CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The British writer Paul Johnson is writing a book on American history to go with his large volumes on the history of Christianity and of modern times.
In a related article that leads off the current issue of Commentary, he tells us that our presidents used to be great, but that is no longer the case. Mediocre or worse men now not only win the job, but make up the bulk of those applying for it. This would be less shocking but for our past record of greatness: ''No other major country over the past two centuries can boast a comparable roll call of ability, high-mindedness and courage.''
His comment inevitably recalls the most famous book on American politics written by a British author. Perhaps the most often cited chapter in Lord Bryce's ''The American Commonwealth'' is the one that examines (in the 1880s) ''Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics.''
Bryce's answers to that question are all very interesting. But the most interesting thing is his easy assumption that everyone would agree with the chapter's title. The fact was unchallenged. The explanations were the only mystery left.
The politician in America, according to Bryce, had a training ground guaranteed to stunt most ethical qualities. The city machines were the natural seedbed of party leaders. Bosses at the time rose by systematic patronage and graft. They were of two kinds -- the intriguing ones, who did the dirty work, and the rhetorical ones, who covered over the dirty work.
There was little to choose between the two in terms of delicate morals. The intriguer might do worse things. But the orator blinded himself and others to those things.
There were structural factors that discouraged good leaders from entering politics, in Bryce's view; for example, business careers seemed to offer more interesting challenges along with faster and larger recompense.
One of Bryce's complaints about the American system should be looked at by those now favoring term limits. He said the limited chances at office (only from one district) and the frequent turnover in America kept people of talent from fixing on politics as a long-term career.
It is easy, now, to criticize some of the elitist preconceptions of Bryce's book. He wanted a caste of rulers with a sense of noblesse oblige, traces of which he thought survived in England. But Bryce was no dope, and much of what he said deserves our careful consideration.
Mainly he is right about the tremendous dirtiness of our politics in the 19th century. Few rose without being forced to compromise with large graft operations -- even the conscientious Abraham Lincoln, who plotted to bring illegal voters into the 1858 Senate election against Stephen Douglas. If Lincoln would do that, it is easy to imagine what less delicate politicians were up to. It is also easy to see why some thought politics too filthy to be engaged in. Much of the bad repute politicians have traditionally held in this country came not from recent media scandals but from established and recognized patterns of corruption.
The other thing we should remember is that all governments are fallible, just as all human beings are, and the lament for this is a very ancient one -- the recognition that ''only smidgens of wisdom go into governing'' (''quantula sapientia mundus regitur'').
This is not the most inspiring reflection, perhaps, but it shows why one British author should read more carefully in another before claiming that our politics was full of great leaders in the past.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.