Book review: The End of Greatness: Why American Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014
First things first: Miller’s title sets him up for failure. It defies even the murkiest conception of common sense to argue that Americans don’t want a great president. I hazard the guess that it’s impossible to define “great president” in a way that would satisfy most readers.
More substantially, The End of Greatness isn’t a worthwhile read for me because, right up front, Miller acknowledges his endorsement of the "Great Man" theory of historical understanding that was championed initially in the 1840s by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. The theory is often cited but it has only quite diminished standing today, as most historians and informed thinkers believe that durable circumstances and the complex dynamics of human interaction have much more impact than "Great Men" on our lives and on history as it unfolds. So, Miller gets started on the wrong foot, and his arguments can’t overcome the narrowness of his analysis.
“Where are the giants of old, the transformers who changed the world and left great legacies?” Where are the leaders who “will author some incomparable, unparalleled, and ennobling achievement at home or on the world stage, an achievement likely to be seen or remembered as great or transformational?” Miller cites rebellions and revolutions as “crucibles for emerging leaders.”
He can’t escape defining “greatness” and offers: “defined generally as incomparable and unparalleled achievement that is nation- or even world-altering.” A couple pages later he digs the hole deeper when he equates greatness with military, political, economic and “soft” power. Incredibly, Miller declares “Greatness in the presidency may be rare, but it is both real and measurable,” and he temptingly alludes to “traces of greatness” in several contemporary presidents, while arguing “Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our modern times.”
Miller makes it official on page 10: Lincoln was one of the great presidents. Lincoln once dismissed another man’s argument by saying “it won’t scour,” as 19th century farmers said that a plow “won’t scour” when it failed to easily let the clods slide off the plowshare.
I think Miller’s thesis won’t scour. He mistakenly asserts that a few great leaders should get much of the credit for history’s “transformations.” He frames his arguments with words that can’t be acceptably, explicitly defined on the grand historical scale that he uses: what is and what isn’t, specifically and unarguably, a “great legacy”? a “transformation”? an “unparalleled achievement”? a “trace of greatness”?
Miller relies on great big categories and a deceptive positive spin to discuss a little idea, and to make a gratuitous point that really can’t be proved or disproved.(1)
Full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole book. The Introduction stopped me cold.
(1) Aaron David Miller, The End of Greatness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 4-14.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.