Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ranking The Presidents: My Top Ten

I noticed this article regarding a recent poll taken of people's attitudes at to who the best most recent former presidents are. Being something of a political handicapper myself, I thought I would give it a go - although, I broadened my list to include every former president, as opposed to only those dating back to 1961.

1) Abraham Lincoln: This was an easy call. He held the union together through a combination of political skill and sheer force of will. He freed the slaves by winning the war. He faced the biggest challenge any president has faced, and he succeeded.

2) George Washington: Everything he did constituted a precedent. He was clearly very mindful of that, and it guided his presidency. His solid judgement and ability to leverage the talents of those around him helped him make the best choices.

3) FDR: Contrary to popular belief, his New Deal programs did not rescue the country from the depression, but they did put people back to work. His #3 ranking here stems from the deft manner with which he steered an isolationist country towards what he recognized as a necessary war. It is hard to imagine any other American politician of that era managing public opinion, and the war that came afterwards, as skillfully as he did. He was the best commander in chief of all the presidents.

4) Teddy Roosevelt: TR was the first modern president. He basically created conservation and passed laws protecting consumers. He was a warrior as well as the only incumbent American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He understood America needed to play a bigger role in the world during the 20th century, and left the country better prepared to do so.

5) Ronald Reagan: His career proves that underestimation is gold in politics. He came to office with a list of priorities that reflected the will of a majority of Americans - rebuilding military strength, lowering taxes, and reducing growth in government. It can be argued that he achieved (to varying extents) each of them. He was an FDR-quality communicator, and the kind of leader who could see beyond his ideological prism. He didn't single-handedly win the Cold War, but he certainly delivered the final knock out blow. And, he appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court. The first, and the best, president I ever voted for.

6) Harry Truman: A fearless and feisty leader, Truman stepped out of the shadow left by his predecessor and built his own formidable legacy. He made the biggest single decision ever faced by an American president: Hiroshima. He saved thousands of American lives in the process. His creation of the Marshall Plan and support for aid to Greece and Turkey laid the proper foundations for the struggle with the Soviet Union. He desegregated the armed forces and stood up to the Communists in Korea. His firing of Gen. MacArthur was politically damaging but necessary to assert the power of the commander in chief over a popular subordinate. And, he pulled off the biggest electoral upset in American political history. How could you not like the guy?

7) Dwight Eisenhower: He was another underestimated president. He deliberately cultivated a reputation for being a disengaged and dottery executive, but was quietly running everything behind the scenes through what has been described as a "hidden hand" leadership style. He gave the country eight years of peace and prosperity. He correctly enforced the court order to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas despite his own contrary inclinations. He launched America's space age when he created NASA. And, he effectively shut down Joe McCarthy.

8) Thomas Jefferson: He doubled the nation's borders through the Louisiana Purchase and ended the slave trade. He also successfully led America into its first war (the Barbary War). He also founded the longest lasting political party in the world.

9) JFK: He skillfully guided the nation through what was arguably its biggest national security crisis ever. He upped the ante on the space race with the Soviets, and put civil rights in the center of the national agenda (though LBJ and Nixon did most of the heavy lifting). His tax cuts helped produce a period of prosperity through most of the 1960s.

10) James K. Polk: He pledged to serve only one term and to achieve four clearly defined goals in office. He kept both promises.

I'd likely put Wilson, Jackson, and George H.W. Bush among the best of the rest, but am unsure of their exact rankings. As for the worst president, I'd still bestow that title on Jimmy Carter. I'd also put Richard Nixon in the top 20 based on the fact that the quality of his achievements in office partially offset the circumstances under which he left it. I'd rank LBJ in the top 20 for similar reasons.

As for George W. Bush, his legacy depends upon the outcome in Iraq. If Iraq is safe, democratic, and free in 10 years, he will likely rebound. The way I see it, his reputation has nowhere to go but up.


  1. Most Americans don't know that Nixon is largely responsible for current day equal rights and extended constitutional liberties. He brought our troops home from Vietnam through "Vietnamization" begun almost immediately after securing office in '68. He was a true American hero WHO GOT CAUGHT-UP.

  2. FDR was a piece of crap dictator who turned a blind eyes to the Nazi genocide. He also acted like a sock puppet for Stalin. G.H.W. Bush was the RINO Reagan thought he was or at least the wimp who let the Demoratic Congress do as they please.

    Rodney Dangerfield's speech in Back to School explain why Truman sucked.

    Given the Hollywood treatment of the others I'm surprised Jed Bartlett didn't make the list.

  3. If you account for the fact that most of FDR's
    New Dealers were in fact Wilson retreads you might consider axing Wilson from the best of the rest list. Wilson thought of the classical liberalism embodied in the Constituion as a bloated corpse to be disposed of in order to make way for his statist vision.

  4. The more RJC posts the ignorant he sounds.

  5. FDR is problematic because while you nailed his foresight with regards to WWII, he also got played at the end of the war by Stalin at Yalta.

    Domestically, the man was absolutely abhorrent in every conceivable way from his failed economic policies to the court packing schemes to his internment (f'ing INTERNMENT!) of Japanese Americans.

    Never has one man been so exonerated of all sins as FDR has in the modern era. It's frankly sickening.

  6. The head of FDR's National Recovery Administration, Hugh Johnson was a dyed in the wool corporatist. He had a photo of Mussolini on his wall and passed out Il Duce's book "The Corporate State" to his staff. Look at the NRA in practice and thier price fixing--in cohoots with big business--that screwed the small business owner. See specifically Jacob Maged and the Schecther brothers. I highly recommend Amith Shlaes book "The Forgotten Man" and the chapters on FDR in Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism: From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning"

  7. A few thoughts in response to various comments posted above...

    With respect to Truman, as much as I enjoyed the film "Back To School," my primary source on the 33rd president is David McCullough, not Sam Kinison.

    As for Wilson, I have always found him difficult to place, which is why I tossed him into the "best of the rest" category. I like his internationalism, and I give him props for being an successful wartime president. But he was also a virulent racist who fired blacks hired by TR from the White House, and who hosted a screening of the infamous film "Birth Of A Nation" at the White House.

    As for FDR, as I indicated above, I rank him number 3 strictly on World War II and not his economic policies, the court packing episode, or other misadventures. Yes, even his war record has regrettable aspects - particularly the internment of Japanese Americans and unwillingness to interrupt the infrastructure of the Holocaust.

    For me, his biggest failing was running for a fourth term when it was apparent to those around him - if not FDR himself - that he was terminally ill. A dying man had no business sparring with Stalin at Yalta. He ran for reelection under false pretenses. It's hard to imagine an episode of American history in which a president so thoroughly misled the American people. His reputation should have taken a hit for this, but historians have largely let him off the hook.

    Still, I give him credit for guiding an isolationist nation with no military and no armaments to speak of to victory against the most evil regime the world has ever seen.

    As for Anon @ 12/8/10 @ 18:22, I think you meant to say, "The more RJC posts, the more ignorant he sounds." The way you have it just sounds awkward.

  8. Very good post and well thought out. I like your list, with the exception of FDR.

    However, from your comments it is clear that the reasons you like FDR are the things I find more inconsequential and the things you ignore about him are what I find abhorrent. So it makes sense that we disagree on that point.

    The lens of economics is too important to me to let other issues (even WWII) take precedent, I guess...

  9. Either you are fairly liberal or not a student of history.

    Lincoln had a tough situation. He dealt with the trials and tribulations admirably. He did not hold the union together; they fought the Civil War. He freed the slaves when it was politically savy and held on to the sovereignty of border states on the issue. He gave broad latitude to his generals including concering the Writ of Habeus Corpus (cough, Maryland). Lincoln's genius was in eventually shaking up his military leadership. McClellan was afraid to fight and prolonged the war by two years. Read McPherson or any of the many biographies. Another tough Presidency by similar standards was Jame Madison who was chased out of DC by the British; he escaped by tunnel.

    Eisenhower's greatest contribution was our modern transportation infrastructure.

    FDR's policies cost more jobs than they created. You would probably love to pay failed writers.

    Teddy Roosevelt wasn't the only incumbent President to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Barry Hussein Obama won one too. I like Teddy too but bare in mind he ran with the machine before he ran against the machine.

    Why James Polk didn't run for re-election is in dispute. He died a few months after leaving office and was pretty sick at the end of his term. He also wasn't seeking the Presidency when he won it.

    JFK didn't serve long enough to cast a judgment.

  10. I'm pleased that my attempt to rate the presidents has drawn such feedback, and surprised that it has attracted a few personal barbs, too.

    Lincoln preserved the union by fighting the Civil War, resisting pressure to negotiate a solution. I think we're drifting into semantics here. Also, one could make an argument that he should have fired McClellan sooner than he did.

    Again, I put FDR on the list because of the war and not the New Deal. Disagree with me if you want - it's fair game and I am aware that my choice is controversial - but don't glean any endorsement of his economic policies out of it. FDR did not do enough to grow the private economy, which is why it tanked again during his second term.

    True about Obama. I'd forgotten that. Or maybe I blocked it out. Teddy earned his for his work to end the Russo-Japanese War. Obama won his for his celebrity.

    And, for the record, I don't think the government should pay failed writers any more than I believe private campaign donors should generously pay failed political advisors - or political candidates should pay incoming party chairmen for fundraising services that are part of the office.

  11. One more point about FDR:

    My dad was born in 1922, and grew up during the FDR era. He was a lifelong Republican and did not agree with the New Deal at all. But he made one observation about FDR that has always stayed with me. "A lot of people didn't agree with the things he was doing," he said, "but a lot of us gave him credit for doing something."

  12. Interesting quote about FDR's policies.

    I wonder if that will be what I will tell my children about the ARRA down the road...

  13. I'm going to join with John's sentiments on FDR, only adding in that my grandmother and great-aunt were both among the many Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps. I find it incomprehensible to think that is something that can be so simply glossed over.

    The only other thought I have to put out there is that is nearly criminally negligent to not have Calvin Coolidge on the list. No American president, Reagan included, better understood economic liberty, both what it is and why it matters.

  14. 13 comments last night and 11 this morning. What did I miss? Serious note what do you make of Obama's relationship with the House Democrats?

  15. Questing:

    Interesting point about Coolidge. But doesn't he bear at least some of the blame for the crash?

  16. RJC posted:
    'My dad was born in 1922, and grew up during the FDR era. He was a lifelong Republican and did not agree with the New Deal at all. But he made one observation about FDR that has always stayed with me. "A lot of people didn't agree with the things he was doing," he said, "but a lot of us gave him credit for doing something."
    09 December, 2010 13:28'

    Now, where, recently, have I heard the variation on that theme that sounds like, "We have to do something different, even if it is not a very smart thing and it it plays into the hands of our political enemies."

  17. I'll agree about FDR and his preparing an unwilling nation for a war that was coming whether wanted it or not. Although he did have a blind spot when it came to Joe Stalin, which the Soviets masterfully exploited. See Hiss, Alger.