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Great Expectations and Shadowlands: American Presidents and Their Reputations In the 20th Century

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

About presidential reputations, as about much else in American life, Finley Peter Dunne’s Irish bartender “Mr. Do oley,” said it best. “Have y’ivir wondered, Hinnissy,” the philosopher-barkeep asked his straight man, “why Americans build their triumphal arches outa’ brick? Tis so they’ll have somthin’ handy t’throw at th’ conquerin’ hero after he passes thr’.” How true, how true, it is tempting to say when recalling the ups and downs of presidential reputations, especially in this century. Yet it might be well to stop and ask whether Mr. Dooley got it completely right, for all presidents, and it might also be good to ask why this rule and possible exceptions have come to be so.

First of all, does the brick-throwing standard apply in all cases? The answer is yes and no. Nearly every president in this century, it would seem, has had detractors who have prevailed at some point after his time in the White House. Examples abound across most of the last 90-plus years. These include the gleeful “debunking” of Theodore Roosevelt in the 1920’s, the demonizing of Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover in the 1930’s, the “revisionist” assaults on Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s, the dismissal of Harry Truman in the 1950’s, the disdain for Dwight Eisenhower in the 1960’s, the loathing of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, and the embarrassment with Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s. Such virtually uninterrupted brickbat hurling would seem to offer ample testimony to the truth of Mr. Dooley’s observation.

But is that the whole story? Nearly every one of those denigrated presidential reputations subsequently underwent major revaluation, and not every 20th-century president has gone through simple upward and downward cycles. Some have left the White House on a low note, and their reputations have waited a long time before getting even a modest uptick. William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and more recently Gerald Ford are cases in point. But these comparatively unsung chief executives have also enjoyed positive revisions. Taft’s later service as Chief Justice took the sting out of his collapsed presidency during his own lifetime. Harding’s and Coolidge’s reputations each took nearly half a century after those men’s deaths before their stock rose. In Harding’s case, the revisionism seemed a bit strained, amounting mainly to toning down overblown charges of corruption and ineptitude. With Coolidge, much of the later appreciation rested on newfound affection for governmental restraint. Ford’s reevaluation has sprung mainly from comparisons with the mistakes and flaws of his immediate predecessor and successor.

Then there are three 20th-century presidents whose reputations appear to stand entirely apart from the bust-and-boom cycle. John F. Kennedy’s thousand days will probably always remain torn between romanticism and muckraking centered on his personal character. Jimmy Carter seems a case of a permanent cloud of criticism shrouding an idealism and uprightness that have been exceptional in the last three and a half decades. George Bush’s term is probably too recent for any serious assessment of his reputation, although the safest prediction may be that his memory will continue a flat line of modest praise and criticism. With Bill Clinton it is prudent to await events before hazarding any guesses about his future reputation, except perhaps to wonder whether Mr. Dooley’s bricks may not be getting dusted off for fresh throwing.

The most serious criticism of this rule of presidential reputations, however, does not come from such small exceptions and refinements. One 20th-century president has enjoyed a place in the national memory that has stood surprisingly unaffected by great changes in political sentiment and generational consciousness. That president is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. True, for a while immediately after his death in 1945, FDR’s reputation seemed headed for the depths of denigration. The 1946 congressional elections witnessed an even stronger Republican surge than that of 1994, and congressional leaders then seemed just as much bent on undoing domestic liberalism and governmental intervention in the economy as today’s devotees of the Contract with America. In foreign policy, “revisionism” over the diplomacy that led to Pearl Harbor engaged the minds of even such estimable historians as Charles A. Beard and Charles Callan Tansill, while the onset of the Cold War spawned charges that the West had been “sold down the river” at Yalta.

Yet those signs of decline in FDR’s reputation were ephemeral. Domestic reaction against his legacy proved short-lived. In 1948 Truman won a “fifth term for the New Deal,” and after 1952, under the rubric of “modern Republicanism,” Eisenhower sought to consolidate rather than repudiate the Roosevelt legacy. Likewise, in foreign policy, bipartisanship prevailed even at the heights of Republican power, and few scholars or interpreters, even of conservative bent, put much stock in “revisionism” of the Pearl Harbor or Yalta variety. Indeed, rumblings of right-wing discontent with broad acceptance of the Roosevelt policies at home and abroad spawned not only the antics of Joe McCarthy and the Second Red Scare but also, of more lasting significance, the sharply conservative direction that the Republican party has taken since 1964.

Curiously, however, that right-running tide, which crested so spectacularly in 1980 and again in 1994, has evidently done nothing to erode Roosevelt’s reputation. The centennial of his birth fell in 1982, at a time when the most conservative incumbent in a century occupied the White House. Yet that president, Ronald Reagan, openly confessed his admiration for FDR, as he had done earlier while running for president. Conservatives joined liberals in the outpouring of adulation for Roosevelt in 1982. More recently, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives and self-proclaimed “conservative revolutionary,” Newt Gingrich, has called FDR the greatest president of the 20th century and promised to follow his example of leadership. Clearly, then, one presidential reputation in this century has resisted offering much of a target for Mr. Dooley’s bricks.

Why do these seeming contradictions exist? Why does the Mr. Dooley rule apply to some 20th-century presidents more than others? And why does that rule evidently apply to the weightiest of those reputations scarcely, if at all? Some might argue that no contradictions exist, and no explanation is needed. Not all presidents have become conquering heroes, and therefore there have been no triumphal arches and bricks to push their reputations up or down. As for Franklin Roosevelt, many might contend that he stands in a class by himself among this century’s presidents, perhaps among all presidents. Simple longevity in office—12 years, longer than anyone before or since—and the most winning electoral record—four successful runs for the White House—set FDR apart from every other president. Likewise, the events through which he led the nation—the Great Depression, which was the worst economic catastrophe in American history, and World War II, which was the largest-scale conflict fought by this nation or the world—ought to suffice to insure him a bright spot in public memory and esteem.

Those circumstances do explain part of FDR’s singular reputation among 20th-century presidents, Indeed, in all polls of presidential “greatness” among scholars, he usually ranks third, behind only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, followed by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. FDR stands as the only 20th-century specimen among the “Big Five” in the presidential pantheon. Of this century’s chief executives, only Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson normally gain places at the bottom of the “great” or top of the “near-great” categories customarily employed in these reputational surveys.

Still, more than circumstances are necessary to explain Roosevelt’s overweening eminence. Unlike Washington, he was no heroic military leader and quasi-legendary “Father of his Country.” Unlike Lincoln, he represented no apotheosis of the common man, nor did he save the nation from dissolution or free the slaves. Further down the list, unlike Jefferson, he was no towering intellect and theorist of democracy, nor was he a combination of self-made man and military hero like Jackson. In many respects, FDR displayed the opposite of the traits of stern rectitude, mental depth, and self-containment so much prized in his fellow presidential “greats.” He was the child of wealth and privilege who had a flashy, often devious personality, although his crippling by polio did offer a splendid, though artfully masked, example of personal courage. Moreover, as both the initial reactions against his domestic and foreign policies and continuing public debate have indicated, the content of his political legacy has by no means ascended into mists of unassailable national myth.

Yet despite those anomalies, Franklin Roosevelt not only ranks above any other 20th-century president, but his reputation has also cast those of all the other incumbents into what C.S. Lewis called “shadowlands,” places of yearning and unfulfiument, of disappointed hopes. Most remarkably, the phenomenon works in both directions. All of his successors, including the present president, have operated, as William E. Leuchtenburg memorably put it, “in the shadow of FDR.” As Leuchtenburg points out in his book by that title, every one of Roosevelt’s successors, no matter how different in circumstances, personality, or politics, has undergone and largely suffered from comparison with both an idealized memory of FDR and, often, explicit models drawn from his presidential practice. In a way, such comparisons may be inescapable. The presidents of the early 19th century, with the partial exception of Jackson, tended to be found wanting when compared with the Founders of the Republic, while post-Civil War presidents contended unsuccessfully with the memory of Lincoln.

Where FDR’s “shadow” differs from those of his fellow greats, except possibly Lincoln, is that it also darkens the reputations of his predecessors. In the case of Hoover, who was a defeated rival and later a persistent foe, the diminishing comparison requires little explanation, as do implicit contrasts with lesser lights among earlier 20th-century presidents. What is more remarkable and different from the Lincolnian precedent is that FDR’s reputation has also served to lower the esteem of the two phenomenally able incumbents from the generation immediately preceding FDR’s, namely his distant kinsman, in-law, and role model, Theodore Roosevelt, and his party chief and mentor, Woodrow Wilson. In fact, much of the substance in the model of leadership that lurks within the FDR shadow has consisted of favorable judgments of him in opposition to those two illustrious predecessors. Some people who knew both Roosevelts preferred Theodore’s dash and insight, but most observers then and later have judged Franklin superior in the political arts of balance, circumspection, patience, and cunning. Likewise, some who knew both Wilson and FDR valued the earlier president’s intellectual depth and shining idealism more, but the later incumbent comes off better in intuition, human relations, realism, and accomplishment.

In fact, the one department in which FDR was unarguably inferior to TR and Wilson—those various aspects of raw intelligence, learning, curiosity, and reflectiveness that comprise intellectual capacity— has gotten turned to his advantage. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., made a celebrated remark, apparently about FDR, but more likely referring to TR: “Second class intellect, but first class temperament!” This has become the touchstone of the FDR model of leadership. This contrast between him and his predecessors has elevated personality above intellect as the most important gift that a president can possess. Better to have the right instincts and “people skills” than the right ideas and plans. If anything, the contrast between FDR and his predecessors, particularly Wilson, has sometimes encompassed the dictum that a president can be too smart for his own good. It is no accident that the three most harshly criticized presidents of the last three decades, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter, have also been acknowledged as the most intelligent of the period. Conversely, the least cerebral recent chief executive, Reagan, has appeared not only to emerge least scathed from the shadow of FDR but also, to the chagrin and ire of liberals, to resemble the master most closely and follow his example best.

1 With apologies to Charles Dickens and C. S. Lewis.


What has given rise to this curious situation? An entire century has produced only one “great” president, in contrast to four in just a slightly longer earlier period. Furthermore, this single towering reputation has more effectively eclipsed those of both predecessors and successors than any other. The explanation for this condition would seem to lie, as with all reputations, in both the actor’s achievements, as well as those can be judged, and, perhaps even more, in the values and needs that others have projected on his memory. Unquestionably, between the Depression and World War II, Franklin Roosevelt led in demanding times, Indeed, the years of his presidency, 1933 to 1945, constituted a heroic time, in the best and worst meanings of that term. Those were years of dire economic distress, extreme ideological conflict, and vast military struggle.

Other nations similarly spawned extraordinary leaders in that era. In 1949, Isaiah Berlin noted “one respect in which the Second World War did outshine its predecessor: the leaders of the nations involved in it were, with the significant exception of France, men of greater stature, psychologically more interesting than their predecessors.” Among those leaders, Berlin named Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin. In light of Charles de Gaulle’s subsequent career, perhaps France did not offer an exception, either. Such heroic times, especially a vast and triumphant war fought for great human stakes, coupled with the leader’s death just at the moment of victory, would seem to underscore the analogy with Lincoln. Perhaps the best way to understand 20th-century presidential reputations is through comparison between the political struggles surrounding slavery and the Depression and the two biggest wars America has fought, both presided over by hero-martyrs whose reputations cast long and deep retrospective and prospective shadows.

Such an analogy between Lincoln and FDR is suggestive and in one respect points toward a deeper explanation. But this analogy can also mislead. The greatest difference between presidential reputations in the two eras lies in the matter of expectations. Lincoln’s predecessors and successors looked like lesser figures in his shadow, and perhaps some of the men who sat in the White House after him did occasionally pine for larger, nobler challenges. But for nearly 50 years after Lincoln’s death, no president or critic or observer seriously expected or wanted an incumbent to try to measure up to his stature. A vague sense of lost grandeur often surrounded late 19th-century American politics, but not until the turn of this century did any leaders genuinely aspire toward recapturing any part of that grandeur. No one played a greater role in reviving such aspirations than Theodore Roosevelt, and he found allies and rivals in such contemporaries as Robert M. La Follette, Albert J. Beveridge, and, in more complicated ways, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. The ferment stirred by those men and other figures, female and male, made the first two decades of the 20th century what has been called “a second golden age of American politics.” Likewise, that ferment gave rise to the basic difference in presidential reputations between the 20th century and earlier times.


For presidents, this century has been an era best described in Charles Dickens’s words, “great expectations.” Those two words go far to explain the applicability of Mr. Dooley’s brick-throwing rule, the smaller exceptions and variations from it, and its big, shadow-casting exemption. All 20th-century presidents have been subject to a set of great expectations. Franklin Roosevelt alone has seemed to live up to those expectations, and all others have been found wanting in one way or another. Gone with the 19th century has been any standard of measurement by which presidents might be expected to acquit themselves satisfactorily by being something less than heroes. How and why this transformation in expectations occurred forms the most probing question that can be raised about the American presidency in the 20th century.

Part of the answer obviously lies in the transformation of the United States itself in this century. By 1900, this country had built the world’s largest industrial economy, thereby taking on many attendant complexities and problems, and this nation had also reached outside its borders and far beyond the Western Hemisphere to take on commitments in international politics. New challenges and responsibilities at home and abroad imposed new demands on government, which in turn raised levels of expectation of what leaders could accomplish. The trouble with this explanation, however, is that it does not really explain why these elevated expectations got fixated almost exclusively on the president. It is true that similar challenges and expectations elsewhere spawned dictators, most notably in Italy and Germany, but other leading nations continued to function under parliamentary regimes in which greater demands on and powers of government were shared between legislative and executive bodies.

The best way to explain why this century has become an era of great presidential expectations is to observe how the transformation happened. Although Franklin Roosevelt eventually became its principal beneficiary, he did not create this change. Rather, its origins go back, like much else in the so-called “modern” presidency, to the first, Republican Roosevelt—Theodore. In his not quite two terms in the White House, TR skillfully exploited the mass media to raise levels of excitement and saliency surrounding emerging issues of the new industrial society, and he also made himself as president and as a person, together with his family, the center of national attention. Yet TR bent but did not break the established mold of working with and through entrenched party leaders, particularly the barons of Capitol Hill, who ultimately wrestled him to a stalemate during his last two years in office.

TR’s raising of great expectations of heroic performance occurred, instead, at the outset of his politically potent ex-presidency. As he hunted in the wilds of Africa and toured European capitals in 1909 and 1910, he brooded about how his own presidency had fallen short of Lincoln’s through lack of great challenge. Once back home, he soon convinced himself that the industrially related conflicts of his day were analogous to the struggles over slavery and the union of half a century earlier, and he cast himself in Lincoln’s role of savior of the nation, this time against the divisive passions stirred by what he called “the greed of the “haves” and the envy of the “have-nots.”” In 1912, less than four years out of the White House, TR challenged his handpicked successor, Taft, for renomination. Failing in that contest, he launched a new party, the Progressives. Running on a platform and slogan of the New Nationalism, he painted a vision of the national interest transcending special interests, with heroic figures like himself inspiring the people to heights of self-overcoming, struggle, and sacrifice.

TR finished second in 1912, ahead of Taft. It was his misfortune, however, to face Woodrow Wilson, who won thanks mainly to the politics-as-usual of a united Democratic party that delivered 43 per cent of the popular vote and an electoral landslide. It was the country’s good fortune that Wilson presented, behind his slogan and platform of the New Freedom, a countervailing vision of economic competition, social mobility, and responsible party government, with leaders like himself educating people to enlightened pursuit of their interests. Between them, TR and Wilson staged the greatest debate in any presidential campaign, and they offered 20th-century America a modern version of the formative debates at the Republic’s founding between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Once broached, TR’s vision of the heroic presidency would not go away. Wilson, despite his considered rejection of that approach, found himself cast in and sometimes deliberately assumed the heroic role as he led the United States through World War I and pursued his own doomed quest for a new world order through the League of Nations. Wilson’s fall from grace at the end of his presidency offers a vivid illustration of Mr. Dooley’s rule and of the passage from great expectations into the shadowlands. Warren Harding’s winning slogan in 1920, “normalcy,” openly appealed to the repudiation, not just of Wilson, but of TR as well, and of the whole notion of heroic, crusading leadership. Yet, faithfully though Harding and Coolidge after him embodied a different conception of the presidency, the repudiation did not last long. The first break with “normalcy” in the White House came in 1928 with Hoover, who boasted a non-professional political background and technocratic mastery of industrial capitalism’s evidently unstoppable prosperity machine. Any chief executive with the misfortune to be in office as the Great Depression began to ravage America was bound to suffer politically, but Hoover became so demonized and offered such a long-lived negative symbol in large part because of his previous arousal of great expectations.

FDR did not assume the heroic mantle without difficulty. Given the ties of kinship, marriage, and youthful imitation that bound him to TR, the younger Roosevelt probably could not have avoided following his model. FDR’s invocation of what Leuchtenburg has called the “analogue of war,” the prominence of many former TR Progressives in his administration, and the governmental posture of standing above major interest groups, especially under the National Recovery Administration (NRA), have led some historians to characterize the period between 1933 and 1935 as the New Nationalism phase of the New Deal. Thereafter, the mood of national emergency and FDR’s extended honeymoon faded, and partisan and interest-group conflicts revived. In response, Roosevelt switched to more of a Wilsonian model, with policies evidently tailored for and against interest groups and unabashed party leadership in his 1936 reelection bid. What is often forgotten about FDR’s presidency is that his mismanaged scheme to pack the Supreme Court, labor-related violence, a severe recession, his unsuccessful attempt to purge foes in his own party, and a big Republican and conservative Democratic comeback in 1938 turned his second term into a domestic disaster. It is interesting to speculate what his reputation might look like if he had stepped down after the customary two terms. Almost certainly FDR would not have become the giant presidential shadow-caster.

Instead, the international crisis that led to World War II gave him a new lease on political life. The best way to understand FDR’s twelve years in office is to view them, not as a single presidency, but, rather, as two presidencies, the first almost exclusively domestic, and the second overwhelmingly in foreign affairs. Equally important, this second, foreign affairs presidency allowed FDR to revert to the TR-style model. That was doubly fitting because exhortations to play a great role in world politics had formed a major part of TR’s own self-aggrandizing presidency and, after 1914, his bitter conflict with Wilson. After 1938, FDR preached the old saw that politics, meaning partisan conflict, should stop at the water’s edge. He practiced bipartisanship by appointing two prominent Republicans, Frank Knox and Henry Stimson, to the top defense posts in his administration before the 1940 election and afterward by enlisting his defeated opponent, Wendell Willkie, to lobby for his foreign policies.


1941 marked the definitive turn toward overtly heroic leadership. That year, FDR enunciated the Four Freedoms, began his association with Churchill at Argentia Bay, where they jointly issued the Atlantic Charter, and finally, after Pearl Harbor, rallied an at least temporarily united country to war. From then on, the heroic mantle enveloped him. Both the vastness of war itself and the apparent clarity of the ideological stakes, together with the timing of his death, reinforced the parallel with Lincoln. Other circumstances helped, too, especially the pre-war revival of interest generally in the Civil War, as exemplified by the popularity of Gone with the Wind as a book and movie, and particularly in Lincoln, as embodied in Carl Sandburg’s widely read hagiography and Robert E. Sherwood’s admiring Broadway play Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Sherwood joined FDR’s staff as a speechwriter in 1940 and served in various capacities until the president’s death. Wilson likewise underwent retrospective apotheosis during World War II, as his reputation soared from the depths of 1930’s isolationist demonology to the heights of adulation as a prophetic visionary and heroic martyr whose warnings had gone tragically unheeded. Books, magazine series, and a Hollywood extravaganza that surpassed even Gone with the Wind in production costs enshrined Wilson in the pantheon of presidential heroes.

As the 20th century draws to a close, the surpassingly critical role played by World War II in shaping succeeding decades grows clearer and clearer. Veterans of that war have dominated public life, particularly the presidency, much longer than Civil War veterans did earlier. Depending upon the political fortunes of Senator Robert Dole, the United States could enter the 21st century with one of those veterans in the White House. More broadly, the Cold War stands as the extension of World War II, a prolonged struggle against an “evil empire,” a monstrous antagonist that threatened not just national security but, more important, America’s values, ideals, and “way of life.” That fact goes furthest toward explaining the great expectations and FDR-created shadowland that have greeted other presidents and shrouded their reputations. A struggle that continued World War II by other means, albeit usually more limited, lower-keyed ones, required leaders cast from the same mold. Domestically, too, FDR’s failures and shortcomings tended to be forgotten, and even conservative chief executives were expected to kick off their administrations with a frenzy of activity and to dominate the government and public attention. In early 1995, the new Republican Congress lifted a page directly from the New Deal by pledging a “Hundred Days” of monumental legislation.

Naturally, now that the Cold War is over and some sort of new world condition, if not order, is emerging, it remains to ask whether such great presidential expectations and shadowed reputations should continue. One good way to answer that question might be to ask how well the model has served the nation and the political system over the last 50 years. It is tempting to answer, not well at all, and even to blame many political tribulations in this half-century on an ill-thought, inappropriate model and set of expectations. But such answers are a bit too facile. There were times when the Cold War did resemble World War II, as in the responses to the Soviets’ ringing down the Iron Curtain, the Berlin blockade, and the North Korean invasion in June, 1950. Much of Truman’s belatedly appreciated stature derives from his having lived up to the heroic model. His misfortunes derived mainly from his lesser ability to convey a convincing public image based on that model. Later and more problematic examples of presidential success along these lines would be Kennedy’s performance in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis and, in the immediate post-Cold War context, Bush’s management of the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. Likewise, some interpreters maintain that Ronald Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union in the 1980’s offer a shining example of living up to the precedent and spirit of his hero, FOR.

Still, after giving full credit to the occasional applicability of World War II precedents and the appropriateness of the heroic model, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those assumptions have done great harm. Consider the case of the two chief executives who openly attempted to march to a different presidential drummer. Dwight Eisenhower’s public postures of calm and restraint and his “hidden hand” management evidently did not detract from his contemporary popularity, but they did earn scorn from critics of various political persuasions who either explicitly or implicitly found him wanting by an FDR-derived standard. That widespread disappointment offered the youthful, relatively inexperienced John Kennedy a much-needed opening to win his parry’s nomination and the election to succeed Eisenhower. Likewise, heroic expectations shaped both the public image and much of the substance of the New Frontier, for better and, as some critics have contended, for worse.

The only other president who openly tried to depart from the great expectations was Gerald Ford. Following the tainted Nixon as he did, and as an unelected vice-president, Ford made a virtue of necessity in his effort to lower expectations. Invoking an automotive-minded allusion, he called himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” The effort did not work. Ford’s modesty offered another newcomer to the national scene, Jimmy Carter, the same kind of opening in 1976 that Kennedy had enjoyed previously. In contrasting Carter with Ford, the influential columnist William Shannon wrote that the choice lay between “the chance for another Roosevelt and the certainty of another Coolidge.” Given the narrow margin of victory in 1976, as in 1960, the potency of great expectations seems incontrovertible. But Carter’s presidency also shows that those who live by such expectations politically can also die by them. Ironically, in view of his lonely devotion to rationality and principle, Carter was by no means unsuited to the heroic model, but a combination of political circumstances, bad luck, and his own failings as a public performer soon banished him to one of the darker corners of the shadowlands.

Other examples of the inapplicability and often pernicious influence of the great expectations and the attendant model come readily to mind. Lyndon Johnson was personally closer to FDR than any other successor, and his domestic accomplishments owed much to New Deal precedents. But in foreign affairs, three decades of research and interpretation have steadily reinforced the view that LBJ was tragically misled when, quelling his own instincts, he hewed to what he thought were FDR-based precedents, especially the “Munich analogy” in Vietnam and more general needs to avoid the appearance of weakness. Richard Nixon continues to offer an example of the indispensability of moral character, and he also epitomizes a figure tragically miscast in the pursuit of great expectations at home and, despite his diplomatic feats, abroad. Retrospective disappointment with Ronald Reagan and doubts about the substance of his leadership raise questions about the applicability of this model even to this “great communicator.” Nor is the era’s perpetually shining young Lochinvar, Kennedy, exempt from similar doubts. Heroism offers an elusive standard, and many have wondered who was the braver leader in the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy, who pushed the world to the brink of thermonuclear war, or Nikita Khruschev, who backed down. An old proverb says that the truly brave man is the one who recognizes that he is a coward.

Perhaps the best answer to the question whether the great expectations and shadowlands of the 20th-century presidency should continue is that they never should have arisen in the first place. More than a response to the real challenges of an industrial society and a great power role in the world, these attitudes have reflected Americans’ shortcomings in dealing with those conditions. As Dickens originally used the phrase, “great expectations” described the callow, distorting dreams of his central character. Not just overreliance on the presidency but the requirement of heroism in its holders has denoted political immaturity among Americans. Regrettably, the critics who compare our system unfavorably with European parliamentarism have a point, although their preferred alternative has displayed plenty of flaws, as witnessed at Suez in 1956 and in Bosnia today. The real shadows over American politics and the presidency do not arise from an idealized and ill-thought model, bad as those influences have been. The shadowlands derive, instead, as the devout Christian C.S. Lewis knew, from the human condition, from sin, from alienation from the divine. People do not escape from the shadowlands, except momentarily, through grace. People politically, as much as individually, should seek to live as best they can in the shadowlands. In the end, the best uses for Mr. Dooley’s bricks are to build schoolhouses and meeting houses where we can teach ourselves to lead ourselves.


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