Miller Center

American Forum - The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President

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The Miller Center is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to provide critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.

Aaron David Miller
October 22, 2014
11:00AM - 12:30PM (EDT)

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Television Broadcast: November 23, 2014

For two decades, AARON DAVID MILLER served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. His latest book, 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 be consumed with the ones we want. Miller is both vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His pieces on the presidency have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, and Foreign Policy.


Douglas Blackmon:  Welcome back to the Miller Center’s American Forum.  I’m Doug Blackmon.  Twenty-five years ago when the United States Cold War with the Soviet Union came to an abrupt halt there was wide hope among Americans that our country would soon enter a kind of golden era.  Our form of capitalism had triumphed and would be extended to hundreds of millions of people. New levels of prosperity would follow for all vindicating our economic system.  Peace dividends could be directed to combatting hunger and misery.  The national budget would finally balance.  The American Presidents of the future, from whatever political parties, had the opportunity to engineer for the world a new hybrid of democracy and free enterprise.  How differently things appear now.  After the longest wars in our nation’s history against illusive and indecipherable  terrorists, thousands of deaths and casualties, trillions of dollars spent without clear benefit, the most bitter dissention and hostility between our political leaders, racial unrest, mass incarceration, and a series of Presidents who bored us, shocked us with immoral indiscretion, blundered unapologetically  into war and according to our guest today disappointed us with empty rhetoric and incoherent execution.  Aaron David Miller says we live in a post-great era in which it is unlikely that America will ever have another occupant of the White House with achievements on a scale of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR.  And that, in fact, Americans don’t even want another great President.  Aaron Miller worked side by side with American Presidents for the past 20 years serving as an advisor to State Departments under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both Bush administrations.  He is a vice President and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.  His most recent book is The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.  It’s a privileged to have an hour of your time.

                                 Aaron David Miller:  Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here at the Miller Center in particular.

11:09:22;00              Blackmon:  The second President Bush, Bush 43, there was a President who six years ago was deeply unpopular at the end of his presidency and viewed widely as a poor President, a failed President in many respects. You say almost as much that, in the book.  Approval ratings at the end had been in the high 20’s to the low 30’s. Yet, today, when people, when Americans are asked in polls in 2014 about President Bush, almost 50% say he was a good President, give a strong approval rating. So was he a failure six years ago but is he now a great President?

11:10:00;07              Miller: Let’s start this way, Presidents are like fine wines and age with time and the reality is they age well with time. The reality is that they are much more popular once they leave the political fray, once they sever their relationship with the American people in contemporary political terms and are remembered in ways that are driven by many factors, including who succeeds them, which is critically important. Who comes before you and who comes after you is critically important in shaping your Presidential reputation. There is no question about it.  And any number of Presidents, look at two of our greatest, Lincoln and FDR. Lincoln preceded by James Buchanan [[ Blackmon: the worst President]] and FDR preceded by  Herbert Hoover. Presidents who follow great Presidents are usually individuals for whom there are very low expectations. And  I would not include George W. Bush, he’s not a failed President, and I would not include George W. Bush as a great President, let alone an undeniably great President. The conceit of this book basically is driven by a very simple proposition: Greatness in Presidency is rare. Greatness in any any dimension of the human enterprise is rare. We use the term ‘great’ – I use the term great maybe fifteen times a day. It was a great movie; she’s a great tennis player; have a great day; but we don’t really understand what it is. We’ve emptied it, we’ve emptied the notion of greatness of any meaningful content and we’ve transferred our appreciation for greatness from our political class because we haven’t seen it to our entertainers, to our athletes, uh, and to our actors. There we appreciate greatness; and there we can easily have relationships. We buy tickets, they may be expensive. These people never disappoint or rarely disappoint. It is in our political class, however, that we can’t appreciate greatness because in many respects, it’s gone. And it’s gone because it’s driven by three factors that have to align like the sun, the moon, and the stars in the right astrological formation. You need crisis.  And by the way, not just a garden-variety crisis, you need a nation encumbering character.  You need character. You need the right individual with the right internal makeup and the right orientation publically. And then you need capacity. Does this person actually know what they are doing? And can they deal with the Cabinet, with Congress, with the media? Can they make Washington work? Those three–crisis, character, and capacity are what has made our three undeniably greatest Presidents, great–Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. We don’t want another great President because the founders created a political system which was designed to disaggregate power. They feared the royal governors, they feared the king, they may have the mob as well.  So they created a system of an energetic executive, but an accountable one, but highly constrained. The only thing that liberates Presidents and liberates the political system is nation-encumbering crisis. And again, when I talk about nation encumbering crisis, I’m not even talking about the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted twelve days or 9/11, which frankly might have been a moment to encourage the nation, but it turned quite the other way. I am talking about a crisis that is relentless, inescapable, hot, in which everybody has to essentially participate. The three most, the three greatest Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, confronted the three greatest crises the nation faced and they had the character and the capacity to go along with it. I do not want to risk threatening the nation again with such a crisis in order to test the proposition that a great man, and one-day woman, will emerge to deal with the crisis. Forget great. Stop expecting these Presidents to be a cross between Harrison Ford in Air Force 1 and Superman so that you can allow them to be good, good in the sense of the word, good in the sense that they can be effective, they know what they are doing. Good in the sense that they remain within the limits of the law with with great moral sensibility. And good in the sense that they understand themselves. They have emotional intelligence; they are not haunted or driven by demons or aspirations that force them into scandal or sent into self-created crises, which causes overreach. Give me Presidents like that and maybe we can begin to imagine what we haven’t had in a long time, which is a truly genuinely poplar President. It’s hard for me to imagine in our political culture right now the emergence of a genuinely popular President.                 Blackmon:  We have in our general discourse today there’s a lot of discussion of that President Obama is a disaster. Uh, I was sitting at uh, eating a hamburger in a restaurant a couple of nights ago and a guy sat down beside me, asked me what I did, and I started explaining something about it, and right off the bat he said, “So is the presidency of Barack Obama the greatest abortion in American political history?” And that was the terminology, ugh. But so one the one hand we have all these voices saying that that we’re being taken uh taken to catastrophe by President Obama. On the other hand, at the very beginning of his presidency, uh, he went along with and he extended an economic approach, uh, strategy to uh that arguably I think a lot of people believe adverted a great economic catastrophe. Uh, he had successfully pushed through legislation that is still not very popular, but may well turn out to be the most significant domestic legislation in the two generations.

11:20:03;10              Miller:  Since Johnson.   

11:20:04;20              Blackmon: Since Johnson for sure, uh. He avenged 9/11 arguably with the killing of Osama Bin Laden, have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a prison somewhere to be tried someday, and he’s the first black President, the first non-white male President – historic uh by that definition alone. How is it that even with his unpopularity, how is it that that doesn’t eventually add up to something that is at least a trace of greatness to it? Just those things.

11:20:28;11              Miller: It could and I think it takes a generation or more to accurately access and who comes after Barack Obama, whether or not Democrats retain party control, which is extremely important in judging the reputations of a President. Only two Presidents in the 20th century, FDR and Ronald Reagan served two terms and literally maintained party control past the presidency to members of their own party. It doesn’t happen very often because we get impatient. We don’t like dynasties; we we we are fascinated by them. You know, our Presidents are like computers or or or new cars, every four to eight years, there may be a need for another one. Look get, let’s be real about Barrack Obama, he’s not the  a catastrophic failure or Satan’s finger on earth as some of his detractors suggest.  But nor is he the great redeemer savior that so many people expected.  He is in fact the poster child for my whole lament here.  When you set the bar the whole aspirational bar as high as he did, you set yourself up for profound disappointment.  And you can, we can soften the edges of the critique all we want.  We can claim that he averted the great depression.  We can say that perhaps Dodd-Frank on financial reform will prove to be a critical piece of legislation.  We could say that the Affordable Health Care Act perhaps will pass without a single Republican vote.  It was Jefferson who said the transformative change cannot rest on slender majority.  Every other transformation in this country’s history was pursued by partisan Presidents who then were able in the nation as a whole to bring along members of the opposing party, which is why these pieces of legislation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the civil rights bill became transformative because they were perceived to be legitimate.  It is the vast sense of emptiness in my judgement between what was promised and what is now perceived that in my view warrants the title “Disappointer in Chief”.  When you promise post partisanship and argue in your inaugural that stale political arguments of the past no longer apply in an environment in which you know you are faced with a partisan polarized political system with extraordinary challenges that you may not be able to to actually unwind.  You risk becoming the Disappointer in Chief.  And that in my judgment is is what has happened. His crisis was nearly not as profound, I don’t want to trivialize it, the fact is, what FDR did in response to his crisis created a set of systems and safeguards that were inherently responsible for why we didn’t end up in a great depression. His crisis was not as deep as FDR’s. His character, in my judgment, was far too conflicted. He was not as fiery or as passionate. He’s not the emoter in chief. An analytical thinking President is extremely important, but you have to also have one that is engaged, and, and really involved. And finally the capacity. There’s simply too many stumbles to suggest to me that in fact the experience that is, is required to manage the presidency, he actually had. Now, I am not an adversary of Barack Obama. I will say right here and now that I voted for him not once, but twice, but that vote was designed to achieve another purpose, which was to validate a system of governance that I think is more important, frankly, than any single individual. How history will ultimately judge him is still very much an open question.  In a politically obsessed culture with our Presidents in a way that has never been the case, part of that is because of our 24/7 media culture, which does many things. I mean, 535 legislators, nine Supreme Court justices, it is so much easier to personalize and create a relationship with one man and one day woman, who is an individual, who has a wife, kids, usually a presidential pet. And follow him around in a way that essentially turns the presidency into a transparent fish bowl. And they are now forced to play in the pop culture, uh, game, in a way that can only strip away, in my view diminish. Once you go on Jon Stewart or Jay Leno as the President did and in that famed stumble, they got on the question of sports and the conversation turned to bowling and Barack Obama said I bowled a 129, and I think the quote was “It was good enough for the Special Olympics,” he then found himself the next day apologizing to Tim Shriver. That notion that somehow Presidents have to compete in this pop cul—the President has a Twitter, the first Presidential Twitter conference in June of 2011. Now I argue with my, with my kids about this. “Dad you’re old, you don’t understand it, it’s smart politics.” It all may be smart. But in some respects it diminishes and degrades the kind of detachment that leads to what de Gaulle called “the mystique of authority,” that is necessary for uh for greatness in the presidency.

11:28:28;28              Blackmon: What do we do about that?  What’s the, how can, how can that be changed uh in a free society when people get to say whatever they want to say, get to listen to whoever they want to listen to, and can, and can pursue, and when we have that free speech is so attached to, uh, to commercial activity, yeah, that people make money off this, and, and money is what decides what continues, what doesn’t. I mean what’s the, how can this be any different in the world that we live in?

11:28:52;23              Miller: You’re making you’re making my case. This is not about individuals. This is about what has happened to American politics and media culture in the last forty years. And my argument is, is essentially that greatness in the presidency is no longer possible because the, there are four factors which have conspired over time which are structural now. Number one is what I call “FDR’s high bar.” How do you, can you can you even imagine a President that can, will ever be perceived to be greater than FDR? Four terms and the Republicans thought they were getting even with him in 1951 when they passed the second, the 22nd amendment to the Constitution. They must not have thought it through clearly because what they did was forever enshrine Franklin Roosevelt as an undeniably great President. The only one that would ever be elected, ever be elected to four terms. Combine FDR’s high bar with the absence of a truly nation-encumbering crisis which allows for heroic actin in the presidency. Which we don’t want, and combine that with a 24/7 intrusive media which diminishes, trivializes, and forces the President to compete and to be exposed, think about it. Our last bald President was Dwight Eisenhower. Our last short President was Harry Truman. Our last obese President was William Howard Taft. You look at the men, and again one day woman, women, who will inherit this office they are all s-truly physical specimens. We can’t, I’m not even sure we could abide looking at Presidents that somehow have physical flaws. Add to that, add to that our polarized politics and our mistrust of government

11:31:51;01              Blackmon: Let’s, let’s back up to one of these interim reports as Bill Moyers called them. Uh, the ultimate interim report on great presidencies, and that’s Mount Rushmore. So we have the faces of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Two of ‘em, two of those guys you put on your list of truly greats; the third on your list hadn’t come along yet, and um, so his cousin is there, uh, hadn’t come along as a President yet.  But so why is it that in 1927 Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt are great enough to be carved into a mountain but don’t make your list?

                                   Miller:  Well no, they are all on the list.

                                   Blackmon:  None of the truly greats.

11:33:13;19                 Miller:   Well no.  Three undeniably great Presidents I identify in a section Close But No Cigar five additional Presidents.  Two of whom are, in fact, on Mount Rushmore. The sculpture actually decided in this case who those four would be and they were picked for a specific reason.  Washington for obvious reasons.  TR because of his work in conservation and Lincoln our clearly greatest President because he confronted the most unimaginable horror that any nation confronts which is Civil War. So no. I think those are, at the time, those are quite appropriate. The historians basically would argue, and playing the rating game is a fun national past time, that’s not what this book is about. It’s not an effort to somehow reach a conclusive development on rating our Presidents. I briefed a number of military officers a couple years ago, I tell this story in the book. I ask them, all combat vets, all roughly my age, who was the last political leader in their lifetime that they would attach the word great to?  I gave them 10 minutes to answer the question. They couldn’t. They couldn’t identify one. And they asked me ‘who do you think’? This was a very easy answer to me. Great political figure, not necessarily President. I said Martin Luther King. And one of them in exasperated fashion, shot back, but he died. He was assassinated he was murdered in 1968. And I said that’s exactly the point. King, with all of his imperfections, still, no leader like King has emerged. And I. . .

11:35:37; 11              Blackmon: But also King was not anointed in the universal fashion that he is now, until almost 20 years after his death. And so the idea that greatness is something that can be registered either in the lifetimes of the President or even close to the end of a leaders time on the stage is maybe a faulty one from the start.

11:35:56; 26              Miller: It takes time. But I think King, and assassination, of course, in the case of Jack Kennedy and the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan. In real time, Washington, Lincoln and FDR, were partisan, polarizing figures, with the exception of Washington, not even with the exception in the last year or two or his presidency, but there was an appreciation at the time. Even at the time, that these leaders shepherded the nation through remarkable crisis, extracted out of that crisis some piece of transformative change and began to be appreciated, and you’re right, over time, as true national figures. It’s really hard these days. And if we continue to misunderstand that the greatest obstacle to greatness in the presidency may well be the nature of the office itself, we are prone to continue to invest in individuals far more than they can actually produce. And that I think is one of the lessons.  Read presidential history.  Because what you see are individuals who inherit circumstances, which they read accurately and correctly. They don’t create the opportunities, they intuit and enlarge the opportunities that are already available. And if they’re good with the right character and capacity, they can actually exploit the crisis, in some aspect of how we see ourselves, how we govern ourselves, to make the country better forever. And that’s inherently and essentially what the greats have done.

11:37:42; 15              Blackmon: It’s a big claim you make, the end of greatness, why America can’t have another great President. You’re not just talking about that we are in a moment of no greatness, you’re saying it’s not going to come back. We are not going to have it in the future. But so, I’m still interested in Mount Rushmore and I’m still interested in Teddy Roosevelt, that he is now incredibly popular again after a long period of which he wasn’t quite as well remembered. But in 1927, one would assume the perception of the sculpture and the people who paid him and a whole lot of other people, was that he was truly a great President. In the ranks of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Why then was it as time went by, what’s the clinical analysis that tells us that in the end he really wasn’t quite so great?

11:38:31; 13              Miller: Well again, my definition of greatness, I layout very clearly, you confront a nation in cumbering crisis, you extract from the crisis some piece of social economical political change that is recognized as truly transformative and changes the fundamental nature of the system, you are appreciated perhaps overtime for that greatness and you dominate your times. The close but no cigar Presidents, Jefferson, Jackson, TR, Wilson, I put on the list and Harry Truman, all affected the temper of their times, but their crises were not nearly as severe. Their imperfections much greater, and that separates out what I call the indispensables or the undeniable from the next tier down. Schlesinger and his son called them near-greats. That is a very sort of loose term.  But I think that getting at the issue of were their crises as threatening to the nation in the case of these five?  No. Were there accomplishments as consistently and undeniably great? Did they get most of the big decisions right? Jefferson’s second term was a disaster. It is very hard to see Andrew Jackson, one of our most controversial Presidents. I mean, 12 out of our first 18 Presidents were slaveholders. And how do you deal with that on a moral and ethical basis with respect to greatness?

                                   Blackmon: A society wants, human beings want to have mythological figures. Every every human civilization always has. Uh, is it possible that that this this universal designation Washington, Lincoln, FDR uh while on the one hand it’s true that they were great leaders in their time, highly successful Presidents by the definitions that existed in that moment, but at the same time if King George had backed off of Boston in 1774 uh we might never really ever heard of George Washington. Uh, Lincoln is a guy who uh yes he’s President he holds the nation together, he’s uh he’s he’s insistent on on keeping the union together, if he were President today there would be there would be people saying if he would just go have a beer with the secessionists maybe maybe we wouldn’t have to have a civil war.

                                   Miller: Teddy Roosevelt dominated his time but he he himself lamented the absence of the kind of crisis that would have made him undeniably great by saying if uh if there had been no Civil War, Roosevelt said no one would have known Lincoln’s name no one would have known Lincoln’s name. That’s an extraordinary statement. Lincoln came from nowhere but it may well be clearly without the succession without civil war without Lincoln refashioning the basis and extracting out of crisis a moral a new moral foundation for the for the nation with the Thirteenth Amendment first the emancipation proclamation and then the Thirteenth Amendment and then of course the assassination. So the the undeniables to me are beyond contention.  And I would debate and argue with any professional historian and they would agree these three: Washington who fathered the nation, Lincoln who saved it through civil war and and ensconced it on a new basis, and FDR a crisis President who helped with confidence and experimentation get America through the its greatest economic calamity and lead it through a war that was the last good war that America has probably fought. The last war that left America stronger at home and abroad was World War II. The others fall off and their greatness is I think did they did they did they produce great acts in the presidency? Absolutely. I mean Jefferson alone, Louisiana Purchase could be considered the greatest executive action in American history, given what it did to the physical size of the nation.

11:42:38:13              Blackmon:  Lincoln also by virtue of assassination doesn’t have to deal with the fact that really, according to some people like me, African Americans don’t really get  fully freed from their enslavement at the end of the Civil War. He doesn’t have to live with the consequences. And, one can make an argument that the way that the war was prosecuted uh it was highly dubious. You go to FDR, similar sorts of issues: transformational President, but he leaves out of the equation African Americans. You know a deal is cut with white euphemists, white supremacists in the South and again death

11:43:06;19              Miller:  For sure

11:43:07;26              Blackmon: And again death means he does not have to actually reconcile the thing that our country is still arguing about today.  And that is what kind of big government small government uh how much did the government look after the people who can’t look out for themselves?  He didn’t have to reconcile those things and so to some degree it’s by exclusion of these historical realities from the mythology that we are able to offer these three up in such momentous terms.

11:43:29;23              Miller:  Yes because nations are like individuals. They go through formative periods. And if they survive the early years as we did against extraordinary challenges and threats they no longer need this is exactly you I mean it’s music to my ears because you’re validating my my my whole case

11:43:49;04              Blackmon: No I told you I was [laughter]

11:43:50;18              Miller: It’s not that, It’s not that.

11:43:51:13              Blackmon: I just want to argue with you while I validate it

11:43:54;19              Miller: Right it’s not that the nation is somehow permanently  secure look we we face slower bleeds now.   I call them the six deadly deeds death uh dysfunctional politics, dependence on hydrocarbons, decaying infrastructure a disastrous educational system and and deficits. These are slow bleeds. These are a crisis that over time will sap the economic and social uh power from the country. They just are to a large degree, escapable. And they lead to political division not to unity so along the way as a nation goes through its formative years it requires myths, it requires historic tropes, it requires greatness in the presidency. We have grown up.  But what hasn’t happened is we haven’t given up because we can’t give up on ourselves and I find myself somewhat conflicted here too, I’m not a declinist. But, I have to be real. We we are part of a post heroic leadership era that doesn’t just affect the United States. I spent time in the book talking about the end of greatness as a global phenomenon. One hundred and ninety three nations sit are represented in the United Nations. I’m not sure there is one leader that we could all agree is transformational and good too.  That’s why Mandela’s passing was so deeply felt by by so many people. It is harder for the reasons I identify to acquire, maintain, and use power effectively in a modern democracy and even in an authoritarian state. The media there too exacts a price, and the whole point is not to give up on the promise of America, it’s to get real in our own expectations. I have no illusions that within a year from now the effort to validate the one quote unquote who is going to redeem and save us will already be well underway. And that process of expectation that infantilizes us. We can’t wait around to be rescued, because there are no more Franklin Roosevelts coming. That creates a sense of obligation on all of us to invest in our own politics, to try to reinvest in our politics, not just in our entertainers and our athletes. To believe once again in a functional political system and that’s really, really hard to.  Because I do not see polarization in American politics, which is not some media creation. We are genuinely divided in this country on many issues but the one I think that divides us the most is the essential instrument of greatness in the presidency and that is what is the role of government to be in remedy and reform in this nation?  Forget small or big. The question is how to make it effective. If a President is denied that as agency, how then does anything really change? Can we really go back to the to the days of very small government?  A tea party rally in downtown Washington, one of the most extraordinary signs was the one that said “Barrack Obama don’t touch my Medicare.” This is this is a a representation manifestation of a current of opinion that wants to downsize, to go back to an older day and yet the sign is Don’t touch my Medicare. It’s too late for that.  Government, 75 percent of the country, if you include tax breaks, now benefits from some governmental program or largess. It’s too late.  The question is how to make it effective and credible once again?  And the fact is it’s very hard.  We don’t trust institutions. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street however diverse they are in terms of their ideological approach, both target large institutions. Whether it’s government or corporations, we’ve lost a good deal of faith in our institutions and by implication we set ourselves up for loss of faith and credibility in our Presidents.

11:48:35;25              Blackmon: If there is a straw man in your argument, I think it might be that Americans are in a constant state of of awaiting a great new President. That’s not how I remember the last few elections. Uh I don’t think many people even the people that most earnestly supported Mitt Romney. I don’t think they imagined he was going to be an FDR.  I think that some of that did in fact attach to Barrack Obama because he was the first serious African-American candidate to become President. There was a great deal of euphoria on the day of the inauguration when there were a million people out on the Mall. There was a sense of ok there’s going to be greatness here.  But if you talk to individuals, even African-Americans in the course of that campaign and afterwards, there were actually a good bit of conversation about we have to be careful about not to expect too much from him.  There’s only so much that can be done. 

                                   Miller: Exactly

                                   Blackmon:  Is it really true that we desperately want a great President all the time?

                                   Miller: The final section of this book which is called What’s So Great About Being Great Anyway  extends more than a few pages talking about the ambivalence that Americans have always felt towards their Presidents.  We’re not the Europeans who appreciated their kings.  After all Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Charlemagne.   We don’t do great in America.  We don’t.  Which is one of the reasons that we, in some respects, set ourselves up for a fall.  We want great as commonly displayed.  So Jefferson answers the door of the White House in his slippers much to the dismay of the British ambassador at the time who complained.  Harry Truman when he leaves the White House, he and Bess get in a car a New York Chrysler.  It was a gift.  And the President and Bess drive 1200 miles up through New Jersey and over to Michigan.  He gets pulled over for speeding.  They eat in diners.  There is no security.  There is no advance team.  It was just the two of them.  We fool and trick ourselves, Doug.  We say we don’t want great and yet we really do except we want it packaged in a way that is consistent with our own aversion to the “trappings” of conventional political power.  We want great as humility with great humbleness.  But we do want our Presidents to be “greater” than we are. So we in some respects are already conflicted.  And I think that’s a crucial point in understanding and validating your point.  There is a quote in that book by John Steinbeck, I think on page 179, which I think is actually, I don’t want to use this as a prop and I hope I’m right.  Yea here it is.  “In short we may be too ambivalent about greatness to appreciate it.  But certainly we are ambivalent enough to love and blast our Presidents at the same time.  Writing in the early sixties, John Steinbeck captured the contradiction, quote “We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than man can bear.  We abuse him often and rarely praise him.  We wear him out, use him up, eat him up.  And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality [sic]; he is ours and we exercise the right to destroy him.”

11:52:22;16              Blackmon: Interestingly let me ask you about that.  And I want to talk again in a minute a bit more about media.  But “we hold this power to destroy him.”  Strangely enough, take on this paradox, if you would.  On the one hand we are very willing to at least begin the process of destroying a President over things like sexual peccadillos.   Our most recent impeachment.  We see a President who otherwise a very popular figure, someone who people say if he had been around for another four more years and had been the 9/11 President perhaps would have faced that great crisis and maybe we would have potentially would have seen a great President in Bill Clinton.  But we’re very willing to destroy that President or attempt to destroy that President over things that with a distance in time seems strangely minor in the scheme of things.  At the same time we have, not necessarily my view, but there are many Americans who would say that we had a President who, through a series of mistakes, or lack of capacity as you would put it, we ended up in a war that cost thousands and thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of other lives.  And yet there is an American inability to just say wow, we really failed here. Our system failed here. Our country failed in a gigantic way here. And so we’re really unable to hold that President accountable.

11:53:53;00              Miller: I mean look at the nature of American wars. Only one war in our history failed to produce President of the United States. and that was World War I. That was World War I. Now, part of this has to do with the nature and the appreciation of how America gets into wars, how they’re perceived at the time, uh and the validation that we give to uh Presidents who have been military figures.   So that in in in some respects, particularly when you’re struggling and fighting against an external enemy, the country’s prepared to give you a margin of error and and transgression. I don’t think, it’s rare that you’re gonna see, you you’d ever see a President removed from office or pillory to the extent that um he would be forced to uh resign. Johnson in Vietnam chose not to sink, to seek a second term, in large part, because I think he knew he would be challenged, there would be a democratic challenge to him and the criticism, the constant hammering that he received was taking an an an emotional toll. Wars are paradoxical. The, the image that a war helps a President aggrandize power and enhances a reputation is only partially true. The last good war was World War II. I don’t think there is the basis for a removing a President from office. I mean you take a look at the two longest wars in American history. Uh, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are they why were they the two more, longest wars in American history? Um, fought by 0.5 percent of the population of 300 million people. That’s one of the reasons that criticisms of this war of these wars didn’t lead to a much greater public movement to get out get out of them sooner. I, had there been a draft in this country, do you think we would have been in Iraq and Afghanistan? We still are in Afghanistan and will remain there probably for the next decade with some residual presence. Do you think that we would have, given the nature of these wars, the asymmetric nature of the loss of life, the fact that the standard for victory in both these wars were never could we win, but when could we leave? I’m not sure if the public were truly engaged at the result that you predicted wouldn’t have occurred. That a President would have been would like like Johnson, would have wouldn’t have been hammered, perhaps even driven driven from office. The loss of life clearly, 6,000 plus Americans, dead in Iraq and Afghanistan were not nearly as as traumatic, although every loss, every life is a trauma and every injury from which people will never recover is a trauma, uhh but the loss was not as profound as Vietnam. We insulated ourselves, and we were told to insulate ourselves. 9/11 might have been a transformative experience. It might have been something that could have been used to to pursue inclusion rather than exclusion, but this is one of my points. We are essentially uh engaged in looking at our politics and our military on a volunteer basis. We had 0.5percent of the country fight the two longest wars in the American history. My father went to war in 1941. There were 130 million people in this country. Sixteen million of them put on a uniform. There was a sense of shared sacrifice, shared obligation, shared responsibility. That war literally, other than their personal lives, was the single most important factor in my father’s life. My wife’s father’s life. And that sense of inclusiveness doesn’t exist anymore, which further reinforces the problem that that we have with investing something in more on a national experience in our President.

11:58:10;06              Blackmon: Well, we also didn’t ask the American people um I think your, your notion of the limited range of sacrifice uh that that Americans were undertaking in these wars is exactly right on the military front, but it’s also the case that when we make this comparison to the World War II period that we asked the American people to finance the war uh in explicit ways. We purchased war bonds, we we campaigned uh and we projected to the American people uh the necessity that everyone sacrifice in those ways as well. Here, we finance the most expensive wars in our history by far when you look at a day by day, man by man cost of the war. We, we have financed these extraordinarily expensive wars but hidden the cost of it uh within the way we tax people in all sorts of other ways in debt, and then we accuse, the parties accuse one another uh for uh gross gross over taxation without saying what it was for.

11:59:01;26              Miller: Yeah and the justification cause of World War II were so morally explicit and so clear, and victory was so comprehensive and so final, never again would we participate in such a war. Um and again, I, I think that’s a good thing. Who wants a war, another war that kills 50 million people?   Um so but in terms of our own politics, how can you invest greatness in someone else if you come to question the capacity to realize it in your own politics and in your own lives if you’re not called upon to participate in something greater than you, a larger enterprise? This, for my kids, 30, Jenny 34 and Danny 31, 32, this is the great challenge for them. My daughter came to me a decade ago and said, “Your parents had the depression, World War II, you had Vietnam, Watergate, and the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s. What do we have?” What is the large nation encumbering issue that creates a sense of shared, shared sacrifice, obligation, and commitment? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I wonder whether or not it is intrinsically linked to the notion of how we look at our politics and how we look at ourselves as, as a nation.

12:03:18;12              Blackmon: What's the challenge of our time, what's this great crisis of our time? Now it may turn out that President Obama for instance may end up as the President who either in the end brilliantly or incompetently handled the first great global pandemic in the century and it may end up that Ebola becomes the great crisis of our time, we'll see. There's there's two years yet. But but this but that's still looking for the Great Crisis - capital G, capital C. These Great Wars, these Great Military Challenges. Things that we can at least imagine have some resolution and end to them. As opposed to the much softer and more complex challenges that face our country in particular now. And in the absence of the Soviet Union, in the absence of the great defined enemy these issues around income and equality and and how do we balance out big vs. small in terms of government, how do we fulfill the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence? Is it that the great crisis, the great challenges that perhaps brings our next great President, will be fundamentally internal reconciliations of these failures of the American promise?

12:00:32;22              Miller: New Town, after those killings, I was absolutely persuaded that this would be a transformative moment in the nation’s history. 9/11, fundamentally transformative moment. And there are so few of them that force us to come together as a people and yet, what transformation? This is, this is a serious problem and I don’t know, I don’t know how to resolve it, or what it means frankly.  Oh yeah, I'm very much focused on the gap between what America is and what I hope it will be. Uh but filling that gap really also requires a realistic and sober assessment of what, how and under what circumstances we change in this country. We are not a revolutionary society. Change in America is usually a a question of evolutionary incremental change. It took us 150 years to reconcile the promise contained in the Declaration of Independence with the reality that our own Constitution without using the word slavery validated the the the greatest chattel slavery enterprise in the in the world, 150 years. And I don't think anyone, even the most pro uh pro American uh with sensibility would argue that we have finally uh dealt with the issue of race in this country. No this is very much an evolutionary process and we have and again I come back to the issue of our political system. Our political system was not designed to promote transformative change, it was not constructed by the founders to make it possible for things to happen very quickly and that remains, it seems to be structurally a reality. That that we're going to have to deal with.  Whether it's climate change, whether it's reducing our dependence on hydrocarbons, whether it's addressing the race issue, we we we really are are trapped. I I mean I argue that given the imperfections of the rest of the world, we are we are stuck with the, we’re not where we wanna be, but we are we are, we have the kinds of instruments, the three things that are necessary to basically overcome our problems. We have non-predatory neighbors to our North and South, and fish to our East and West. The so-called liquid assets. No country in the world in history ever was privileged and fortunate to have such a sense of security. Number two, we have an incredible issue of size in this country and abundance. Natural Resources we may not respect and continue to waste but they are here, when I travel this country, I was in Maine, I am amazed at the expansive of the of land that is still open.  And that is not the case for many peoples in the world, certainly in the Middle East.  Proximity is a problem and and small is a problem we don't have. And finally, we have a political system, probably the only one in history, based on an idea. And the idea is that individuals still count. And according to circumstance, merit, and luck, can rise. The fact that Barack Obama and Sarah Palin share the same political space, and I say this to neither trivialize nor diminish either of them, is a testament to the reality of this system. That people can literally come from nowhere and rise through the system. Now, that's exceptionalism, and I'll defend it. It it can't be exported. We cannot export this because it is anchored in our history, it is anchored in our real estate, it is anchored in our location. But these three natural advantages, I think position us quite well even to resolve the slow bleeds. But it will require a degree of leadership, a degree of bipartisanship, uh and a sense of civility.  I say all the time and I'll say it again, I worked for Rs and Ds, I voted for Rs and Ds, and the dividing line in this country can't be between left and right, liberal or conservative, or Republican and Democrat. It has to be between dumb on one hand and smart on the other. And which side of the line do you want America to be on? If you want America to be on the smart side, then you don't demonize your political opponents. If you want America to be on the smart side, then while you debate, even with the most emotional subjects with your interlockers, you don't, while they are speaking, think about how you are going to refute their arguments. You actually listen to what they have to say. It's what Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, called civility. Civility is not politeness only, it's the capacity to respect, appreciate, and listen to what somebody else is saying. We don't have that in our 24/7 argue culture and in our polarized politics. And I don't know, I'm at a loss frankly to know, since I'm charged with these days to talk about the world's problems not fixing them, I don't know and I don't have an answer. But the conversation, Doug, the conversation has to start. And that's why I wrote the book.

12:11:06;14              Blackmon: you, you make the assessment that we won't have a great President. In the end, that's for a fairly simple reason because you're kind of counting on the fact that aliens are not going to invade or that there's not going to uh be another uh Great War we have to survive through, that the crisis will not present itself. But, and so that's why we're not going to have another great President. Given all that you've just said, do we deserve to have another great President?

12:13:08;16              Miller: Deserve, that gets into the issue of making moral or ethical judgments.  I, look, my American identity is the most meaningful piece of my life.  I love this country.  I find it remarkable with all its imperfections.  The answer is yes.  Because with a great President deserve, sure.  Because we could do so much better for ourselves and we could be so much smarter and more affective in the way we deal with the rest of the world.  So the answer is sure.  I’m simply arguing that in one line greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant today and it is too dangerous to be desirable.  Because in our political system you want a great President?  Fine.   You got me.  Let’s have another great President.  But buckle your seatbelt.  Because the greatness will be in response to a kind of crisis that we have not had in this country and we do not want.  We got over some extraordinary times.  We were blessed with leaders who got most of the big decisions during these crises right and they have guided us through a period where we are now, how long do countries last? I don’t know but we now have the potential to actually begin to address the less than nation encumbering crisis.  The slower bleeds.  It’s just going to require a different kind of sense of expectation.  And our own conception of our own politics and how we participate in them and what we actually want.  And by partisanship it is critically important to this enterprise.  This is not the most polarized period in American history as you know from your own Pulitzer Prize winning book. I mean Preston Brooks nearly killed Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, uh, nearly caned him to death. There’s a darker side to American politics, a violent side, a turbulent side, out of which greatness came. Uh I’m trying to figure out a way we can have really good but not great without some of these nation-encumbering crises and without the kind of trauma that so shaped our country’s history.

12:14:09;06              Blackmon: So let’s let the conversation begin. Thank you very much. The book is The End of Greatness by Aaron David Miller. Thank you.

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