Happy Presidents Day, a holiday that ranks somewhere between Groundhog Day and Opening Day at the ballpark in the list of Americans' priorities. It's easy to see why. Even though Americans admire their great presidents, they've been frustrated for quite a while now by their Disappointers in Chief. Those presidents seem to have become experts in taking Americans to the Mount Everest of hope and expectations and then letting them down in the valley of executive despair. Americans' own expectations, of course, have always been too high. Still, of late, Americans haven't had what presidential scholars would describe as a parade of great presidents occupying the White House.
Indeed, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America's last undeniably great president, the history of the presidency has resembled much more a bumpy and often wild ride than a consistent tale of top performers. It has been a story of scandal, impeachment, assassination, and transitional presidencies -- and also one of dedicated, intelligent, and able presidents, some of whom were not actually great presidents but who were great at appearing presidential. But since FDR, the greatness of consistent and incomparable achievement has eluded all of his successors.
Why? Are Americans just in a bad patch -- like in the 19th century for a decade or so on either side of Abraham Lincoln, when faceless chief executives came and went without much of a trace of significant accomplishment? Are Americans just between great presidents, waiting for another FDR? Or is something else afoot?
I think it's the latter. And as Americans celebrate President's Day, more likely at the shopping mall than the National Mall, here are five reasons that presidential greatness has become harder now than ever.
1. Americans are ambivalent about greatness.
The American system, creed, and political culture works against greatness. There's an anti-greatness and anti-authority trope that courses throughout U.S. history. Unlike the European story (literally filled with Greats -- Catherine, Alexander, Peter, Charles, and a handful of English kings), American history was not peopled by the royal or the entitled. There was no real tradition of grandiosity (sorry Newt) and certainly few of the monarchial trappings of power. George Washington rode around in an ornate coach with a large GW embossed on its top, but he shunned the more elaborate titles of the office in favor of a simple Mr. President. Americans have always liked leaders with a common touch and a dose of humility, even just for show.
Indeed, much to the dismay of the British ambassador, Thomas Jefferson would regularly greet him in bedroom slippers, sometimes opening the White House door in his stocking feet. Grover Cleveland answered his own phone; and Harry Truman, after leaving the White House in the summer of 1953, packed up the wife and drove himself to New England without handlers or Secret Service protection. Not until 1906, after three U.S. presidents (Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley) had been assassinated, did Congress even authorize formal statutory authority for presidential protection.