Why great men?
Lord Bryce, in his classic study of "The American Commonwealth," wrote a chapter entitled "Why Great Men are not President." That is a question a good many Americans seem to have been wondering about lately. No matter one's preferences among the candidates (and some people I know seem dangerously close to having no preference at all), they carry in their minds an image of the ideal. In a country of 228 million souls, they ask, could not men -- or women -- of larger stature present themselves at the polls?
One must presume that great men do exist somewhere within our vast population. Indeed most of us know someone who appears better qualified -- more gifted in eloquence, in knowledge, in philosophy -- than those men now going up and down the land in search of the country's highest office. But would such a person be willing to submit to the extraordinary trials we impose upon our candidates? To be out for months, or even years, upon the road, shaking hands and addressing crowds, eating tasteless meals and passing sleepless nights in lodgings far from home; to be separated from one's family or else to subject them to the same grueling hardships: this routine would be enough to discourage any man of exceptional virtue.
If we had devised a system purposely to sift out from the human race al except those endowed with leather lungs and iron constitutions, we could hardly have done better. Could it be, indeed, that we do not wantm great men in the presidency? I have noted that those citizens who call most urgently for "more leadership" are often the very ones who are most quick to resent leadership when it is exercised. Then they call it by another name: "dictatorship," for example , and they long for the good old days when the nation drifted along under presidents who went with the current and heeded the latest poll.
My own answer to this disturbing question is that we do desire greatness, and that we do, at our best, recognize leadership as a fundamental quality in a republic. Yet greatness we instinctively define, not in terms of a showy authority or even resplendent personal gifts, but in terms of an essential humility. We exalt leadership when it is not visionary or quixotic, but an expression of many visions brought into harmony. The United States is so large, and contains so many diverse and often warring interests, that we reject any ideal of the transcendent leader. Better a quiet, not too learned man than one who sees things exclusively according to his own lights. Better one with his ear to the ground than one with his head in the skies.
Thinking of those men who have been the most successful presidents, I find them all -- with one possible exception -- to have been those who could combine and assemble, who could moderate and compromise. The possible exception is Washington, who appears, from this distance at least, to have been monolithic, undeviating from his own strict sense of rectitude. But let us not forget that Washington managed to keep both Jefferson and Hamilton in his Cabinet, two men who represented different constituencies and different philosophies of government. He could only do so by a certain wily accommodation. Jefferson himself, or later the two Roosevelts, were many-sided men, often accused of being devious. Wilson, for all his gift of prophecy, could apply the tactics of an Irish politician. And the immortal Lincoln knew better than any how strangely compounded is the American democracy.
The greatness of American presidents has usually appeared only afterward, when men could see them in perspective. Then it could be known that to the essential gifts of compromise they had added something from deep within themselves -- an overriding humanity, a steadiness of faith beneath the whirlpools of current politics. It may be said, indeed, that great men are not elected president but that sometimes under the immense burdens of the office, quite ordinary men become great. They bear the sorrows and the hopes of many, and when they read the polls or listen to the lates opinion of the voters, they effect a reconciliation touched with the spark of some divine light.