In his 1999 memoir of the Clinton White House, All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos wrote at length about his former boss’s blemishes—his indecision, his emotional rampages, his questionable personal life. For all of President Bill Clinton’s political charm and idealistic ambition, his former right-hand man spelled out in the clearest of terms one of the frustrating realities of politics and every other human enterprise: They’re undertaken by flawed people.
In contemporary times, media access and technological advances have made this especially evident. Every slip of the foot or tongue is caught on tape and played out for weeks on TV, radio, and the Internet.
Former Senator George Allen’s ill-fated racial slur last fall—echoed in sound bites for weeks afterward—played a big part in his defeat by Jim Webb last November. Footage of Senator Joe Biden’s embarrassing comments to reporters about Indian-Americans and Dunkin’ Donuts was posted on YouTube days before he announced his presidential bid. And many wonder if a politician as prone to inappropriateness as Senator John McCain—he once joked at a Republican fundraiser that Janet Reno was Chelsea Clinton’s father—can make it to November without a major faux pas.
Technology has captured the humanness of public figures while raising our expectations of politicians to a super-human level. What if we’d had the same technology, access to information, and sensibilities during Andrew Jackson’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency? Imagine the banter in the backrooms of the Hermitage or the jokes cracked on TR’s famed hikes through Rock Creek Park.
The fact is that our most lauded presidents were great to the extent that they triumphed despite ignoble tendencies and personality flaws.
In last year’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Conrad Black exposed FDR’s opportunism and implacability, even as he placed him right below, if not in the same league as, Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president.
Lincoln’s emotional struggles, as documented in Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness do little to undermine his achievement. Rather, they make Lincoln’s achievements more astounding.
History’s hands hold in their grasp no perfect men. We’ve never elected one and never will, but if we could, what would the perfect president look and act like?
That’s the question taken up in Stephanopoulos’s The Perfect President, to be published by Hyperion next spring. Todd Brewster, who cowrote In Search of America and The Century with Peter Jennings, will lend a hand.
Stephanopoulos—now broadcast royalty as host of ABC’s Sunday show This Week—will cull through the presidents, “examining the often surprising characteristics that have contributed to presidential greatness.”
What would your perfect president be like? Mine would command respect like George Washington. He—or she—would employ the thoughtfulness of the first John Adams, have Thomas Jefferson’s ingenuity, and be as stubborn as Andrew Jackson when stubbornness is required. At other times, he’d be as humble as Gerald Ford.
My president would have a story like Lincoln’s and, like Lincoln, would use the podium to pack a precise and eloquent punch. He’d have the vigor of the first Roosevelt and the same fearlessness in the face of domestic and international disaster as the second.
He’d have a nickname as catchy as Ike, hair like John F. Kennedy’s, a laugh like Ronald Reagan’s. And he’d be as likable as Clinton.
It’s a given that such a candidate won’t be on the ballot in 2008. But maybe we’ll find one or two with a few of our greatest presidents’ hallmarks. This person won’t be perfect, but imperfection has never been the ultimate bar to greatness.
Other recent Washington-related book deals:
PublicAffairs will turn the Washington Post series “Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril” into a book of the same name this August. The series—which ran mostly in the second half of 2006 and included stories by Steven A. Holmes, Richard Morin, and Sari Horwitz, to name a few—drew criticism from Bill Cosby for painting too bright a picture. The Post reported, among other findings, that 6 in 10 African-American men had said it was a “good time” to be a black man in the United States. Local writer Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Known World, will write the book’s introduction.
Romesh Ratnesar, an editor and writer at Time, will analyze Ronald Reagan’s most famous speech in Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President and the Speech that Ended the Cold War (Simon & Schuster). Ratnesar will draw from interviews with those who helped write the iconic 1987 address and with those who witnessed it in West Berlin.