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.
More

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

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In