This is analysis I did five years ago, and posted in six separate posts. It is time to consolidate the posts into one.
The Great Ones
1. George Washington. This one is a complete no-brainer.
Thomas Jefferson. Washington was above party politics, but his
successor, John Adams, took the country deep into party politics to very
dangerous levels. To John Adams and the Federalists, anybody who
disagreed with them was a traitor and needed to be prosecuted as such
under the Sedition Act. This led to many opposition newspapermen being
jailed under the odious Sedition Act during the Adams administration.
to his great and everlasting credit, recognized the evil of this, and
respected and understood the Constitution enough to understand that this
was contrary to what America was all about. He freed all the
imprisoned newspapermen, the Federalist party died out, and Jefferson's
concept of our government prevailed. We owe him more thanks than we can
ever give him. Just think what kind of country we might have ended up
with had Adams beat Jefferson in 1800 and the Federalists remained in
power. One shudders at the thought.
3. Teddy Roosevelt. I take
seriously the concerns that people have for TR's bullying attitude
toward Latin America. However, this was normal for his day. It does not
detract from the great good he did to put this country on the right
direction in so many areas--trust-busting, starting the FDA,
environmentalism, brokering peace between Russia and Japan, and on and
on. He is truly one of the great ones.
4. James Monroe.
Historians seem unable to rank any President as "great"unless there was
some great crisis that he had to confront during his Presidency. Hence,
they rank Monroe only 14th. However, a closer examination of his
Presidency shows he was a great President. He tried hard to be President
of all the country, appointing Cabinet members from each sector, and
visiting each sector while in office. His Secretary of State, John
Quincy Adams, served for the entire 8 years, and is widely regarded as
the best Secretary of State ever. Similarly, his Vice-President, Daniel
D. Tompkins, gets less recognition but as governor of New York was
widely recognized as making important progressive reforms in such things
as humane treatment of prisoners, and humane treatment of native
Americans. In short, Monroe has no negatives and huge positives, and
deserves a place among the great ones.
The Good Ones
4. Harry Truman. Truman left office with a horrendously low approval
rating. However, his ranking in the eyes of historians has risen
steadily and in the most recent such ranking he was at #5.
more we learn about Truman the better he looks. David McCullough, in his
fine biography of Truman, relates how Truman made a point to learn the
first name of every member of the White House staff. He would regularly
greet them by name and ask about their families. One guy said, with
tears in his eyes, that he had worked at the White House for 40 years
and no previous President had ever bothered to ask him for his name.
Marshall Plan is instructive. Polls at the time showed that only 18% of
the American people favored massive aid to rebuild Europe. Yet, Truman
forged ahead, knowing it was the right thing to do. And history has
proved him right in this. This is a welcome contrast to current
approaches of taking actions based on the latest poll. (And it's not
just politicians that are among the guilty; journalists, to their
eternal discredit, play into this by constantly citing polls and asking
politicians about the polls.)
I would put Truman among the great
Presidents except that his Cold War policies do not stand up under the
scrutiny of history. Jim Juhnke and Carol Hunter, in their book "The
Missing Peace", document how the Soviets viewed the race as a political
and economic one, but the Truman Administration mistakenly saw it as a
military conflict and thus we had the Cold War. George Kennan, architect
of the post-WW2 policy of containment, later disavowed the way the
policy had been carried out. Kennan's view was that "a post-war
political struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was inevitable.
The runaway arms race and global militarization were not." Juhnke and
Hunter state that official documents released since the breakup of the
Soviet Union confirm the accuracy of Kennan's view.
sixth-grade teacher told us that we would all perish from nuclear
annihilation before we reached adulthood. This was the sort of cloud
that my generation grew up under, and it is directly traceable to
Truman's misguided policies.
5. Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes
always did what he felt was best for the country, rather than for his
party. His integrity was unquestioned, which was a welcome switch from
the scandal-ridden Grant era.
6. Dwight Eisenhower
is another President whose stock has risen since he left office. I
recall an analysis at that time that predicted that future historians
would paint him negatively as a hands-off President who preferred to
spend his time on the golf course rather than dealing with the affairs
However, we now know that Ike was a firm and steady
advocate for peace. He ended the Korean War. In 1955 he single-handedly
prevented war in the Middle East, by pressuring British PM Anthony Eden
to back away from military intervention. It is well-known that when he
left office he famously warned against the "military-industrial
complex"; less well-known are other similar warnings he gave throughout
his tenure as President.
In Bob Considine's memoirs, "It's All
News to Me", he recalls a reporter asking Ike in 1951 whether he
believed in "socialized medicine". Ike's response was that he didn't
like that term, but he felt that "everyone should have free medical
care". This reflects Ike's true sensibilities. What is striking is how
far Republicanism today has strayed from Republicanism of the 1950's.
Today the party has degenerated into "the party of no", and it is common
for measures to have the support of, at best, a small handful of
liberal Republicans and that's it.
But in the past it was not so,
as demonstrated by an analysis of past votes on innovative social
programs. In an article in a recent "Christian Science Monitor", Robert
S. McElvaine gives the following analysis of Senate Republican votes
(House numbers are similar): Social Security Act of 1935--76% for; Civil
Rights Act of 1964, 80% for; Voting rights Act of 1967, a whopping 97%
for!; Medicare in 1965, 43% for. Then we fast-forward to 1993, and find a
grand total of *zero* Republicans voting for Clinton's budget, because
it included a modest increase in the top marginal tax rate. Republicans
predicted the tax increase would cause the economy to collapse. What
resulted, instead, was the longest stretch of economic growth in US
history, and eventually a budget surplus by the time Clinton left
office. And of course we know none voted for Obama's health care reform
bill. It has been said that Obama's positions are quite similar to those
of Republicans in the '50's, and I think this is a fairly accurate
7. Bill Clinton. Another President who is likely to
rise in the eyes of historians as time goes on. He took a deficit which
had ballooned under the disastrous 12 years of Reagan and the first
Bush, and turned it into a surplus by the time he left office. He was a
master politician, something essential in dealing Congress and with the
American people. Nobody did it better.
8. John F. Kennedy.
Great motivator of people and a great leader. His speech taking
responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco should be studied and
emulated, but rarely is. Although it was under Eisenhower that the foray
into Cuba was planned, he manned up and took full responsibility, in a
way that subsequent Presidents have seemed unable to do.
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Historians rank FDR second, but the more I
learn about FDR the less I like him. I suppose his high esteem among
historians could be attributable to three general reasons: 1) His
oratorical skills; 2) His New Deal policies; and 3) Turning a blind eye
to his many negatives. His oratorical skills are obvious, but surely it
takes more than that to be great. I will examine the other two factors.
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt. The
New Deal was a valiant effort, but the evidence discloses that it did
not pull us out of the great depression, so in that sense it can be
regarded as a failure. David M. Kennedy, in his great book "Freedom from
Fear", sums it up like this: "It might be well to begin by recognizing
what the New Deal did not do, in addition to its conspicuous failure to
produce economic recovery. Much mythology and New Deal rhetoric
notwithstanding, it did not substantially redistribute the national
income. America's income profile in 1940 closely resembled that of 1930,
and for that matter 1920....Nor, with essentially minor exceptions like
the TVA's electric-power business, did the New Deal challenge the
fundamental tenet of capitalism: private ownership of the means of
production. In contrast with the pattern in virtually all other
industrial societies, whether Communist, socialist, or capitalist, no
significant state-owned enterprises emerged in New Deal America."
own research reveals that unemployment peaked at 24.9% in 1933, and by
1938 it had fallen only to 19.0%. Surely this is not a significant
improvement after five years of strenuous efforts, so one must conclude
that the New Deal did not deliver. What got us out of the depression was
an armaments buildup starting in 1939, which in two years increased
U.S. manufacturing output by 50%!
Now we come to all the
negatives. If FDR was interested in real change, he would have supported
Upton Sinclair for governor of California in 1934. Sinclair traveled to
Washington to meet with FDR and left thinking he had his endorsement,
but it turned out FDR had no intention of endorsing him (but wasn't man
enough to tell him this to his face). The reason is that Sinclair was an
advocate of real change, not the phony change FDR was pushing.
advocate of real change became FDR's implacable foe. This guy was Huey
Long of Louisiana. FDR was so afraid of a challenge from Long in 1936
that he sent 50 FBI agents to Louisiana to try to dig up dirt on him!
This represents a shocking abuse of power, but is revealing in the way
FDR was more worried about perpetuating his own power than he was about
doing the right thing. It was a precursor to the abuses of power another
president, Richard Nixon, later inflicted on the nation.
years later we have the boatload of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, which
FDR refused to let into the country. The shocking insensitivity of this
is mind-boggling. The Jews were returned to Europe where most perished
in the Holocaust.
And then there is the concentration camps for
Japanese-Americans during World War Two. Completely unjustified and
opposed to our principles as a country. Similarly, FDR refused to
desegregate the armed forces, which he could have easily done, and in
fact Truman did do a few years later. If Truman could do it, why didn't
FDR's running again in 1944 was his final insult to the
American people. Jim Bishop, in his book "FDR's Last Year", relates how
during his entire last year FDR would get a complete physical exam every
morning and every evening. The doctors would constantly be telling him
to get more rest, even though he was already spending most of every day
in bed. Bishop says that the doctors never told him how sick he was, and
FDR never asked. But he had to have known it, anybody would have known
under these circumstances!
Despite this, in a shocking display of
hubris, FDR ran again in 1944. According to Bishop, his constant
comment was that he was not going to desert the troops serving under him
as Commander of Chief during a war, any more than he would expect any
other soldier to desert his post. This analogy is bogus, it just does
not hold water. In point of fact, FDR was dead less than three months of
his fourth inauguration, and he died without telling his new
Vice-President, Harry Truman, about the atomic bomb! The fact that he
did not bring Truman into the information loop, especially given the
likelihood of his dying, is inexcusable. Again, unforgivable hubris.
A great President? I think not. But worthy of being at the bottom of the "good" category based on his accomplishments.
The Average Ones.
These are not that interesting to write about, so I won't deal with them one by one. Included in this category are those whose terms were cut short, and Obama, who will need to be out of office awhile before an intelligent evaluation can be made.
The Poor Ones.
34. Abraham Lincoln. It is customary to place Lincoln at or near the
top, but how can that be justified when he has the blood of 620,000 dead
Americans on his hands? Historians seem to accept without questioning
that the Civil War was a good thing for the country, when careful
scrutiny reveals just the opposite!
Lincoln was just plain wrong
on so many levels, it is hard to know where to begin. Let us start on a
basic issue--the legality of secession. First, let us note that the
Constitution says nothing about secession, either pro or con. Thus, we
need to read the document as a whole and infer what the founders
When we do this we see that the founders intended that
the federal government would have only those powers specifically
delegated to it by the Constitution, and the states (or the people)
would have all remaining powers. Any fair reading of the Constitution as
a whole thus leads to the conclusion that secession is not illegal, and
Lincoln was therefore wrong in assuming as such.
has undertaken a detailed scholarly analysis of this issue, and his
conclusion is: "In 1861, the Constitution did not authorize the federal
government to use military force to prevent a state from seceding from
the Union. The Constitution established a federal government of
limited powers delegated to it by the people, acting through their
respective states. There is no express grant to the federal government
of a power to use armed force to prevent a secession and there is no
clause which does so by implication. To the contrary, the notion of
the use of armed force against the states and the subsequent military
occupation and rule of the states by the federal government does
violence to the overall structure and purpose of the Constitution by
turning the servant of the states into their master. Any doubts about
whether the federal government had such a power must be resolved in
favor of the states since the Ninth and Tenth Amendments explicitly
reserve the vast residue of powers and rights to the states and to the
people of those states."
Lincoln in his July 4, 1861, message to
Congress seeking support for his war effort, complains bitterly about
the South's use of the term "secession". Lincoln insisted throughout the
conflict that "rebellion" was a more appropriate term. He accused the
South of "an insidious debauching of the public mind". The irony here is
that it was Lincoln himself doing the debauchery, for the term
"rebellion" does not at all describe the peaceful act of seceding, which
was what the south was trying to do. The word "rebellion" refers to an
armed conflict. It is derived from the Latin "rebellio", meaning as
such. By casting it in terms of what the Constitution defines as
treason, Lincoln deliberately inflamed this issue and pushed the North
into a war, while engaging in the sort of abuse of language that tyrants
the world over have done throughout history. The old saying which comes
to mind is, "If you tell a lie often enough, people will start
believing it." Well, Lincoln told this lie repeatedly.
country was started by an act of secession, wherein the colonies split
from England. There are numerous examples in recent history where acts
of secession have taken place, without any question being raised as to
their propriety. Rather than belaboring this, I will end with a plea
that folks think for themselves about things like this, without being
brainwashed by the slanted history books.
35. John Adams. Adams rates this low because of his use of the Sedition
Act to imprison newspaper editors who disagreed with his policies. This
sounds so unAmerican in retrospect that it is hard to believe that this
was once standard policy. And it might have continued to be standard
policy had Adams and the Federalists remained in power. Thank God for
Adams stays out of the "horrible" category by virtue
of avoiding the war with France which seemed imminent during his
administration. For a more detailed analysis of the Adams
administration, see my essay at
Jimmy Carter. It is fine to campaign as an outsider, but once you
achieve power you have to know how to use it. This Carter never figured
out how to do. He started out on the wrong foot when Speaker of the
House Tip O'Neill could not even get a seat at the Inauguration, but
rather had to stand in the back! And he ended on a horribly wrong foot
when he ignored the advice of his intelligence people and let the Shah
of Iran into the U.S. He had been told our embassy in Iran would be in
jeopardy if he did this, and the embassy ended up getting overrun and
the hostages taken. Carter's excuse was that the Shah needed medical
treatment he could only get in the U.S. I accepted this at the tine, but
later it came out that the Shah could have received the same treatment
in Mexico City, as the doctors were willing to go there to treat him.
So, the President who promised he would never lie to us had lied to us.
Ronald Reagan. Reagan made one of the most despicable comments ever
when he said that "Government is not the solution to the problem, it
*is* the problem." This attitude led to greed becoming fashionable, and
regulation unfashionable, which in turn led directly to the financial
meltdown of the 2000's. Reagan saddled us with a huge debt due to his
fiscally irresponsible budgets, and he spent many billions in
unnecessary defense expenditures.
It is common in some circles to
credit Reagan with the demise of the Soviet Union. However, this thesis
does not stand up to analysis. In their book "The Missing Peace",
Juhnke and Hunter summarize the situation like this: "The 'Reagan
victory' thesis will continue to be popular among right wing
militarists, but it suffers from its limiting assumption that great
world events must have their primary origin in the United States. It
also ignores the Soviet historical inclination to respond to external
military pressure with new repression and military escalation. The end
of the Cold War was triggered not by an American military buildup, but
by the economic failings of the Soviet Union, by the reforms of Mikhail
Gorbachev, and by the timely witness of international scientists who
wanted to protect the world from nuclear holocaust."
memoir "Deadline", veteran journalist James Reston offers candid
assessments of each of the many presidents he has covered in his long
career. Two passages about Reagan: "Most people liked his carefree
style. He announced when he arrived that it was morning in America, but
he didn't like to get out of bed. Unfortunately, when he wasn't looking,
which was not unusual, some of his own officials assumed that they had a
license to steal or break the law. It wasn't only that he was absent
from Washington more than nost presidents but that he was often so
absentminded when he was in the capital that he had the msot expensive
banking and housing scandals on record and didn't even notice them."
"He arrived in Washington full of fairy tales and nursery stories, but
the movie moguls never ventured to produce a story as fantastic as
Reagan's. He not only proved that nice guys finish first--Hollywood's
favorite theme--but he also made government popular. He thought that
government was 'too big' but presided over the biggest government in the
nation's history. He recommended religion, but seldom went to church.
He was divorced and not close to his children, but preached family
values. If it hadn't been for his indolence, his ignorance would have
38. Andrew Jackson. Jackson's forcible
removal of Native Americans to Oklahoma is one of the sorriest chapters
in U.S. history, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Supreme
Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia. After that opinion was
rendered Jackson is reported to have said, "John Marshall has made his
decision; now let him enforce it." Whether Jackson actually said this or
not is not the point--the point is that this accurately represented his
viewpoint. Quite a conflict between the judicial and the executive
branches of government could have ensued had other Presidents been as
nasty and full of ill will as Jackson was.
39. Warren G. Harding.
It is customary to put Harding at or near the bottom, but new research
by John Dean sheds a different light on this president. History books
tell us that Harding got the 1920 Republican nomination by virtue of
party leaders gathering in a "smoke-filled room", putting Harding under a
cloud right from the get-go. Dean disputes this, saying Harding had a
well thought out plan going into the convention, of letting the leaders
knock each other out, and then he would gradually pick up steam which is
what actually happened.
Dean says Harding was very popular, and
would have been re-elected in a landslide had he lived. The scandals
among his people came to light later, and did not involve Harding
Harding deserves credit for commuting the sentence of
Eugene Debs so that Debs could be released from prison, and then
inviting him to the White House. This was a humanitarian gesture which
his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, had repeatedly refused to do despite
the repeated recommendations of his Attorney General that Debs be
40. Lyndon B. Johnson. Because of his ego, Johnson
refused to admit that the Vietnam War was a mistake, and tens of
thousands of young Americans died as a result. Many more came back badly
damaged, either physically or psychologically, and the country is still
dealing with the after-effects of this horrible war which divided the
country and was totally unnecessary, based as it was on a false domino
premise. Civil rights advances and the war on poverty are positive
achievements which keep him out of the "horrible" category.
Richard Nixon. Used the power of the federal government to persecute his
political enemies; misused the FBI and CIA and IRS to further his
personal agenda. Did have a good grasp of foreign affairs, and deserves
credit for opening the doors to Russia and China, which raises him
above the "horrible" category.
The Horrible Ones
42. George W. Bush. Just as Monroe ranks as "great" because
everything he did of significance he did well, so W ranks as "horrible"
because everything he did of significance he did poorly. He left us
with two wars, a horrible national debt, declining prestige around the
world, and the worst recession since the great depression. Some of his
appointees were among the most inept ever in their jobs.
Ulysses S. Grant. Presidential historian Richard Shenkman, in
"Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power, and
Got Things Done", observes that Grant's is the first administraion
"filled with people who wanted to use government connections to become
rich". The corruption was so pervasive that the final count was 230
indictments and 110 convictions. His chief of staff (in today's
vernacular) was put on trial for corruption in St. Louis, based on his
involvement in the "whiskey ring", and Grant wanted to take a train
there to testify on his behalf. When his cabinet talked him out of that,
he gave a deposition in the White House saying that if Babcock is
guilty, then he, Grant, is guilty also. When Babcock was acquitted,
Grant wanted to hire him back and his cabinet again had to talk him out
of it, so Grant gave him another job and let him stay on the federal
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