Interview Highlights - Houston Independent School District

Article #1: Historian: FDR Was The Last Great President. Let's Never Have Another
Who was the last great president of the United States? Well, if you're not on Social Security, you
wouldn't be old enough to have seen one, says author Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In his new book, The End of Greatness: Why
America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President, Miller concludes that we've had
three great leaders. As Miller sees it, we will be just as well-off with no more Rushmore-worthy chief
Interview Highlights
On his three choices
For me, greatness means the following: You confront one of the three greatest nation-encumbering
crises that the country faced; you extract from that crisis — as you weather it — some sort of
transformative change that makes the nation better forever; and, in time, you are appreciated by
your own partisans, as well as your adversaries, as a true national hero. And those three, frankly —
Washington, Lincoln and FDR — fit the bill.
On 'near-great' presidents
I don't like the term "near-great," but you've got five — all quite different. You've got Thomas
Jefferson, you've got Andrew Jackson, you've got Teddy Roosevelt, you've got Wilson — and that's
a contentious choice ... and Harry Truman. Those were five consequential presidents who — to
some degree, their challenges weren't as severe as the undeniables, their failings and
inconsistencies greater than the undeniables. But they defined their era and they basically met and
countered significant challenges, which made the presidency stronger and the country, too.
On Barack Obama, a historic president — but not a great one
My Rx prescription for greatness, basically, is:
You have the crisis that allows you to lead the nation.
You need the capacity, once the crisis occurs, to fundamentally demonstrate you can
And you need character.
That alignment, what I call the three C's of presidential greatness — crisis, character and capacity —
has not appeared. Now, when President Obama began his ascent, it was clear — to him, at least —
we had a crisis. Two, actually: the worst economic recession since the great depression [and] the
two longest wars in American history. But the alignment didn't really work out the way that he wanted
to. He became a deeply polarizing figure — as had Lincoln and FDR and, at the end of his term,
But the problems were quite different. They weren't discrete — they were systemic problems. He
needed the cooperation of Congress, which clearly was not possible. He had a partisan majority but
lacked the kind of bipartisan support for his signature initiative as the other transformative changes
in American history — Social Security, Medicare, civil rights — which created a sort of downside to
transformative change he sought with the Affordable Care Act. I think he may well leave office as a
historic president, accomplishing much, but without that patina of greatness.
On whether we really want another great president, and whether that's even possible
Well, I argue that what prevents greatness is not the absence of an individual who has the capacity
to lead, but three or four factors that have fundamentally changed the search and the realization of
Number one: FDR's high bar. How do you literally outperform a president who was elected to four
terms, who led the United States through its greatest economic calamity and won its last good war?
That's number one.
Number two: We haven't had — and don't want — another nation-encumbering crisis, which would
tame our domestic politics and create a measure of acquiescence in the system so that a great man
or woman could actually lead.
That's why, I argue, we do not want another great president. And if you want one, buckle your
seatbelts, because you're gonna have a nation-encumbering calamity, and I'm not certain we could
produce the leader to deal with it.
On what we should look for in presidential candidates.
What I'm arguing is that we have to stop expecting the kind of greatness that we witnessed in the
past so that we can allow our presidents to be good. And when I say "good," I don't mean good in
the banal sense, I mean "good" in the sense that good means effective, good means having moral
sensibilities and operating within the parameters of the law. And also "good" in the sense that you
have emotional intelligence — you aren't haunted by demons that create all kinds of internal
inconsistencies that can compromise your presidency.
Article #2: What makes a president great?
By Tom Fox November 6, 2012
Michael Siegel is the author of The President as Leader , an analysis of the leadership skills of five recent
American presidents. He is also an employee-training and leadership specialist for the federal court
system and an adjunct professor at American University and Johns Hopkins University. Siegel spoke with
Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership
and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government
What are the top attributes of a great leader, and which presidents have exhibited these attributes?
In my book, The President as Leader , I identify four leadership qualities that define excellence in the
White House. First, does the president have a compelling vision for his presidency? Ronald Reagan
embraced a vision of a smaller, less regulated government with lower taxes and less social welfare
spending. As a New Democrat, Bill Clinton was very serious about balancing the federal budget and
reaching out to the business community, but at the same time not abandoning the needs of poor
Second, the president has to have the wherewithal to implement his vision. The president has to
appoint professionals — not friends — to help develop and influence policy. He has to develop the skill
of retail politics, something that Obama admitted he had undervalued in his first term.
Third, the president has to focus on a few major goals at a time. When asked by his domestic policy
adviser what his goals were, Jimmy Carter delivered an A-to-Z list, from abortion to Zaire. In contrast,
Reagan focused on three to four major goals immediately after his election. He hit the ground running
and got a large part of his agenda implemented.
Finally, does the president understand the process and implications of decision-making? To create the
conditions for effective decision-making, it’s important for a president to select people who are not only
“yes men and women,” but who exhibit characteristics of the “courageous follower,” somebody who is
willing to tell the boss the truth. It seems Obama has shown a real ability to do this. George W. Bush,
who was very decisive, wasn’t as good at examining the consequences of his decisions.
How can the president motivate the federal workforce?
Twenty days into his presidency, George H. W. Bush met with federal workers and said, “I’m coming to
you as president and offer my hand in partnership. I promise to lead and to serve beside you as we work
together to carry out the will of the American people.” The president must advocate for and celebrate
federal employees. He must make clear that government service is a noble challenge and a public trust.
How does a president demonstrate leadership in the selection and management of his Cabinet?
A president makes a strong statement in his Cabinet selection. He can choose Cabinet secretaries who
eagerly embrace his vision of government, as demonstrated by Reagan and George W. Bush. Or he can
choose Cabinet officials who are willing to challenge his thinking. I think this is the case with Obama. It’s
also important for a president to know the functions of each agency, and where there are points of
Do you have a favorite story about presidential leadership?
Think back to President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Kennedy went on national television and
made a speech I don’t think we’ll ever hear again in our lifetime. I’m going to quote from it: “Ladies and
gentlemen. Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. I failed. Blame me.” Do you know
what happened to Kennedy’s popularity? It shot way up. People don’t expect perfection from leaders,
they expect honesty.
Do you have a favorite president?
I do, and unfortunately it’s not terribly original. It is, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he have a
strong vision, he understood that there’s a sequence to implementing his vision. He knew he couldn’t
deal with slavery directly until he dealt with keeping the Union together. Also, as president he did not
orbit around ego. He orbited around the mission. Finally, he was a humanitarian who not only forgave
his opponents, but brought them into his government.
Article #3: What is “presidential greatness”?
(CNN) -- As Americans make up their minds and gear up to vote, CNN asks some of America's foremost
presidential historians to weigh in on the question: What does it take to make a president great?
Richard Reeves: FDR's place in the 20th century
Presidential greatness is determined by being in the White House at the right time -- or the wrong time.
The presidency is a reactive job and we judge the presidents by their handling of one or two big crises,
usually unforeseen. Nobody remembers whether Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F.
Kennedy or Ronald Reagan balanced the budget. What we remember is the agony of the Civil War. The
Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war. The winding
down of the Cold War.
Roosevelt, who probably understood the presidency better than anyone else -- before or after him -was the greatest president of the 20th century because he knew what people wanted from the highest
office in the land: action, words and optimism. That all came together when he said he was no longer
"Dr. New Deal" -- he became "Dr. Win The War." While historians will argue forever whether FDR
actually ended the Depression, he did take aggressive action and fought with the right words with his
"infamy" speech on December 7,1941, after Pearl Harbor was attacked. When the Soviet Union was
putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy said in private that doing nothing was the worst option and he
would be impeached if he did not take action. In good times or bad, a president is expected to do
something! Sometimes he does the right thing and becomes great for it.
Richard Reeves is the author of a presidential trilogy: "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," "President
Nixon: Alone in the White House" and "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination." He is senior
lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern
Aida Donald: Truman believed in the strength of character
In early 1962, my husband and I were invited to the White House by first lady Jackie Kennedy because
she wanted the president -- who loved history -- to listen to my husband, David Herbert Donald, talk
about Abraham Lincoln. When the talk was over, President Kennedy asked: "Do you think that what
makes a president great is a war?" My husband blanched and said, "No, Franklin Roosevelt was a great
president before World War II started. His domestic program had already made him a great president."
Of course, Lincoln was a great war president. His saving of the Union and the freeing of 4 million slaves
were his greatest accomplishments. Now, I would add that Harry Truman was also a great president,
because he was commander in chief in a great war and then reconstructed the world after World War II.
Truman drew red lines to keep the Soviets from continually gobbling up countries. He saved Greece and
Turkey with his Truman Doctrine. He saved Berlin with an airlift when the Soviets blockaded it. He led in
forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect Europe. He started the Point Four program to
assist poor countries. He was behind the Marshall Plan of giving Europe $6 billion to reconstruct itself
and be a bulwark against Communism. He encouraged the rebuilding of Japan as a democratic and
capitalist country and as a counter to Communist China.
One should add two other momentous decisions Truman made that affected his greatness: He
recognized the state of Israel as soon as it declared its independence, and he desegregated the
American armed forces by executive order. From his earliest days, Truman kept a motto in his head: "A
leader needed a true heart, a strong mind, and a great deal of courage." And he loved what Ben Franklin
said: "Always do the right thing. This will satisfy some people and astonish others." In a nutshell, Truman
believed that above all else, character made for greatness. It just happened that his greatness came
from the battlefield and its aftermath.
Aida D. Donald, former editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press, is the author of "Citizen Soldier: A Life
of Harry S. Truman."
H. W. Brands: Don't dare to be great
Great presidents are those who change the course of American history. Andrew Jackson established the
principle that ordinary people should exercise political power. Abraham Lincoln reversed secession and
freed the slaves. Franklin Roosevelt founded the welfare state and led the alliance that defeated
fascism. Ronald Reagan dismantled large parts of the regulatory state and legitimized demands for
smaller government.
Not everyone agrees with the policies of great presidents; transformation is often painful. Great
presidents are opportunists: They acknowledge America's strong bias toward the status quo and
recognize that large changes are possible only when the status quo has been severely compromised. The
greatest presidents -- Lincoln and FDR -- embody the paradox that they preside over the worst times,
when the status quo is so broken (the Civil War, the Great Depression) that it cannot continue in its old
Great presidents appreciate that their authority is as much emotional and moral as it is institutional.
They manifest charisma suited to their eras and convey compelling visions of new ways forward: popular
democracy for Jackson, Union and liberty for Lincoln, social security for Roosevelt, lower taxes and
lighter government for Reagan.
Is America ripe for another great president? Not yet. The economy underperforms but hasn't collapsed.
The federal debt mounts but hasn't prompted a flight from the dollar. So must we wait for things to
reach a crisis before we can expect another great president? Yes.
But this is the wrong way to view our predicament. We do not need a great president to fix what ails us.
A good president will do. James Polk broke the impasse over expansion to the Pacific. Theodore
Roosevelt tamed the trusts. Lyndon Johnson defeated Jim Crow. Each appealed to America's core values
and sense of self. Each proposed substantial but achievable goals. Each played politics, and played it
well. The next president shouldn't strive for greatness, which would confer historical reputation but
require more than the rest of us can bear. Being a good president will be good enough.
H. W. Brands' new book is "The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace."
Joan Hoff: Presidents and war
A review of polls of presidential scholars since 1948, but especially since 1962, reveals that all of the top
great or near-great presidents, except for Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, were involved in
war during their presidencies. Six of them -- James Polk, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, and
Dwight D. Eisenhower -- were wartime presidents. LBJ, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and George
W. Bush have not secured great or near-great status in these polls because of the failed Vietnam War,
the successful but forgotten First Gulf War, and the misguided invasion of Iraq based on false
Given the length, expense and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is conceivable that
future presidents may not automatically receive the vaunted accolade of presidential greatness when
they commit the nation to military action. Taking action in a time of perceived crisis is also not always
wise, as demonstrated by JFK's Bay of Pigs fiasco, Jimmy Carter's mishandling of the U.S. hostage
situation in Iran, and Reagan's hostage-for-arms scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair.
This leaves us with the greatness of Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. How did their success as leaders
emerge without waging war? Importantly, both were intellectuals while most of the wartime presidents
were not. So their writings and peaceful actions enhanced their reputations as thoughtful presidents.
Despite Jefferson's silence about his own slaves, the principles of the Declaration of Independence
about fundamental human rights and equality still ring true. He also doubled and explored the nation's
land area and established the precedent of executive privilege.
Likewise, Roosevelt -- despite his macho association with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American
War and his great white hunter lifestyle -- was the first president extensively to preserve national forests
and parks, support civil service reform, oppose unregulated great corporations, and promote inspection
of food and drugs. He also was the first American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, because of his
mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. Responding to crises and initiating wars may not represent the
best way to determine the greatness of American presidents for the rest of the 21st century.
Joan Hoff, author of "Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush," is research
professor of history at Montana State University.
3-4 Summary points about what makes a President effective AND choose one President and argue
how they were truly great and effective.
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