Monday, February 19, 2007

Ranking the Presidents

Since it's President's Day, I figure I should discuss presidents in some way or another. I generally avoid ranking presidents, but I'll indulge this one day. Ranking them all is kind of absurd. How is the 27th best president better than the 28th? But we can have a little fun here by ranking the 10 best and 10 worst.

My criteria is to limit their contributions to what they did as president. Thus Jimmy Carter, while an amazing man in his years after leaving the presidency can hardly rank in the top 10 because of his mediocre performance in the Oval Office. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson isn't on this list because he was actually a pretty crappy president, despite his mind-blowing accomplishments. Also, modern moral considerations must be taken into account. Thus, James K. Polk was a tremendously successful president. He also stole half of Mexico to do it. So he doesn't make it on the list.

The Best

1. Abraham Lincoln. The obvious choice. Brought the US back together. Kept the border states in the Union. Mobilized a nation that had never been mobilized before, bringing the United States into the modern age. Issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Sure, you can criticize his delay in freeing the slaves, his willingness to suspend habeus corpus, etc., but who could have done better?

2. George Washington. Another obvious choice. Kind of forgotten about in a lot of ways today which is kind of strange. We owe him a great deal for creating a stable government and for leaving office out of 2 terms. That alone is enough to put him at #2.

3. Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was a great man. His program brought a sense of justice to the United States. He was bad on civil rights, but again, who would have done better in 1933? He brought the nation out of the abyss and fought World War II.

At this point, it starts getting kind of hard. I'm not a big fan of most American presidents.

4. Harry Truman. Desegregated the military, helping to spur on the civil rights movement. You can definitely question his role in starting the Cold War. But he carried on FDR's domestic legacy in a period of reaction, helping to ensure its long-term impact.

5. James Monroe. Perhaps a strange choice. Monroe was not an exceptional man. But the United States was incredibly divided during Madison's presidency, with New England on the verge of revolt during the War of 1812. Monroe ruled over a period of general placidness in the United States, allowing the nation to grow stronger. He hardly played a key role in the Missouri Compromise, but he didn't make the situation worse. Didn't play the key role in the Monroe Doctrine either, but he approved it and that's a good thing. For all the attacking of the Monroe Doctrine in the years after the Roosevelt Corollary, at the time it was a good thing, stating US opposition to European powers recolonizing Latin America.

6. Lyndon Johnson. That LBJ is #6 says a lot about how little I think of most American presidents. Of course, Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster. But the Great Society was a period of great hope and optimism in the US. Johnson made a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans and deserves great admiration for that. He also signed the great civil rights legislation. The single best president on that issue.

7. John Adams. That he resisted the machinations of Alexander Hamilton and peacefully gave up the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 is enough to place him here. Like Washington, he did a lot to ensure the stability of the nation. He also worked to steer the nation clear of the craziness in Europe at that time.

8. William Howard Taft. I've talked about Taft before. He was a conservative man, it is true. But he also passed a tremendous amount of progressive legislation and lacked the inherent awfulness of the racist imperialist Theodore Roosevelt and the insufferable moralist Woodrow Wilson.

9. Bill Clinton. I absolutely cannot believe I'm saying this. While I hold Clinton largely responsible for the Republicanization of the Democratic Party, Clinton also stewarded the nation through one of the most successful economic periods in its history while dealing with a well-organized hate machine from the opposition and a hostile Congress for most of his administration. His foreign policy generally left much to be desired but at least he didn't get the US involved in any ridiculous ideologically-driven wars.

10. John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is greatly overrated. But there is good reason to believe that his second term would have been much better that his first. Really, he's here by default because I can't stomach anyone else. While he doesn't get the credit for civil rights that he might have had he not died, he also doesn't get enough of the blame for Vietnam that dogs LBJ.

If there is a #11, it might be Grover Cleveland for resisting imperialism alone.

The 10 Worst Presidents.

A much easier task. So many to choose from!

1. James Buchanan. Many current commentators, including historians say that George W. Bush deserves this spot. And while he does in fact deserve it, it is rather absurd to say that he is the worst president in American history. James Buchanan was the worst kind of northerner before the Civil War--a tool for the South. Buchanan saw the nation fall apart in his last months of office and decided to do nothing about it. Disgusting.

2. Franklin Pierce. Same as Buchanan except that he didn't have the opportunity for the nation to disintegrate. That he named people such as Jefferson Davis to his cabinet says plenty about his beliefs. His support for Stephen Douglas' popular sovereignty position is revolting.

3. George W. Bush. This is where Bush belongs. The worst minus the 2 pre-Civil War presidents. If Bush sent the US catapulting toward civil war, he would move to #1. As it is though, he is less horrendous than Buchanan and Pierce. However, we should not underestimate his crappiness. We won't know the true disaster of Bush's policies for another couple of decades as his stonewalling on climate changing and his gutting of environmental and labor policies, as well as health and business regulations will take some time to hit us with its full impact. Judging his foreign policy is quite easy.

4. Andrew Johnson. I actually have a good bit of sympathy for Johnson. He just never belonged in the office. But his support of the old Confederacy after the Civil War and sabotaging of Reconstruction is incredibly bad and deeply damaged this nation. That Bush is worse than this says a lot.

5. Richard Nixon. Say what you want about his policies, which outside of Southeast Asia, were average at worst. The damage to the American political system from Watergate is huge and long-lasting. For that alone, he belongs here.

6. Herbert Hoover. I also have a certain amount of sympathy for Hoover. He was a progressive in an age that took much more active government solutions. But he simply dropped the ball when the Depression hit. He was also a virulent racist.

7. Warren G. Harding. A total non-entity as a leader. Completely corrupt. Nothing good to say about the man. Kind of like a W without ideology.

8. John Tyler. His aggressive push for Texas annexation and his staffing cabinet positions with southern sympathizers such as John C. Calhoun and Abel Upshur at a time when sectional strife was still mostly below the surface in the United States gives him the honor of making this list.

9. Ronald Reagan. Probably #1 if you are a union member or Latin American. A complete and utter bastard who ushered in the modern right-wing. Many of his policies are not as bad as what his followers wanted. However Grandpa Caligula was a terrible human being.

10. James Madison. Stupidly took the US into a war with Britain that could have easily cost the nation its existence. A great man but not a good president.

Many of these rankings are highly debatable and perhaps dubious. So have at it if you object!