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The Impossible Presidency

02/18/08 7:55AM By Frank Bryan
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(HOST) Commentator Frank Bryan is a writer who teaches political science at UVM. And this President's Day, he's thinking about  what we ask of those who serve in the Oval Office - and how we measure their success.

(BRYAN) Presidential historians like to play a little game. It's called "Ranking the Presidents." Let's play the Ranking the Presidents game. Have we elected a great President since 1950? Will we elect one this fall?

First, the rules. One, check your partisanship at the door. It may hurt - but you can do it. Two, remember great Presidents are born in critical times. Three, one reelection is a prerequisite for greatness.

Now let's take a practice run. Here is Presidential scholar Clinton Rossiter's list of great Presidents prior to 1950. His top three are Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. His next three: Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson. His final two: Teddy Roosevelt and Truman.

Now let's review the candidates for great Presidents in roughly the last fifty years:

Eisenhower: He got us out of Korea  (sound familiar?) and we reelected him. The country experienced eight years of peace and prosperity.
 
Kennedy: Ranked on personal potential, he would be a shoo-in. Herein lies the tragedy of his death: we'll never know.  
Lyndon Johnson: Vietnam and his unwillingness to seek a second term did him in.

Nixon: Enough said.
 
Ford: Wasn't elected in the first place and couldn't get reelected.

Carter: Iran cost him dearly. He lost his reelection bid.

Reagan: He served eight years, six of them strongly. America knew peace and prosperity. He won his reelection bid overwhelmingly: 49 of 50 states voted for him, even Vermont! (I told you this might hurt!)

Bush Senior: History will be kinder than we were. But no chance for greatness. We fired him.

Clinton: Like Kennedy he had great potential. But unlike Kennedy he wasted it and destroyed his own Presidency. Still, we lived under eight years of peace and prosperity. He'll do OK.

Bush Junior. This ought to be easy. But it's not. Remember: Truman's ratings were close to Bush's when he decided not to run again in 1952. And Americans are still paying for a significant military presence in Korea.  

The bottom line: the only clear choice for Presidential greatness since Truman (with a huge asterisk for Kennedy) is Reagan.

What does this mean? It means we have turned the Presidency into an impossibility. We fired two, Carter and Bush Senior, for no compelling reason. We micromanage every move a President makes. Could Kennedy have survived the Bay of Pigs today?  We have limited their terms to two, indicating we don't trust them. We don't even trust ourselves to trust them.
 
The best they can hope for is six years of hard sledding interrupted by the need to get rehired -and followed by two years when every evening news broadcast is mesmerized by the race to replace them. As the field now stands, it may matter less who we elect than how we treat them after we elect them.
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