What is 'presidential greatness'?

Story highlights

  • America's top presidential scholars weigh in on what makes a president great
  • Richard Reeves: FDR was the greatest president of the 20th century
  • H.W. Brands: America is not ready for another great president right now
  • Joan Hoff: Wartime presidents tend to be considered great, but perhaps no longer
As Americans make up their minds and gear up to vote, CNN asks some of America's foremost presidential historians to weigh in on the question: What does it take to make a president great?
Richard Reeves: FDR's place in the 20th century
Presidential greatness is determined by being in the White House at the right time -- or the wrong time. The presidency is a reactive job and we judge the presidents by their handling of one or two big crises, usually unforeseen.
Nobody remembers whether Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan balanced the budget. What we remember is the agony of the Civil War. The Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war. The winding down of the Cold War.
Roosevelt, who probably understood the presidency better than anyone else -- before or after him -- was the greatest president of the 20th century because he knew what people wanted from the highest office in the land: action, words and optimism.
Richard Reeves
That all came together when he said he was no longer "Dr. New Deal" -- he became "Dr. Win The War." While historians will argue forever whether FDR actually ended the Depression, he did take aggressive action and fought with the right words with his "infamy" speech on December 7,1941, after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
When the Soviet Union was putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy said in private that doing nothing was the worst option and he would be impeached if he did not take action. In good times or bad, a president is expected to do something! Sometimes he does the right thing and becomes great for it.
Richard Reeves is the author of a presidential trilogy: "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," "President Nixon: Alone in the White House" and "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination." He is senior lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Aida Donald: Truman believed in the strength of character
In early 1962, my husband and I were invited to the White House by first lady Jackie Kennedy because she wanted the president -- who loved history -- to listen to my husband, David Herbert Donald, talk about Abraham Lincoln.
Aida D. Donald
When the talk was over, President Kennedy asked: "Do you think that what makes a president great is a war?" My husband blanched and said, "No, Franklin Roosevelt was a great president before World War II started. His domestic program had already made him a great president."
Of course, Lincoln was a great war president. His saving of the Union and the freeing of 4 million slaves were his greatest accomplishments.
Now, I would add that Harry Truman was also a great president, because he was commander in chief in a great war and then reconstructed the world after World War II.
Truman drew red lines to keep the Soviets from continually gobbling up countries. He saved Greece and Turkey with his Truman Doctrine. He saved Berlin with an airlift when the Soviets blockaded it. He led in forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect Europe. He started the Point Four program to assist poor countries. He was behind the Marshall Plan of giving Europe $6 billion to reconstruct itself and be a bulwark against Communism. He encouraged the rebuilding of Japan as a democratic and capitalist country and as a counter to Communist China.