The more I come to understand about political leadership, the more I realize that some of the greatest achievements of America's best leaders didn't make the headlines and seldom show up in history books. They were the things those leaders did not do, the paths they did not take, the wars they did not fight, the disasters they avoided.
Recently, Evan Thomas reminded us of one of the best examples of such leadership in Ike's Bluff, his excellent new biography of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, demeaned by John F. Kennedy as a dull paper-pusher of a president, masterfully resisted the pressure from within his own party to dangerously confront the Soviets. He avoided a cataclysmic war by overseeing a process that allowed Washington leaders to come to understand that there was a better path by which we could contain the Soviets, through strength combined with forbearance, and allow the weakness of their system to undermine them over time.
Other presidents have similarly succeeded by avoidance. George H.W. Bush, to cite another example, deserves great credit for ensuring that when the Soviet empire did fall, as Eisenhower had much earlier worked to make happen, the transitions in Eastern Europe were peaceful. Where there could have been chaos Bush reached out to other world leaders and produced an orderly handover of power. He also waged a war against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in which he made the wise decision not to continue on to Baghdad, avoiding a messy conflagration like that which would later consume his son's presidency.
Both Eisenhower and Bush paid a price for their successes. Eisenhower's image was for decades shaped by the Kennedy caricature of him, and it is only now that he is rightfully gaining recognition as being among the best presidents of the last century. Bush did not win a second term as president in part because his accomplishments were too subtle to resonate with the public during the 1992 campaign.
We get a distorted view of real leadership when we discount sometimes hard to see accomplishments that come from presidents with vision, restraint, and a knack for behind-the-scenes deftness. This struck me again last week when President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie toured the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. They were hailed as leaders for their very public reaction to a crisis when in fact, real leadership would have involved avoiding the crisis in the first place -- or reducing its consequences, as we might have done had Obama, Christie, and other officials taken warnings about the consequences of climate change, severe weather, and deteriorating infrastructure more seriously. Indeed, just exercising enough prudence to take the measures that many urban planners around the world already do in areas threatened by such severe storms (regardless of their views about why such storms are now occurring with greater regularity) would have made the consequences of Sandy less grievous.
With Sandy fresh in our minds and Americans headed to the polls, it is worth looking ahead to consider what other avoidable catastrophes might be better measures of the next administration than stories the evening news can more easily point a camera at each night. Here are a dozen: