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Historian: FDR Was The Last Great President. Let's Never Have Another

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our last truly great president, according to scholar Aaron David Miller.
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our last truly great president, according to scholar Aaron David Miller.

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:

  • George Washington, who launched the republic.
  • Abraham Lincoln, who held it together and ended slavery.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who got us through the Great Depression and World War II.

As Miller sees it, we will be just as well-off with no more Rushmore-worthy chief executives.

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 succeed.
  • 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, Washington.

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 greatness.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff