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Stop expecting American presidents to be great and allow them to be good, says author

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: Do Americans expect too much from their presidents? And what makes a great commander in chief?

    Margaret Warner explores those questions with the author of a new book.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Aaron David Miller is known for his decades of work on U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East in four administrations. But now he's returned to his training in American history with a new book, "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President."

    He argues there have only been three truly great presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, and that Americans should stop searching for another one.

    We spoke about this at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington.

    Aaron Miller, thanks for joining us.

    AARON DAVID MILLER, Author, "The End of Greatness": Pleasure, Margaret.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You write in this book that Americans, we Americans need to get over our obsession — you actually call it an addiction — in seeking out, also searching for a great president. Why not? Why not the best?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    Well, you could search, but what if you search — and it be ennobling — what if you search for something you cannot have? That's the predicament that we're in.

    We have created a sense of expectation in a job that's already, some would argue, impossible. Let's just say it's implausible, given the nature, the complexity of the presidency, the terrifying contingency about politics, so many factors beyond our control, and yet we want to turn the president into a kind of a combination between Harrison Ford in "Air Force One" and Superman. And the realty is, we can't have presidents like that anymore.

    That's the real issue. We have to stop pining for the presidents, the great transformative ones, because those are not going to come back, it seems to me, and allow the presidents who we do elect to be good. Stop expecting them to be great, and allow them to be good, in the meaningful sense of the word.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What did the three greats, Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, have that the others didn't or achieve that the others didn't?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    Transforming a nation encumbering crisis. That defines greatness.

    Without crisis — and I'm not talking about marginal crisis or a serious crisis — I'm talking about a crisis that encumbers the nation for a sustained period of time. That is what separates the capacity of the greats, the undeniable greats — I call them the indispensables — Washington, Lincoln and FDR, the three greatest challenges the nation faced produced, fortunately for us, our three greatest presidents.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But you also say they all have things in common. You call them the three C's.

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    I do.

    The three C's of presidential greatness, the cocktail if you will, you mix them all together, you get a great president. First of all, the crisis, which opens the door. The founders basically set it up this way. They wanted an energetic executive, but they didn't want power to be irresponsibly collected and aggrandized.

    So crisis is what opens the door. Then, if you have character and capacity, you can figure out what to do with the crisis. And that in essence is my definition of greatness, nation-encumbering in crisis, out of which the undeniables extract transformative change which fundamentally alters the nation for the better.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And what is the character, the essential character that's needed?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    There's the internal definition of character, the will, the drive, the ambition, the capacity to harness their individual futures to a broader enterprise. You put that together, and you get my definition of character, which produces a pretty compelling personality.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Go back to your point about the fact that our search for greatness in a president, that keeps them from being good. What do you mean by that?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    We have a cardboard, I would argue, cartoonish view of leadership.

    Great man and, some day, woman is elected, high principle, lofty vision — great repetition — and somehow, by force of personality or will, change happens. That's not the way change happens in America.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Does it affect the way they approach things? Does this make a president swing for the fences when he or she shouldn't or too cautious?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    Yes, you have to read the real estate correctly, all right?

    Lincoln inherited the most profound crisis of any president. He also midway during his tenure believed he somehow had to extract a transformative change out of it. It was emancipation. He waited for the exact moment. And he dressed it up not as some transformative declaration of principles, but as a war measure, The Emancipation Proclamation.

    Barack Obama inherits two crises, the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression, and the two longest wars in American history, and believes somehow the stage is set for his capacity to transform the nation at home and abroad.

    He misread the real estate. I'm not blaming him. Every president aspires, but you need to understand the real estate and figure out what you can do and what you can't.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, are you really prepared to say we will never have another great president?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    It would be terrific if we could have a Washington, Lincoln and FDR in a more modern guise.

    But the reality is, I'm pretty confident we can't. What we need are good presidents, and not good in the banal sense, good in the sense that they are competent and effective, good in the sense that they are morally resonant, and they understand the law. Harry Truman once said that Nixon read the Constitution, but he really didn't understand it.

    And good in the sense that they are emotionally intelligent. They are not haunted by demons and aspirations of greatness go — that go beyond their capacity to achieve. You give me presidents like that, and we will be on the way to beginning to address some of the crises that ail the nation.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You are a Middle East expert. You spent your entire career in that.

    Did you have any hesitation about wading into this ground where so many presidential historians have tread? I mean, some people might say, frankly, what's Aaron Miller's standing to offer a thesis like this?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    Look, this is a national conversation. It's a conversation every American has the right to participate in, because the presidency is ours.

    I have a right, an incentive, as all of my fellow Americans do, to participate in this debate and to judge and evaluate our presidents, not unrealistically or aspirationally, but in a way that will make the country better and stronger.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And you hope this book will start that conversation?

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    I wrote the book to begin a conversation, not to end one.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Aaron Miller, thank you.

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    Thanks so much, Margaret.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And hear why Aaron David Miller thinks George Washington actually had the hardest job of all. That's at PBSNewsHour.org.

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