Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was brilliant, compassionate and brave; and above all he understood the imperative for America to be moral. But he was a shocking liar (he shocked other professional politicians). When it suited him, he was ruthless, vicious, even dictatorial; his attempt to pack the Supreme Court is shocking still.
Tom Wicker titled his 1992 biography of Richard Nixon "One of Us," and Nixon was that. He was one of us -- one of the better of us -- in his sharp intelligence, his drive, his loyalties, his common-man patriotism, his faith in hard work. Like Roosevelt, he combined an exceptional policy imagination with great tactical skills, to transformative effects. But his virtues were -- over time, increasingly -- warped into qualities that we recognize with a shudder: one of us as seen in a glass, blackly.
Bill Clinton was a kind of genius at the public maneuverings and theatrics of politics. He was in important ways a visionary: Like Newt Gingrich, a rival with whom he shared some virtues as well as flaws, he recognized that he stood at a moment of re-creation in the national life. But he very nearly defined moral monstrosity. Was there ever a president of such spectacular selfishness, of such relentless dishonesty, of such grotesque immaturity?
Actually, yes. And he was, at least in parts, one of the greats. In his ferocity of ambition, duplicity, appetites, brutality, egomania, LBJ set the gold standard of monsterhood. He was a dedicated sadist who studied every person he met for weak spots -- and he delighted in just so, just there, driving the knife home. He was a shameless toady to those above him and a vicious bully to those below him. He was a thief of votes and an acceptor of bribes; the hundred-dollar-stuffed envelope had for him the comforting familiarity of a pocket handkerchief. He practiced ugliness as a force multiplier. He betrayed anyone and everyone as he saw fit, from spouse to friend to Senate colleague. He was an opportunist beyond compare. And he was the father of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the greatest piece of moral good to come out of Congress in 100 years.
The obvious point in common about the monster-greats -- LBJ, FDR, Nixon, Clinton and, I would add, John F. Kennedy -- is that they all were maniacally driven men. They got the presidency because, in large measure, they wanted it so much that they were, in a sense, mad; they were great because they were monsters.
What of presidents who are not monsters? These, it can be argued, fall into three groups: (1) The mediocrities: the great majority of the leaders who were not monsters but also not great. (2) The true rarities: those who actively pursued greatness and who yet managed to be both great and good (that is, non-maniacal, non-neurotic, moral); Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, I'd say. (3) The accidents: those who were great because greatness was thrust on them, not because they were driven to greatness.
In this last group, consider two: Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Both became presidents essentially by chance (one boosted by war fame, the other promoted by the death of the president). Neither exhibited a lifelong mania for self, and for power; rather, they were obviously non-neurotic, normal men. Ambitious, hard, ruthless, etc., but not to the point of monstrosity. Both proved to be exceptional leaders.
All of which brings up the question of George W. Bush. He is clearly not of the monster class. His critics would argue that, just as clearly, he belongs with the mediocrities. But there is by now some real evidence that he is something more than that, that he is one of the accidents, one of those who is not driven to greatness but who wander to it and rise to it.
You get the sense with Bush that he became president because he realized, once he grew up, that it was what he was supposed to do -- what with dad, and all. That is very different from the sort of consuming hunger that impels the monster-greats. Different, and healthier, and sometimes the basis for its own kind of greatness.