150 Years of The Atlantic January/February 2006

Politics & Presidents

This is the first in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who is writing a book on Nixon and Kissinger.

Most Americans are hard pressed to identify presidents by their landmark accomplishments or failings. No doubt most remember Abraham Lincoln as the president who led the country through the Civil War, and Richard Nixon as the only chief executive to have resigned the office. But could more than a handful say what Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt achieved during his White House term? How many Americans know that Woodrow Wilson was the architect of the Federal Reserve; that the Securities and Exchange Commission and the minimum wage began with FDR's New Deal; or that Lyndon Johnson was responsible for Medicare and federal aid to elementary, secondary, and higher education?

Archival excerpts:

Lincoln for President (October 1860)
by James Russell Lowell

How Books Become Immortal (September 1891)
by Woodrow Wilson

What College Graduates Owe America (August 1894)
by Theodore Roosevelt

The Purpose of Poetry (February 1964)
by John F. Kennedy

Presidential standing with the mass of Americans has been more about a man's character and inspirational leadership. Did he stand for something distinctive as president? Did he appeal to our better angels? Did he speak in memorable ways to what we value most about our national traditions? "With malice toward none; with charity for all," the "bully pulpit," "a war to make the world safe for democracy," and "Ask not what your country can do for you …" resonate with Americans more powerfully than any specific actions that Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, or John F. Kennedy took as president.

The Atlantic pieces excerpted here attest to why these four presidents exert an enduring hold on our imaginations. Lincoln's integrity and standing as a "statesman" rather than a "politician"; Wilson's regard for "originative personality"and the national tradition of individualism; Roosevelt's insistence that the country's best and brightest have indisputable civic responsibilities; and Kennedy's admiration for the artists and writers who speak truth to power reflect national core values that tie these presidents to every generation of U.S. citizens.

Robert Dallek

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