A Presidents’ Day Discussion — How do you rank them?

Forget the Oscars, just in time for Presidents’ Day, C-SPAN has issued its “2017 Survey of Presidential Leadership.” Click here, take a look, and being a blog of history buffs (others might call us geeks but what do they know), let’s discuss how we would rank our leaders.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Hard to argue with the top 4: Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt, and T. Roosevelt.
2. John Adams at 19? Way too low. He cooled firebrands in his own party who desired a war with France that the young nation was ill prepared to fight. More importantly, he established the precedent of peacefully transferring power to an opposing party after a bitter political fight in 1800.
3. Thomas Jefferson at 7? Too high. Sure he purchased the Louisiana Purchase but it is hard to put someone in the top ten when he did not even want to list being president on his tombstone. Take Jefferson and Adams’ ratings, add them together, and divide by two to come up with the place for for both of them.
4. Andrew Jackson at 18? Way too low. Yes, his actions toward the Cherokee Tribe was deplorable but he was a transformational figure who ushered in a more egalitarian democratic American society. Move him into the 10.
5. James Buchanan dead last? Yep. Weak in the face of crisis. He accelerated the country’s slide into the Civil War. Well deserved at the bottom of the list. But for those who focus on political resumes in deciding who is the best candidate consider this – Buchanan had been a Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, Minister to Russia, and Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
6. Chester Arthur at 35. Never heard of him? He was a corrupt stooge of New York political bosses who became president after a reform minded President Garfield was assassinated. As president, however, he defied expectations and pushed through major civil service reforms. A belief in the power of redemption should take him up a few places.
7. Woodrow Wilson at 11. Too high. Yes, he was reform minded but he was also a rigid segregationist and an opponent of the first amendment. His refusal to work with Congress on the Treaty of Versailles led to its rejection and hastened a period of American isolationism. Take him down a few notches.
8. Harry Truman at 6 and Dwight Eisenhower at 5. About right. Truman stabilized Europe after World War II, stood up to Communism in Korea, and affirmed civilian control of the military in firing the popular General MacArthur. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, continued building alliances to block communism but also understood the limits of military power when he refused to intervene in Vietnam’s civil war and warned about the dangers of the military industrial complex in his farewell address.
9. John Kennedy at 8. Hard to justify. His life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet which propelled his presidency into the myth of Camelot. His substantive record is mixed. Bay of Pigs? Bad. Cuban Missile Crisis? Good. Space exploration? Very good. Progress on Civil Rights? Incomplete. Vietnam? Began the slippery slope into the bloody quagmire. He needs to move down to the middle of the pack.
10. Lyndon Johnson at 10. Way too high. Yes, he had domestic success, particularly on Civil Rights. But he plunged the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam that ultimately led to the deaths of more than fifty-eight thousand American troops and bitterly divided America. He needs to be taken down quite a few places.
11. Richard Nixon at 28. Too high. One word – Watergate. He left office in disgrace. He belongs in the bottom 5.
12. Jimmy Carter at 26. Too high. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Recession is when you lose your job. Depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Carter loses his.” President Carter has been a successful ex-president but that should not blind us to his presidential shortcomings. Yes, he had the Camp David Accord but he also had the Iran Hostage Crisis, spiked oil prices, skyrocketing inflation, and was unable to get along with his own Democrat controlled Congress. He belongs in the bottom 10.
13. Ronald Reagan at 9. About right. He choked off double digit inflation, hastened the end of the Cold War, and made conservatism a positive optimistic movement that has cast its long shadow to the present day.
14. George W. Bush at 33 and Barrack Obama at 12. Neither feels right. The Bush Administration made serious mistakes but he kept America safe after 9/11. The Democrats under President Obama lost over 1,000 political seats in the U.S. as the country lost faith in his leadership.  Time will tell but both will likely drift more toward the middle.

So, what are your thoughts?

Happy Presidents’ Day.


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