This bit from The Daily Show got me thinking about the way we measure presidential greatness.
The top tier of great presidents is reserved for those who saved the union: Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. Without the leadership each of those men provided in turn, we wouldn't still have a country.
Part of what that means for other presidents, of course, is that if you happen to govern at a time in which the future of the republic is not immediately imperiled, then you're not eligible to join that top tier. Take Teddy Roosevelt for example. He may have done some fine presidenting, but the stakes were never as high for him as they were for Lincoln or for FDR. So regardless of the merits of his claims at presidential greatness, he's just not in the running for that top tier.
From a certain perspective — albeit one that puts a personal, petulant sense of entitlement above the good of the country — this might seem unfair. It means, among other things, that George W. Bush was guaranteed going in that, through no fault of his own, he could never achieve the highest level of presidential greatness. Was it his fault that he had the misfortune of following a leader who left behind a legacy of peace and prosperity? Of course not. So why should his own place in history be diminished just because he wasn't lucky enough to follow somebody like Buchanan?But if George W. Bush wants to be remembered as a great president, and the only way to achieve that is to save the republic when its very survival is in jeopardy, then there was only one thing he could do: He would have to put the future of the country at risk himself.
I doubt that's what he's thinking. But it would explain a lot.