Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Ranking of Presidents: How the Historians Have it Wrong - Part III
(Also see Parts I and II. See below comments for analysis.)
Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1909: Roosevelt was a maverick who happened to be the youngest and perhaps most energetic man to ever take office. Since Lincoln, no other President (not even McKinley) extended the authority of the Presidency as much as Roosevelt did – for better or worse. Roosevelt, at least in domestic matters, governed like a progressive (a label he later endorsed when attempting to regain the Presidency in 1912). Roosevelt intervened in strikes that were said to have favorable outcomes for the laborers; he busted up trusts; he introduced some of the first consumer protection acts; and he was the foremost environmentalist to ever take office. Concerning foreign policy, he was not much different from McKinley in that he believed America should play a major role in helping out developing countries – whether they actually desired such aid is debatable. But construction of the Panama Canal did begin during his administration. Roosevelt also negotiated a peace between Russia and Japan for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize. And the nation did become a world power under his and McKinley’s earlier administration. Roosevelt’s current historical image seems safe. How he will be viewed in the future is dependent in part on how one views the desirability of a strong executive branch, whether one feels that imperialist policies have ultimately brought on a legacy of good or ill feeling towards the U.S., and whether the environmental movement that owes so much to Roosevelt will continue in its ascendency. RANKING: 7th Best of 42 Presidents.
William Howard Taft, 1909-1913: Taft’s Presidency did not depart from that of Roosevelt’s as much as we are led to believe. Taft pursued trust busting much in the manner of his predecessor, continued in providing economic aid to Latin American countries, and introduced other initiatives such as civil service reform and a federal income tax that Roosevelt probably would have endorsed. What Taft lacked was the charisma of Roosevelt along with a voice that made clear what his objectives were. Where Taft broke with Roosevelt (and where Taft was most certainly correct) was in the need for an independent judiciary which Taft supported and Roosevelt denounced. This resulted in a split in the Republican Party and Roosevelt then started his own Progressive or Bull Moose Party. Taft never greatly desired being President and only later achieved his “dream” job of being Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft was a gifted jurist rather than politician. RANKING: 22nd of 42 Presidents.
Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921: If only Teddy Roosevelt or William Howard Taft had stood aside during the election of 1912 and allowed the other candidate to defeat Wilson! Due to marked personality flaws and a desire to become President of the United States, an intelligent and priggish boy named Thomas Woodrow Wilson grew up to be an extremely dangerous man. Wilson was not incompetent – he may simply have been a megalomaniac. This was apparent almost immediately in his Presidency as evidenced by his novel decision to intervene in Mexico in 1913. Wilson was first elected because of a divided Republican party and reelected by asserting that he kept us out of war. His legacy is dubious in almost all aspects. Despite his reputation for progressive leanings, Wilson was born in the south and had no sympathy for the former slaves or descendents of slaves - as evidenced by the prevalence of Jim Crow laws during his administration and by Wilson’s own declaration that Birth of a Nation was a realistic film. And American involvement in World War I, the “war to end all wars” that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 American soldiers, came about primarily because of Wilson’s instigation. In response to his critics, Wilson pushed through the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 primarily to jail pacifists such as Eugene Debs. His handling of peace negotiations following the war were also bungled in that he failed to include Republicans in on his plans to form a League of Nations - virtually assuring that U.S. involvement in the organization would be struck down. When Wilson proposed his Fourteen Points, the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, reputedly stated that the “good lord only had ten.” Such was the man named Woodrow Wilson and his ego. Wilson's promises for his country were completely inconsistent with the actual policies implemented during his administration - and were completely inconsistent with reality. He was our most disastrous President. RANKING: 42nd of 42 Presidents.
Warren Gamaliel Harding, 1921-1923: Teapot Dome is probably the most overblown scandal in U.S. history, at least as far as political fallout. Outside of those that had a vendetta against Secretary of Interior, Albert B. Fall, who accepted bribe money for otherwise legal oil leases, nobody viewed Harding as culpable. Compared to so many other political scandals, this one remains relatively mild. As evidenced by Coolidge being so easily elected in 1924, Harding would have been just as easily reelected if he had not suddenly died in 1923. Harding campaigned on a promise for a return to normalcy (a slogan that historians have much panned), but Harding did as much as any President could to keep such a promise. Harding and Coolidge were probably the least hawkish of all modern Presidents. Harding brought the country out of a deep economic depression that he inherited, modernized a number of domestic programs in response to ever increasing technology, and was proactive (at least for his time) concerning Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by pushing through anti-lynching laws (to the dismay of the KKK), signing into law the first major federal welfare legislation (which is surprising for a President considered fiscally conservative), and freeing Eugene Debbs who President Wilson had jailed for sedition. Harding was probably not the most intelligent man to ever hold the office, probably was a bit too public about choosing of his mistresses (especially since he probably had a jealous wife) and may not have taken into account the greed of all of his cabinet members, but he also made few major blunders as President. RANKING: 13th of 42 Presidents.
Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929: Silent Cal deserves credit for being an uninteresting President. More than any President in the last hundred years he was adverse to government involvement in just about everything. So it was said, he even economized on dinners held at the White House. Coolidge was considered enough of a straight arrow that nobody questioned him as to whether he was as corrupt as other members that came out of the Harding administration. Though often accused of being unsympathetic to the plight of workers and farmers, he certainly was advanced for his time concerning his sympathies for minorities. The Klan lost much of its influence during his administration and American Indians were finally granted full citizenship because of his signature. If Coolidge did have a flaw, it was in regards to his global thinking. In essence, he was an isolationist that did not see the coming storm in Europe. Also, he supported high tariffs that restricted trade and that some historians feel may have contributed to the future economic woes. Coolidge was indeed lucky to leave office when he did, though he had already announced his decision not to seek another term a year or more before it was necessary. With his laissez-faire attitude towards government intervention in economic matters, there’s a good possibility that he would not have handled the Great Depression much differently than Hoover. However, his political instincts were sounder than those of Hoover and he likely (for how little he spoke) inspired more confidence. RANKING: 16th of 42 Presidents.
Herbert Clark Hoover, 1929-1933: With an IQ that was estimated to be around 180, Hoover seemed incapable of grasping the problems of his time. Neither Hoover nor his policies were primarily responsible for the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a longtime in coming and its causes too myriad to ever be attributed to one man. Yet Hoover’s perceived reaction to the crisis could be described as less than lackluster, and this almost brought America to its breaking point. Hoover may have made matters worse by continuing to support high tariffs in the midst of the depression. His actual economic policies late in his Presidency, implemented to stimulate the economy, were remarkably similar to those that Roosevelt implemented in the New Deal, but these came only after Hoover’s popularity waned. Hoover’s policies towards other items such as civil rights were largely vacant. RANKING: 35th of 42 Presidents.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945: How one rates FDR as President in large part depends on how that person answers two particular questions: (1) Did the New Deal Policies passed during his administration render in an era of economic recovery? And (2) Did Roosevelt (or Truman) sell-out Eastern Europe to Stalin at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam just prior to the end of the war in Europe in 1945? Both questions are largely unanswerable because the issues are too complex and intricate. Only Jackson and Lincoln stirred up as much controversy as FDR did as President, but detractors of Roosevelt must be disconcerted by the former President’s enduring popularity. He won four elections by a landslide when faced by both the worst depression the United States has ever encountered and by World War II. Whatever one thinks of his policies, Roosevelt inspired the populace like no other President ever. That he took liberties with the Constitution and also interred Japanese-Americans for reasons of ethnicity only, will be a large blight upon his Presidency. Roosevelt’s great ambitions for the nation at times should have been placed in check, and there was probably too little opposition to his policies. Still, he did better than anyone but Lincoln in bringing the country through some terrible times. Should Roosevelt have limited himself to two terms? At the brink of the worst war the world had ever faced, I can’t blame him for running again – and again. One remaining legacy of his long Presidency that can’t be understated was the selection of justices he made to the Supreme Court. Outside of his selection of Frankfurter, who had to have been a disappointment to Roosevelt, several of his choices sat on the court for decades and implemented his agenda (especially during the future Warren court). RANKING: 2nd of 42 Presidents.
Harry S. Truman, 1945-1953: What is one to make of Harry Truman? The man that said he felt like “the moon, the stars and all the planets” had fallen upon him after FDR’s death surprisingly became one of the most decisive if not bullheaded Presidents ever. He ordered the dropping of the two Atomic bombs, forced the end of a contentious railroad strike by threatening government control, implemented the Berlin Airlift to aggravate the Soviets, desegregated the troops, took on Joseph McCarthy (admittedly not successfully) and fired MacArthur. Truman was also colorful as evidenced by the letter he sent to a music critic that dared disparage the singing of Truman’s daughter, Margaret. Outside of charges made by McCarthy that the administration was populated by Communist agents, there was little reason to believe the administration was corrupt. There was a significant amount of government spending that went on during his administration as federal debt as compared to GDP was at the highest level ever. To be fair, this was in part due to the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War during his administration. Probably no President so unpopular after leaving office has had his reputation so greatly restored. This is in part due to Merle Miller’s biography of Truman called Plain Speaking, which American Heritage magazine re-titled as Plain Faking for its rewriting of history. Nevertheless, Truman’s Presidency had exceeded most expectations of him. RANKING: 8th of 42 Presidents.
Dwight David Eisenhower, 1953-1961: Like Harding did more than thirty years before, Eisenhower issued in another era of normalcy. (Since 1929, the United States had faced the Great Depression, World War II, the beginnings of the Cold War and the Korean War.) Some historians suggest that nothing bad happened during his Presidency. It was an era of good feeling as the 1950s is a decade remembered fondly. Critics, on the other hand, would suggest that nothing changed, either. Eisenhower let others take an active role in bringing down McCarthyism, did nothing to enhance civil rights (though he did order Little Rock high school to desegregate), and did not lessen Cold War fears. Ironically, Eisenhower by accident did speed along desegregation by appointing two of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justices, William Brennan and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Eisenhower was not an exciting President as was Kennedy who replaced him, but if not popular with the scholars Ike was incredibly liked by the populace throughout his Presidency. RANKING: 11th of 42 Presidents.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1961-1963: Kennedy became President on the backs of dead Chicago voters. A charismatic and youthful looking man with beautiful wife and children, it was he and not Nixon that was the true Imperial President. Kennedy was more progressive in image than he was in fact. He actually supported tax cuts. He was reluctant to involve himself in the civil rights issues of the day, and it was Johnson that actually got the movement going - at least on a federal level. His greatest actual achievement on a domestic level was to aspire to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Concerning foreign affairs, Kennedy liked to flex his muscles. Had he lived, Viet Nam may have ended up being his legacy instead of being placed in the lap of LBJ. It was the glamour of the man and his contribution to popular culture that make him more than average as a President. RANKING: 15th of 42 Presidents.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1963-1969: Johnson enlarged the federal government more than any President, aggressively pursued a platform of civil rights and won the most lop-sided election by popular vote in U.S. history, but he will always be remembered for the escalation of the conflict in Viet Nam. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the domestic programs of The Great Society, one has to admit that Johnson was brilliant in getting his agenda through. Yet ultimate politician that he was with the ability to charm, out-maneuver and even strong-arm his opponents, he was never able to reassure a public that turned on him concerning a foreign policy that went very bad. Unlike his opponent in the 1964 election, Johnson understood that he could not deploy his full arsenal in Southeast Asia without angering China and risking a far larger conflict. However, he so desperately wanted to save face by not pulling the troops out and admit defeat that he continued a military policy that would neutralize but never defeat the enemy. As a result, the war went on so long that the United States lost fifty-thousand soldiers in the conflict. Once the protestors came out in force, Johnson was to become a lame-duck President. He even faced extreme criticism in his own party by the likes of Bobby Kennedy (soon to be assassinated) and Eugene McCarthy. At least from the perspective of liberal historians, if not for Viet Nam Johnson would have gone down as one of the all-time greatest Presidents. RANKING: 26th of 42 Presidents.
Richard Milhous Nixon, 1969-1974: Nixon was probably the most politically opportunistic President ever. From possibly fabricating documents when he was still in Congress to frame Alger Hiss to never facing prosecution for the Watergate break in, Nixon resurrected his political career on many occasions. And contrary to his assertion in 1962 after losing the race for the California governorship, the press would have many more years to kick Nixon around. Nixon was socially conservative, but an economic pragmatist - at least during his Presidential tenure. Revenue sharing, wage and price freezes, and his call for comprehensive health insurance demonstrated that he was borderline fiscally progressive. Even liberal historians like to credit Nixon with his accomplishments in foreign affairs, but I believe Nixon gets too much credit in this area. The reason why Nixon does not share more of the blame with LBJ for our Southeast Asia escapades was because of a cynical move on his part. To thwart the protests concerning the Viet Nam War, Nixon ended the draft and lowered the voting age shortly before the 1972 election. This allowed him to continue his war policies in Asia unhindered by the youth movement until the end of his Presidency, and it also insured that he would win re-election by a landslide. After the firing of Archibald Cox and several other special prosecutors, the release of the Nixon tape with the corresponding 18 minute gap gave the press – never too fond of Nixon – and Congress the opportunity to drive him out in disgrace. RANKING: 31st of 42 Presidents.
Gerald Rudolph Ford, 1974-1977: Well, Gerald Ford was Gerald Ford. A former football player and gifted athlete, he was portrayed by the entertainment world as being a klutz. Ford was a political moderate and his only controversial action as President was to pardon Richard Nixon - when Ford had not yet completed his first month in office. Most historians now report this as a good decision on Ford’s part in getting Watergate behind us, but they gloss over that this could have been a part of a corrupt deal and caving in to political pressure. Ford entered office with the economy tanking, and it continued to tank during his two years as President. His WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign did nothing to prevent stagflation. As the only Commander and Chief never to appear on a winning Presidential ballot, Ford’s chief asset as President was to be a bromide following the turbulent years of the 1960’s and early ‘70s. RANKING: 23rd of 42 Presidents.
James Earl Carter, Jr., 1977-1981: Behind that smile was a personality engaging only to Lillian, Rosalyn and Amy Carter. Whatever folksy aspirations he claimed to envision for this country were perceived as being wrongheaded or pretentious. Carter was a remarkably intelligent and decent man with no political gifts. Apologists for the malaise speech he gave during his Presidency fail to impart the true significance of this speech. As he did throughout his Presidency, Carter was incapable of sending a clear message to the public as to what he sought to accomplish. The Misery Index was incredibly high during his single term. RANKING: 33rd of 42 Presidents.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1981-1989: Like Franklin Roosevelt was to conservatives, Reagan was anathema to most liberals. Yet next to Roosevelt, Reagan left office as the most popular President of the 20th Century. Reagan’s agenda was extremely short, but it still was ambitious. There were two basic items he wanted to accomplish: (1) he wanted to reduce the size of government; and (2) he wanted to do all he could to eradicate the influence of global Communism. Though the government is as big as it ever was, Reagan did at least influence the debate and put tax cuts to the forefront of every political campaign. And though he didn’t end Communism, Reagan played a major role in the bankrupting of the Soviet Union by upping the stakes on military spending. Reagan never appeared as power-hungry, and perhaps that’s why his relaxed approach to the office resonated. The folksy image was a tad put-on, but he came across to most of America – even some Democrats - as a likeable man. His social agenda, basically fodder for the left, may have been a bit of a smokescreen to attract members of the religious right. Where he had the strongest input in regards to domestic affairs concerned his appointments to the court. Agree or disagree with him, Reagan will be known as the politician that changed our political outlook back towards right-leaning policies. RANKING: 4th of 42 Presidents.
George Herbert Walker Bush, 1989-1993: The elder Bush must still regret defying the press to read his lips when he pledged there would be no new taxes. His inability to capitalize on the good feelings prevalent in the country following the Reagan years led to eight years of a Democratic Presidency to follow. He was simply another career statesman and uninspiring President. RANKING: 27th of 42 Presidents.
William Jefferson Clinton, 1993-2001: We had eight prosperous years under his Presidency. Too bad Clinton did not learn more discretion because in no prior Presidency did marital indiscretions become so newsworthy. He may well have been the most gifted communicator ever to hold the office, but he has never convinced anyone on the right or the left that he was passionate about the issues – though that’s not necessarily all bad. The Rhodes Scholar came off as being a likable and even capable buffoon. RANKING: 14th of 42 Presidents.
George Walker Bush, 2001-2009: Bush was not the worst President we ever had, but he did blunder in such a way that a great opportunity to impact global policy was lost. In part, this was due to his inability to communicate his message in a manner that influenced the electorate. One problem in evaluating Bush is that it may still be too early to judge him. We really won’t know the full effect of the Iraq War for another fifty years. We do know that Saddam is now dead, and we also know that we were never able to find WMDs. Also we won’t know how much of the economic crisis should be placed on the policies of the Bush administration. There is a debate by economists concerning this, but unfortunately many of those arguments are politically motivated and not influenced by actual analysis. Bush probably will go down as our most controversial President since Nixon. His reputation will never be vindicated, but he likely will not remain as unpopular in the future as he was when he left office. RANKING: 32nd of 42 Presidents.
Barack Hussein Obama, 2009-: It’s still too early to make more than an educated guess on how Obama will be judged in the future. As the first racial minority in office, he will go down as a significant historical President. He will be remembered for passage of National Healthcare, but even fifty years from now there will be arguments about the merits. Some will say that his agenda was the most aggressive since LBJ or FDR. Others will say he was not responsive to his constituents. He will be criticized by the right for attempting to do too much and by the left for compromising on what he managed to pass – or not pass. The danger in micro-managing - which his critics feel this President is prone towards - is that too little may be achieved in the end. UNRATED: Too early to know.
© Robert S. Miller 2010