While shopping at Goodwill yesterday, I came across a book called Presidential Leadership, published by the Wall Street Journal. This book features a collection essays assessing the historical legacy of each of the presidents from George Washington to George W Bush. The writers seem to be conservative commentators, so perhaps the collection has a rightward tilt. Still, I am sure the book will be interesting to read, although I have not had time to do more than skim through the book. Towards the end, after the essays about the presidents are essays about presidential leadership and appendices of various scholars’ attempts to rank the presidents. Since today is President’s Day, I thought I would write a little about the Presidents.
The three Presidents generally ranked the greatest are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George Washington probably wouldn’t be considered much of a president today. He wasn’t an activist executive and he deferred to Congress. He might be considered a do-nothing president by today’s standards. Still, there is no question that he was one of our greatest presidents. He was the first and he had to work without any clear precedents or guidelines. Abraham Lincoln was also one of the greatest. A lesser man might have given upon the Civil War and let the South go. Lincoln had a clarity of vision that eludes most politicians and was willing to sacrifice his popularity and chances of reelection to do the right thing.
I am not sure Roosevelt deserves to be considered one of the greatest presidents. His New Deal policies probably prolonged the Depression. That was not his intent and he does deserve credit for raising the nation’s morale in a difficult time, yet it has become clear that he really didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Roosevelt was an effective war time leader. In general, he picked the right men for doing the job, especially George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. His only fault in the handling of that war was his trust of Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt seemed to be unaware that Stalin was just as vicious and evil as Hitler and believed that Stalin could be handled like any other politician. In this, Roosevelt may have been badly advised by the members of his administration who were Communists, or Communist sympathizers. To the extent that Roosevelt was unaware of the treacherous leanings of some of his staff, he deserves the blame for the concessions he made at the Yalta Conference. I also believe that Roosevelt did poorly in running for a third and then fourth term. He reversed the long standing precedent that a president should only serve two terms. It may well have been that Roosevelt felt that no one else could do the job effectively, but the foundation of a republic rests on the concept that no one man is indispensible. In any event, by 1944 Roosevelt was in failing health and must have know he would not have live to finish another term.
The worst presidents are generally regarded to be Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. These seem to be fair assessments, except for Warren Harding. He did possess remarkably poor judgment in selecting his subordinates, which led to a series of scandals late in his administration, yet Harding ended Woodrow Wilson’s more egregious civil rights violations, released the anti-war protestors and Socialist that Wilson had jailed, and did his best to return the country to normalcy. I kind of suspect that Harding’s low rankings have as much to do with ending “progressive” policies as any thing else.
I think something similar could be said of Ulysses S. Grant. He also exhibited poor judgement in some of his appointments and there were a series of scandals in his administration. Grant, like Harding, tried to return the country to normalcy after the horrendous Civil War and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He fought for the rights of the former slaves and used military action to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. He even believed that the Indians should be treated decently. I think that the low ranking Grant is usually given reflects the ire of Southern historians who were outraged that anyone should defend the Blacks, not to mention Grant’s key role in winning the Civil War.
John F Kennedy is almost certainly the most overrated president. For all his charisma and sympathy from the intellectual class, he didn’t actually do all that much. He does deserve some credit for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it should be remembered that that crisis would not have arisen at all if he had handled the Bay of Pigs invasion. He ought to have either given the rebels his full support or cancelled the operation entirely. By allowing it to go ahead but withholding air support, he assured its failure and made himself look weak and foolish. Kennedy’s reputation would not have been so favorable if he had not been assassinated. As it is, his ranking has gone steadily downward over the years.
Thomas Jefferson is another overrated president. He was an accomplished man, in many ways, but he was not a very good president. His second term was a disaster.
Richard Nixon is an unusual case. By all respects, he should have been a successful president. He got us out of Viet Nam without actually losing the war. He negotiated the SALT agreement with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. Nixon was the president who created the EPA and large scale Affirmative Action. Yet, Nixon is often regarded as a failure. This is, of course, because of the Watergate scandal. Watergate was, in itself, not so large a deal as has often been reported, previous presidents have done far worse. The intense and increasing partisanship in American politics caused the scandal to assume an outsized role and ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. I wouldn’t regard Nixon as a great president, however. He was at least partly to blame for the enmity held against him.
The greatest president you have never heard of is James K. Polk. He may have been the only president to have actually fulfilled all of his campaign promises. He served only a single term but did more than most presidents have in two terms. Polk expanded the territory of the United States by provoking and winning the Mexican War while negotiating a peaceful settlement with Great Britain over the boundaries of the Oregon Territory.
Another great but forgotten president is Grover Cleveland. He was an honest and strong man who fought to keep the government honest. He favored a strong money policy over those who wanted the government to expand the money supply and create inflation, ostensibly to help the cash poor farmers of the West. He also limited government spending.
Presidential reputations change over time, sometimes due to changing ideas about what a president should be, and sometimes because new information about a president is revealed. I have already noted Kennedy’s declining reputation. It seems that the more one looks beyond the myth of Camelot, the tawdrier the whole thing appears. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, has become more respected over the years. Eisenhower was a popular president, but the general feeling has been that he was a rather relaxed chief executive who didn’t do much. As more has been learned about his administration, historians have discovered that he was a very active president indeed. Eisenhower was not much concerned with getting credit for his actions and so was underestimated. Another president whose reputation has improved is Harry S. Truman. Truman is well thought of today, but he was a very unpopular president. He left the office with a job approval rating of 22%, lower that Richard Nixon’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s. Somehow, Truman’s blunt, uncompromising personality looks a lot better in hindsight, and history seems to have vindicated his policies on the Cold War. Perhaps the same will be true of Bush.
There is a lot more that I could say about the presidents. I have barely scratched the surface in rating some of the presidents and here are so many that I haven’t even mentioned. This post is starting to get overly long, however, so I think I will end it here. The presidents do make a fascinating subject and I am sure I will find more to right about.