Thomas Paine observed, ”a non-describable, chameleon-colored thing called prudence, in many cases a substitute for principle so nearly allied to hypocrisy that it easily slides into it.” He was describing George Washington.
Does the President make the events of the day… or is his molded by them? America’s first historian, George Bancroft, noted that, “a good President will secure unity to his administration by his own supervision of the various departments. HE, who accepted advice readily, was never governed by any member of his cabinet, and could not be moved from a purpose deliberately formed; but his supervision of affairs was unsteady and incomplete, and sometimes, by a sudden interference transcending the usual forms, he rather confused than advanced the public business. If he ever failed in the scrupulous regard due to the relative rights of Congress, it was so evidently without design that no conflict could ensue, or evil precedent be established. Truth he would receive from any one, but when impressed by others, he did not use their opinions till, by reflection, he had made them thoroughly his own.“ Bancroft was describing Abraham Lincoln.
Separating great Presidents from the not-great… is far from an exact science. Presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summarized the difficulty, “To succeed, presidents must have a port to seek and must convince Congress and the electorate of the rightness of their course. Politics in a democracy is ultimately an educational process, an adventure in persuasion and consent. Every president stands in Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit. National crisis widens his range of options but does not automatically make a man great. The crisis of rebellion did not spur Buchanan to leadership, nor did the crisis of depression turn Hoover into a bold and imaginative president. Their inadequacies in the face of crisis allowed Lincoln and the second Roosevelt to show the difference that individuals can make to history.” Obviously, the right man at the right time is needed for greatness.
What makes the right man?