Two recent films about America’s greatest presidents since, and along with, George Washington — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — cannot fail to remind us of the deterioration in the distinction of the presidency. They have received sharply different reviews and taken large, and, in Roosevelt’s case, sometimes scurrilous, liberties with historical facts. It would have been astounding if Steven Spielberg had not produced a boffo performance in recreating America’s greatest statesman, and he did. The script reveals the qualities that made Lincoln one of the most universally admired figures in world history.
The self-made man without chippiness; the very ethical man who was, yet, far from a prude nor above a political ruse; the intellectual autodidact who was subject to moroseness but never without a sense of humor, worn but not altogether exasperated by an impossible wife nor broken by the death of two sons in adolescence, disappointed but never angry at the countless betrayals he endured — all emerge in Daniel Day Lewis’s brilliant performance in the title role. It would be unfair to compare any of his successors to Lincoln, as such a leader is unique and only a very few statesmen in the history of democracy anywhere bear any comparison with him.
In Hyde Park on Hudson, about FDR, Bill Murray, generally known for comic roles, does a commendable job (almost as good as Ralph Bellamy in Sunrise at Campobello), showing how Roosevelt coped with the immense pressures of his office as he pulled the United States out of the Great Depression while World War II threatened, and how he alleviated the additional tensions created by polio, his vulnerability to sinus attacks, his not altogether functional marriage, and his loneliness for affectionate female company. One can only wonder at the equable stoicism, ingenuity, and unshakeable determination with which both presidents shouldered terrible burdens and conducted the country to successful conclusions of the greatest dramas in its post-Revolutionary history.
No country can expect leaders of such stature to arise more frequently than they have in the U.S., but almost all the presidents who were elected shortly after Lincoln and Roosevelt possessed conspicuously impressive qualities of leadership. U. S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield were capable generals and generous-hearted men. Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, though ordinary, were fearlessly honest and decent, and are now well-regarded presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower is, unjustly, better remembered as a kindly and amiable golfer in the White House than as the uniformly victorious theater commander who received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in the West, founded the military command of NATO, and, as president, ended the Korean War, stayed out of the Vietnam War, proposed Atoms for Peace and Open Skies, de-escalated the Cold War, and warned of the military-industrial complex. Ronald Reagan was a great president who possessed some of the attributes of Lincoln and Roosevelt. And whatever their shortcomings, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush were very talented men who served the nation with bravery and success in war and peace.
Fortunately, few presidents in the country’s history could have been relied upon to produce the indignities of the Clinton era, the gaucheries of the younger President Bush, or the slippery confrontationalism of the incumbent. Lamentations of this kind are commonplace and it would be unbecoming to dwell on invidious comparisons. I will only repeat my view that the national bug-out on Vietnam and the destruction of the very successful and heavily reelected Nixon presidency over the fatuous issue of Watergate (albeit with the president’s somewhat neurotic cooperation through his mishandling of it) have deterred unknowable numbers of good people from seeking high office and have terribly coarsened and commercialized the political process. This must be a contributing factor to the abstention of the most promising Republicans from last year’s presidential race: Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio.