How Do Historians Evaluate the Administrations of TR and JFK?

History Q & A

Mr. Miroff is a historian and the author of Icons of Democracy: American Leaders as Heroes, Aristocrats, Dissenters and Democrats (University Press of Kansas American Presidency Series, 2000).

Americans like to make heroes (or villains) out of presidents. The history books give presidents disproportionate space compared to other important figures (although not as much as they used to do); the contemporary media collaborate by giving presidents disproportionate coverage. As a result, Americans are far more aware of the deeds of presidents than of any other political figures. In 1990, almost every American could identify President George Bush, yet a national survey found that only three percent of Americans could identify Justice William Brennan, Jr., a political figure whose impact on American life was far more profound than Bush's would prove to be.

But if Americans make (some) presidents into heroes, does it follow that heroic leaders make great presidents? Heroic leaders are dashing, dramatic figures who aspire to impress the public with the grandeur of their character and their deeds; they act their parts with one eye on the audience, the other on the historians of the future. A little-noticed feature of the periodic surveys of historians that rate presidential greatness is that the trio who usually occupy the top rank - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - are decidedly not heroic types. By briefly considering two would-be heroes who fell short of greatness, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, we can see why heroic leaders don't make great presidents. Heroic leaders have at least three flaws that undercut greatness: overweening ego, overblown rhetoric and overshadowing of a democratic public.


Heroic leaders link their careers to public causes, but the demands of their aristocratic egos repeatedly poke through their democratic disguises. Even when they are discussing issues of collective importance, their personal need for attention is palpable. The extreme case of the overweening heroic ego is Theodore Roosevelt. After attending a White House dinner party in 1904, Henry Adams wrote in disgust to a friend:"Never have I had an hour of worse social malaise.... We were overwhelmed in a torrent of oratory, and at last I heard only the repetition of I-I-I attached to indiscretions greater one than another." Or as one of TR's children described their father, he wanted to be"'the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.'"

The heroic leader needs to safeguard his image from any revelations of weakness or even of ordinariness. John F. Kennedy's extraordinary personal ascent required a series of deceptions - about the authorship of Profiles in Courage, the uses of his father's money, the illnesses that contradicted the public pose of vigor. Theodore Roosevelt was even more determined to conceal any chinks in his armor, no matter how tiny. When the famed big-game hunter failed to bag a bear in Mississippi in 1902, the press engaged in some good-humored ribbing at his expense. The next time the president went bear-hunting, he informed the press that he was only after mountain lions, so that he would be sure to at least meet the press's expectations and escape its teasing.


The heroic leader needs a suitably heroic language to dramatize his aspirations for greatness. When he speaks to the public, one can almost hear the trumpets blaring. But the exalted (and often martial) rhetoric that he favors can sound tinny to later generations. While Theodore Roosevelt coined some memorable phrases, such as"muckrakers" and"malefactors of great wealth," none of his speeches as president are memorable. Roosevelt's rhetoric was banal even in its grandiose moments, replete with what he himself once conceded were platitudes. John Kennedy retains a greater reputation for presidential eloquence. Yet his apocalyptic language of Cold War crisis and challenge has not worn well with historians. He may have stirred American hearts with lines like the following:"While no nation has ever faced such a challenge, no nation has ever been so ready to seize the burden and the glory of freedom." But the shine on these words rubbed off in the jungles of Vietnam.


Perhaps the deepest flaw of the heroic leader is that his drama is too much centered on the star to allow a significant role for the democratic audience. Heroic leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy have been more concerned to contain popular upheavals (Roosevelt worried about populists and socialists, Kennedy about civil rights militants) than to expand opportunities for public participation and civic dialogue. Theodore Roosevelt saw his presidential drama as a cheering spectacle for a public unsettled by industrialization and class conflict; the crowds that flocked to see him, he once wrote," came in to see the President much as they would have come in to see a circus." John F. Kennedy evoked an era of public service and participation in the most famous line from his Inaugural Address, but when asked to supply specifics to go with the soaring rhetoric, apart from the Peace Corps he was reduced to suggesting such public sacrifices as a curb upon expense accounts and an acceptance of higher postal rates. The later image of"Camelot" was unwittingly apt in capturing the royalist air of the Kennedy regime.

Truly great presidents - consider Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as cases in point - do not exhibit these flaws of heroic leadership. Certainly both Lincoln and FDR were extremely ambitious and energetically pursued power at the pinnacle of American politics. But both men learned how to fuse their egos with the most important democratic causes of their times. (When FDR did allow hubris to get the better of him, his usual political legerdemain gave way to blundering, especially in the court-packing fiasco right after his 1936 electoral triumph.) The rhetoric of both Lincoln and FDR remains relevant and even moving to later generations because it escapes heroic self-preoccupation to speak in collective terms (even impersonal ones in Lincoln's greatest speeches) about the most profound responsibilities of a democratic public. Lincoln and FDR engaged their publics rather than overshadowing and pacifying them; far more than TR or JFK, they were democratic educators. Their years in the White House are remarkable less for their personal elevation than for their elevation of the democratic bond between leaders and citizens that exemplifies the greatest presidential leadership. Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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