Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ranking the U.S. Presidents

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.

2. 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.

Jefferson, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

My 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 of state.

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 appraisal.

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."

My 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.

Another 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.

A few 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?

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 intended.

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.

James Ostrowski 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.

Our 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 Jefferson!

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

36. 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.

37. 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."

In his 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."

Alos, "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 been intolerable..."

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 personally.

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 pardoned.

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.

41. 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.

43. 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 payroll! Incredible.

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