that one could find this childishly transparent attempt to turn a bit of liberal politicking into the Verdict of History in the pages of Life, Look, and the New York Times Magazine. But now the great interventionist picture books are gone, and there are smart New Left revisionist sharks roaming about on Sunday morning who would like nothing better than to pounce on such grade-school stuff — to remind everyone, for instance, of what Jackson did to the Cherokees, of what Truman did to the civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that Theodore Roosevelt was a racist in practically the Nazi sense.
Thus, poor Professor Commager is reduced to publishing in Parade, the mass-Sunday-newspaper-supplement semithrowaway. It was there, on May 8, after the third cup of coffee, that one found his nostalgia-awakening article, "Our Greatest Presidents."
In case you were wondering, the outstandingly Great Presidents according to Commager (and to a poll of historians at one hundred colleges and universities that he reports on) are Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are closely followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, Wilson, Jackson, and — a little behind — Harry Truman.
Surprise! Surprise! What are the criteria of greatness in a president?
First, all were what we must call "strong" Presidents. All believed the President should be both a symbol and a leader …. Second, all ranged themselves on the side of the people, of an enlarged scope for government.
(Nobody here but us objective historians!)
The third criterion, being a good administrator and politician, is not, it turns out, a necessary condition according to Commager (the contradiction is his). But the fourth may be found in all of these leaders. It is, "quite simply, wisdom, sagacity, intelligence." (This of Franklin Roosevelt — of Wilson!) Finally,
There is one essential common denominator that transcends all others: all the great Presidents were men of principle, prepared to sacrifice popularity to what they thought was right.
And so it goes. It is clear that Commager's favorite is FDR. Here are some of History's conclusions about FDR: Among his qualities were
honesty, resolution, fortitude, compassion, a sense of justice …. How right Franklin Roosevelt was when he said: "The Presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership."
Roosevelt was "prepared to put principle above politics — and above popularity." The way Commager phrases the outstanding example of Roosevelt's loyalty to "principle" is interesting: he "risked the loss of the 1940 election by stretching the Constitution to its permissible limits in order to aid beleaguered Britain" against Germany (emphasis added). "History," Commager adds, "has vindicated him well."
This is the famous historian's little way of getting around a fact that, since the golden age of presidential glorification, has become common knowledge: namely, that Roosevelt committed the United States to war against Germany — through his promises to foreign leaders and his directives to the American armed forces — in 1940 (at the latest), without even the knowledge of Congress, and in direct contravention of his assurances to the American people, whom he treated as fools. By now, this much is established: as C. Boothe Luce put it for all time, "he lied us into war."
For sure — honesty, as Commager assures us, was one of FDR's great virtues. And Eleanor's mind was a model of Cartesian clarity. But what is the use? Commager's out-of-date nonsense, masquerading as historical wisdom, is what they are going to teach little children in the government's schools. After Vietnam and Nixon, the professional custodians of the tarnished symbols of the American state are panicky. They do what they can to patch things over — old pimps to an old whore dressed up as history. But how much longer?