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Historian Names George Washington as Greatest President
Aired July 4, 2003 - 19:26 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.
On this national holiday, in this time of conflict, we thought it fitting to take a few moments to look back at some of this country's best remembered leaders, leaders who came to be defined by the crises they faced.
Garry Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose next book is called "Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power." He joins us tonight from Chicago.
Garry, thanks for being with us. What presidents, past leaders, do you most associate with the Fourth of July?
GARRY WILLS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, the great president, the greatest man in American politics is George Washington, of course.
He is the one who had to be there. If he had not been there, probably the revolution would not have been won, probably the Constitution would not have passed. Probably the government would not have been formed in a way that it would have endured.
COOPER: You say the greatest leader. Though, there are some who are very critical of, for instance, his military prowess.
WILLS: Well, his military prowess was a matter primarily of holding together an army that was probably not going to last for any time.
He left Mount Vernon and he never went back. He stayed all through the war, all through all of those winter camps, because he knew that if he left there would be nothing there.
You know, there's a great saying in the musical "1776" -- has silly stuff in it, but when a message comes from George Washington, everything gets still and there's a drum roll. It gives his message. Everything depended on him.
COOPER: Garry, I suppose in sort of the pantheon of great American leaders it's really -- what role sort of has war and combat and being commander-in-chief played in elevating a leader to greatness?
WILLS: Well, it's not so much, I think, the matter of the leaders' qualities but the fact that in a war, followers come forward and are willing to submit themselves. So our three greatest presidents by everybody's count are our war presidents in the Revolution, in the Civil War, in World War II. Namely, Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
COOPER: So in a sense are you saying it was almost easier because people were more willing to follow?
WILLS: Sure. I'm sure there are great presidents who never had a chance to do what they did. Because when we're at peace, people are resisting government, are having their own private affairs more important in their mind.
In a war, we all pull together and, unfortunately, one of the effects of war is that we allow suspensions of constitutional rights. That's happened in every war, so anxious are we to make sure that we prevail.
So it's easy in a way for a great leader to get great response out of a war.
COOPER: What advice, then, I mean, it's maybe a ridiculous question, but hey, why not, what advice do you think past leaders, a Washington, Lincoln, would have for today's leaders?
WILLS: Well, this is not quite a war on that scale. One thing, though, that I would say because this is the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence was addressed to the world.
Jefferson said that we have to have a decent respect to the opinions of mankind and he offered his document as "let facts be submitted to a candid world."
And our revolution was won as an international victory. We won it by Dutch money loaned to us. We won it by the French fleet in the Caribbean. We won it by officers like Lafayette and Russianbol (ph).
And Jefferson aimed the declaration, you know, already two days before we had declared ourselves free of the power and authority of the king. This was the aimed at the world. It was calling upon them to say, "We are now leading a revolution in a time of the Enlightenment, when all people should rally to our cause."
That's the message that I think is very important now. We are saying we are leading a democratic freedom-loving movement in the world. Well, in order to do that, we have to recruit the democratic countries of the world, as we did at the revolution and the Fourth of July.
COOPER: All right, Garry. We're going to leave it there. Garry Wills, appreciate you joining us. It was an interesting discussion. Thanks for having it on this Fourth of July. Thank you.
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