Fifty years ago today, President Richard Nixon, in one sense one of our least successful presidents (the first - and so far the only one - to resign the presidency under pressure), began his history-making trip to China, one of his presidency's most impactful events. At the time, in the context of Cold War international politics, it was one way of exploiting the bad relations between the two leading communist countries, China and the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, China is way more powerful than it was in 1972 and much more of a threat to the U.S. and the wider world that it was then. Meanwhile, while the Soviet Union is long gone and Russia remains only notionally a "Great Power," still Russia remains a persistent problem (as de Tocqueville so famously predicted it would be, long before there were any Bolsheviks).
"Presidents Day" is a somewhat silly, commercial substitute for the traditional Washington's Birthday holiday. (Washington's Birthday remains the federal holiday's official name.) Yet it does invite renewed reflection on the American presidency and on the particular men who have held that exalted office. Thus, the History Channel last night premiered a new three-night documentary event Abraham Lincoln, advertised as "a definitive biography of the 16th president, the man who led the country during its bloodiest war and greatest crisis." Also last night, CNN premiered LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy, a four-part original series (two episodes last night, two more tonight) that purportedly "offers a captivating look at one of the most consequential and enigmatic presidents in American history," who "used the office to pass the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction ... [and] reshape the social fabric of the nation," while "he simultaneously escalated one America’s most controversial wars, that subsequently overshadowed his domestic accomplishments," features interviews with the few surviving contemporaries of Johnson's, and the President himself is heard in recorded audio tapes.
LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy begins, of course, with the terrible events of November 22, 1963, which created the context and set the tone for the crucial first year of LBJ's presidency. Other important context is provided by reprising Johnson's Texas Hill Country upbringing that made him someone who understood the difference the New Deal made - and by extension what the Great Society might mean for people. The program highlights how, despite having been an outsider to the Kennedy Camelot and an "accidental" president, LBJ was from day one committed to becoming a bold, effective, and consequential president. Subsequent Chief Executives may have had similar ambitions, but none have had the wealth of political preparation and experience he had or the unique political and social circumstances of mid-1960s America which made bold, effective, and consequential politics and policy possible.
LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy is thus a somewhat nostalgic recollection of what was in many ways a somewhat better time and an opportunity for better politics, a world we have sadly long since lost. Nothing better expresses the difference between then and now than LBJ's slogan "abundance and liberty for all."
When I was a child and we still had real civic holidays, there were two presidential holidays, Lincoln'd Birthday (February 12) and Washington's Birthday (February 22). At the time, I recall my father predicting that we would likely have another such holiday, honoring our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sadly, that never materialized, although, after Lincoln and Washington, FDR has probably been the most profiled president, both in books and on TV. The 2014 Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, (which deals with the lives and careers of both Theodore and Franklin as well as with Eleanor) remains one of my favorite presidential documentaries.
What all such programs highlight is how enormously effective and consequential presidents like Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson were - effective as leaders in their own time and consequential in their legacies. The modern American presidency is uniquely a very powerful office, and we customarily call the U.S. President "the most powerful person in the world." Even so, a lot of the luster seems to have been lost from the office, and the aspirations of more recent presidents to be effective leaders with consequential legacies seems to have been more frustrated than fulfilled. Both Johnson and Nixon came close, but, having flown too close to the sun, seemed to fall as memorably as any of their successes (which were real and significant for both of them). Likewise, George H.W. Bush accomplished a lot in managing the end of the Cold War and in successfully prosecuting a limited war with Iraq, but (like other one-term president defeated for reelection) his lasting legacy is that of a one-term president defeated for reelection.
Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all managed to get reelected. And two of them (Clinton and Obama) left office still very popular. Even so, their complex legacies all appear diminished in comparison with both the aspirations and the accomplishments of Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Johnson - and thus appear as part of that larger historical process of transition to a decreasingly effective national politics, which, while highly focused on the presidency, increasingly diminishes presidential and makes presidents mainly mascots of competing teams or tribes.