Our Jim has a witty and instructive review of a book on rating the presidents. It turns out that Jim can sum up the truth about presidential greatness in one paragraph:
Greatness is to be found not just in the effecting of an important change but in comparing the magnitude and worth of the achievement. Washington assured that the Constitution would in fact be accepted as our governing charter and established the real content and scope of the office of the presidency. Lincoln saved the nation from dismemberment and freed the slaves. FDR, however one may judge his specific policies, kept the confidence of the public in liberal democracy during a period when many were questioning its viability. Accomplishments of this order are on a higher plane than, to take the case of TR, “the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission and legislation to foster safety in the country’s food supply and drugs.”
The value-free standard here is something like magnanimity: Doing what was absolutely indispensable for saving the Constitution and pereptuating human liberty.
It’s what the particular president did do that counts—not his mistakes or the undeniable fact he could have done more or better.
That doesn’t mean that most presidents can or should be great, or even that “national greatness” should be the inspirational standard that cures what ails us in less than deeply critical times. We can even be open-minded on the “American conservative” thought that presidential greatness might ordinarily be not so great.
Some southerners and libertarians will dissent on Lincoln. But he did what he said he was going to do, and the general view is that country was permanently or at least enduringly changed for the better in fundamental ways.
Lots of libertarians and conservatives (not to mention Glenn Beckians) will dissent on FDR: But he did, after all, save the Constitution from a world crawling with fascists and communists and others with the general impression that you had to choose one or the other to be on board with the future. And he did what was required to win World War II. That war, of course, made the world safe for liberal alternatives to communism and fascism. FDR screwed up a lot, first of all by not even beginning to understand Stalin. But we postmodern conservatives still have to acknowledge our debt to his greatness.
I could say obvious good stuff about Washington, but in his day and ours hardly anyone has the guts to publicly diss him.