Let me finish tonight with this.
A leader must have a mission—an American leader, especially. We are a frontier people: happiest, most excited, most American when we’re on a quest. Presidents need to know that. Great presidents know it because it’s who they are, why they set out to lead us in the first place.
All our great leaders—Washington, Lincoln, FDR, John F. Kennedy—were men with a mission.
Washington led us into nationhood. He defeated the most powerful military force in the world basically by a brilliant campaign of retreat along the Delaware ‘til he caught the British sleeping at Trenton, outsmarted them again at Princeton.
Then he did something remarkable, setting the model that made him truly great, walking away from power twice—first as the winning commander of the revolution, and then as our first elected leader.
He would have been without match until Abraham Lincoln came along, championing a bloody Civil War that cost us 600,000 countrymen shooting each other across fields at point-blank range, with their blue and grey uniforms their only cover. He emancipated slaves, then ripped the institution from our Constitution for good, and through it all, began the healing.
Finally, in our trinity of greatness came Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who carried us through the Great Depression and World War II, yielding us up as the leading country of the modern world. He did by force of human will, getting his country to prevail against the toughest challenges of his century through the strength of his own confidence. One author said that he knew we’d win the war just hearing FDR declare it.
Jack Kennedy gave us the New Frontier. A hero in WWII, he led the country through the Cuban Missile Crisis, changed the Democratic Party from a segregationist party to a civil rights party, created the Peace Corps and took us to the moon. (My book on him, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, of which I am very proud, is just out in paperback.)
And now for Barack Obama. He’s given us health care, ended discrimination in the armed forces, begun the quest for marriage equality, toughened the fight against terrorism. Will he now bring into being fiscal and immigration policies that secure a confident, competent 21st century? Will he face down the threat of climate change? Will he dare to be great?
These are the questions I want answered.