Rating the Presidents

by Michael Sean Winters

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Happy President’s Day to one and all. The holiday, which always catches me by surprise for some reason, invites us to think about why we honor some presidents, forget others, over-inflate the greatness of some and under-rate the significance of others. I invite readers to make the case for their favorites and anti-favorites in the comment section. Here are mine:

Most consequential: Three-way tie: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Washington’s policies were not to my liking insofar as he gave Alexander Hamilton too much power which Hamilton used to build up the moneyed interest with government help, a nasty trait that is still with our body politic. But, Washington did something of enormous consequence when he decided not to run for a third term and headed back to Mount Vernon, distinguishing the office of the presidency from the taint of dynasty. Lincoln, obviously, preserved the Union in its greatest crisis. Even if you walk through a Civil War battlefield and read the countless markers with their woeful tally of the dead and wounded, and come away astounded that so many could die in a single day, you have to visit all the great Civil War battlefields and read all those monuments, to grasp just how dreadful a thing the Civil War was. Lincoln never took his eye off the ball – the Union must be preserved. Roosevelt not only kept America’s head up during the Great Depression, he altered the social contract in ways that continue to bless the nation: During the recent economic downturn, the ranks of those who live beneath the poverty line swelled, but one demographic, seniors, were not pushed into poverty and that is because Social Security still works.

Most able to overcome political challenge: Harry S. Truman. Of course, Lincoln could win this also for the reasons noted above. But, in some ways, the decision of the southern states to secede from the Union made his political options more clear. Truman faced two very difficult decisions, both of which were necessary and both of which entailed charting a new course with virtually no political upside. First, as World War II came to a close and the desire of Americans to see the troops come home and our foreign entanglements cease was manifest, Truman saw the looming Soviet threat and rebuilt the armed forces, negotiated the first NATO Treaty, and crafted the Marshall Plan. Truman created the policy of containment, which was neither excessively bellicose but also recognized that Soviet domination of countries was an affront to freedom and a threat to the Western democracies. Second, Truman decided to align the Democratic Party with the cause of civil rights. He ordered the integration of the armed forces. He watched the delegations of several southern states walk out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 but stuck to his guns supporting a strong civil rights plank, and won the election anyway. Truman accomplished these great tasks while being the only 20th century president to lack a college education, but he was a reader, especially of history, and he was one of the most capable presidents of all time.

Most over-rated: Reagan and Kennedy. Yes, both men had great smiles and winning personalities, but Reagan’s “accomplishments” were defective and Kennedy’s were few. Reagan wanted a smaller government, and he succeeded in lowering tax rates. But, he was unable to restrain the growth of spending and so he set the course by which politicians of both parties connived to increase the federal deficit rather than confront the central political reality of our time: the American people want more government than they are willing to pay for. Kennedy was all charm but he did not move the ball down the field on any important pieces of legislation. His willingness to stand up to the warmongers among the military and his won advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis was praiseworthy in the extreme, but it was Lyndon Johnson who pushed through Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other programs which have made the U.S. a less vicious society.

Greatest man to be president without being a great president: Thomas Jefferson. JFK made the famous quip that, when a group of Nobel laureates came to the White House, it was the greatest concentration of human genius to dine there since Jefferson ate alone. Anyone who has made the pilgrimage to Monticello and the University of Virginia can attest to the range of his interests, the breadth of his mind, and his aesthetic sensibilities that produced buildings that surely rank still as among the loveliest in the land. But, as president, he did not accomplish a great deal, except for one deal, the Louisiana Purchase, which required him to act against his own stated principles, seeing as the Constitution gave the president no such authority to negotiate anything like a doubling of the nation’s size! But, here, too, is a lesson: We should not be so quick to assault our leaders for going back on promises that have been overtaken by events. Still, TJ was a greater man than he was a president and he seemed to have known that, declining to mention his presidency on his tombstone.

Worst president: Nixon. He achieved many great things from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to finally opening a dialogue with the People’s Republic of China. But, Watergate devalued the confidence Americans have in their government in ways no foreign enemy could have achieved. To those who suggest that we in the press “hound” presidential candidates and spend too much time and energy trying to unearth every jot and tittle about their character, think of what America might have been spared if the press had been able to expose just how paranoid Nixon was before he became president.

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