Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Times (of London) Ranks America's Presidents

The Times of London recently ranked all 42 U.S. Presidents. Many of their choices were not surprising. A few were (and a couple I actually agreed with). You can read their list here. My rankings* are below. Feel free to share your own rankings or comment on theirs (or mine). One note I will make is that it appears some of the Times' historians ranked the presidents in part on activities that occurred outside of their terms as president. I confine my judgments of their administrations to what they did while in office.

1. Abraham Lincoln: OK. He came uncomfortably close to being a dictator, but he saved the Union. And he had the good fortune of being assassinated at the moment of his supreme triumph. Had he lived and had to deal with the messy issues of Reconstruction I have my doubts as to whether he would still occupy the # 1 slot.

2. George Washington: Father of the country and a man who’s near every action has become the guidepost for the conduct of presidents since. He was one of the most honorable men to walk God's Earth.

3. Franklin Roosevelt: He may have saved the country from revolution or worse in the height of the Great Depression. He gave hope in one of our nation's darkest hours and had the foresight to prepare the country for its involvement in the Second World War. He may have been the most gifted politician to occupy the White House.

4. Ronald Reagan: Few presidents can claim to have fundamentally shifted the political culture of the nation. Reagan is one of them. He said government was not the solution it was the problem and the era of big government liberalism effectively came to an end for 28 years.

5. Theodore Roosevelt: Or as some refer to him… the good Roosevelt. Teddy was our nation’s first modern president and he pushed through urgently needed social and economic reforms.

6. Dwight D. Eisenhower: He played nuclear poker with the Reds and beat em every time. He also was a great centrist president who got along well with people from both parties and provided a very badly needed period of normalcy after the war and depression years.

7. James K. Polk. He stole Texas and large parts of California and the south-west from Mexico and made em like it. Not really something I am too proud of, but hey he got away with it.

8. Harry Truman: One of the few true “ordinary Joes” to become president. He made his share of mistakes but his decision to revive the issue of civil rights in the teeth of bitter opposition from his own party’s southern wing scores big points with me. I am inclined to call Truman the last good Democrat.

9. John Adams: A bit of an authoritarian, but unlike Jefferson he knew how to make other countries respect American sovereignty.

10. William McKinley: I am not a fan of imperialism. But if you’re gonna build an empire you could do a lot worse than what Bill McKinley pulled off. His domestic politics were moderately progressive for the time. But he had the misfortune of being succeeded (and eclipsed) by Theodore Roosevelt, so no one noticed.

11. William Howard Taft: He never wanted to be president but let Teddy and his wife talk him into it. That said I think he is one of our more underrated presidents who actually signed more progressive legislation and prosecuted more anti-trust cases than T.R.

12. Lyndon Johnson: It has been said of LBJ that he got us into two wars (the war on poverty and Vietnam) and he lost both of them. But his record on civil rights makes up for a lot of that. I am no fan of big government liberalism, but Johnson finally completed the too long unfinished business of Reconstruction and made it forever clear that racism has no place in a civilized society.

13. James Monroe: There is a lot to be said for a president who knows how to get along with people and avoid a lot of partisan bickering. I think we could use a little more "era of good feelings."

14. Ulysses S. Grant: A relatively honest man who had the misfortune of presiding over one of the most breathtakingly corrupt (even by the fairly low standards of the late 19th century) administrations in history. His redemption comes from his aggressive efforts to protect minority rights in the southern states during Reconstruction.

15. John Q Adams: Noble ideas which mostly did not come to fruition. Though I do not count it in his ranking it must be noted he had a long and very distinguished career in Congress after the presidency.

16. James Madison: He tried to stand up to Britain for its policy of kidnapping American sailors on the high seas and impressing them into the Royal Navy. But he did so with no thought to what war would mean and no real preparation. The nation was left largely unarmed and defenseless by the Jefferson Administration and Madison did little to repair that deficiency in the roughly four years he was president before declaring war on England. It is a good thing the British were distracted by that short French fellow during most of the war or we would all be singing God Save the Queen at the start of the Super Bowl every year.

17. Thomas Jefferson: He doubled the size of the country and reduced the debt. He also let England kidnap thousands of American citizens with impunity and virtually disarmed the country while demanding foreign powers respect us. His neutrality and non-intercourse acts only serve to highlight his ignorance of economics and his naivete in foreign affairs. If someone wants to argue my ranking is generous I would have a hard time refuting it.

18. John F. Kennedy: A promising figure who never measured up to his soaring rhetoric. I feel uncomfortable passing judgment on him given the brief tenure of his administration, but his domestic program was mostly stalled in Congress and his sole foreign affairs triumph was the Test Ban Treaty. Unlike many historians I do not count the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 as a triumph but rather as evidence of a certain streak of recklessness. There is no possible way to justify bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war over the Russians doing what we had just done in Turkey. There were many ways that could have been handled differently with the same end result. Also certain aspects of his personal life including his notorious womanizing and his uncomfortably close connections to high ranking members of the Mafia would certainly have created a major political crisis and brought down his administration had they become publicly known at the time.

19. Chester Arthur: A surprisingly honest and independent president in an era not famous for producing such. He was the product of a notoriously corrupt political machine which he promptly ignored after becoming president and signed the first ever civil service reform legislation. He also is credited with founding the modern American Navy which had been allowed to deteriorate to the point of becoming a joke after the Civil War. Beyond which Arthur was a man who really knew how to enjoy life. He had a reputation as something of a Bon Vivante in Washington society with a taste for good food, wine and dancing with the ladies (he was a widower).

20. Calvin Coolidge: Probably the only true Jeffersonian to ever occupy the White House (including Jefferson). "Silent Cal" was the butt of scores of jokes and had a very dry New England Yankee wit of his own. He understood government's role was to leave people alone as much as possible and he was highly successful at it. He restored trust in honest government after the Harding scandals and enforced rigorous economy on the Federal Government. He was the last president to balance the budget every year he was in office, to never learn how to drive a car, to write all of his own speeches, and to refuse to allow a telephone in the oval office (he believed it was beneath the dignity of the President to talk on the contraption). While vacationing in the Dakotas in 1927 Coolidge came out one day and wordlessly handed out small pieces of paper to the press. On each piece of paper was the typewritten sentence "I do not choose to run for president in 1928." He never addressed the matter again.

21. Grover Cleveland: An honest man who did his best to curb corruption in a government where corruption was the norm.

22. Gerald R. Ford: An extremely decent man who had the misfortune of following a man who was much less so, Ford restored much trust and dignity to the office that he had never aspired to. His pardon of Richard Nixon unjustly cost him the election of 1976. He remains the only man never to be elected either president or vice-president to hold the office.

23. George H. W. Bush: Another decent man and an above average statesman, he was too often bored by ordinary politics and domestic issues. He disliked the partisan nastiness in Washington and never seemed to relate well with ordinary Americans.

24. Bill Clinton: “Slick Willy” was an average president who could have been much more. He was certainly one of the more gifted politicians to occupy the White House. But he never seemed able to think big. And the reckless nature of his personal life ultimately crippled his presidency.

25. Warren Harding: Often listed near the bottom of presidents I think he has been treated a bit more roughly than he deserves. Harding was a moderate Republican who fit in well with the expectations of the American public. He was the first president to promote arms limitations by hosting the Washington Navy Treaty talks which resulted in the treaty of the same name in 1923. Sadly, like Grant he was not a good judge of character when filling government offices.

26. Zachary Taylor: A very short presidency but one that might have taken a decisive step towards a constitutional abolition of slavery had he lived.

27: Andrew Johnson: A mean spirited drunk and bigot he nevertheless tried to let the South up easy after the Civil War. But he had no interest at all in protecting the freed slaves.

28. Rutherford B. Hayes: His election signaled the end of Reconstruction and the death knell of civil rights for blacks until the Truman Administration revived the issue.

29. Benjamin Harrison: An administration marked by four years of mismanagement and cronyism, he left the Treasury in rough shape.

30. John Tyler: The first vice president to succeed after the death of his predecessor. His actions set the precedent which has been followed since.

31. Herbert Hoover: The “great humanitarian” as he was ironically known before becoming president meant well, but his incompetence helped turn what would have been a nasty recession into the greatest economic catastrophe of modern history. To his credit Hoover was the first president to affirm the responsibility of the Federal Government to help people in distress through no fault of their own. But his mismanagement of the depression condemns him to the bottom ten list.

32. Franklin Pierce: Jefferson Davis thought well of him.

33. Martin Van Buren: A nonentity who played the role of a nonentity well.

34. Millard Fillmore: His birthday is a popular occasion for parties each year on the campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo (Fillmore’s hometown).

35. Andrew Jackson: Putting the president “of the common man” in the bottom 10 is going to be controversial. Oh well, that’s what I live for. The only way Jackson could be called an advocate of the common man is if you were not female, black, Indian, Catholic, Jewish or a foreign immigrant. Jackson was a mean bigot whose only use for blacks was as slaves. And that’s more than can be said for Indians for whom he had no use at all. His mass deportation of the Cherokee Indians in violation of a ruling by the Supreme Court was one of the most ignominious and despicable acts in our country’s history. Twice he vetoed bank bills which helped lay the groundwork for the economic disaster that would befall the nation under his successor. Though admirable, his stand against threats of secession does not make up for his many shortcomings.

36. Jimmy Carter: One of the finest ex-presidents we have had and one of the most incompetent presidents. Carter’s foreign policy was one of unadulterated liberal idealism which had no connection at all with the real world. During his administration the United States were repeatedly subject to humiliations by foreign powers and our armed forces sank into the most appalling state of disrepair and low moral since before the Second World War. His economic policies left the nation suffering from the worst recession in the post war era (up until the present depression).

37. Richard Nixon: This was a tough call given who I decided to rank just under him. But in the end I concluded that Nixon’s administration was only incompetent when it came to breaking the law and public corruption, unlike…

38. George W. Bush: Whose administration was breathtakingly incompetent in so many areas it’s hard to know where to begin. The total disregard for the rule of law by this administration though is what ultimately lands it near the bottom of my rankings.

39. James Buchanan: Again, this was a tough call. Buchanan almost always ranks at the bottom of every historian’s list of presidents. And there will no doubt be cries of heresy over who I have put in his place. Buchanan nearly lost the country in the last few months of his presidency and did nothing to prevent the crisis. Other than that one could argue he was not a horrible president. He also has the distinction of being our only bachelor president and quite probably the only homosexual to hold the office.

40. Woodrow Wilson: I detest Wilson for most of the reasons that the Times and all the liberal weenies love him (and a few others on the side). Woodrow Wilson was a self absorbed man with a messianic complex that in any ordinary person would have caused others to question his mental faculties. He was so absolutely convinced that he knew what the world needed that he dragged the United States into a war we had no business being in and got a quarter of a million Americans killed. In the process of arbitrarily creating the new world order according to his own judgments after the war, he was the prime instigator in dismantling most of Europe’s old order and replacing it with a hodge podge of states that had little cohesion and no real foundation. As just one example, the perpetual crisis in the Balkans in the 90’s is a direct consequence of the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had maintained a semblance of order among its vast and diverse populace. The Second World War is something which must at least in part be laid at Wilson’s feet. Had we stayed out of the First World War it would have ended with a German victory (distasteful, but again none of our business) and the complete catastrophe of the treaty of Versailles would most likely have been avoided.

Wilson was a bigot who quickly broke his campaign pledge on taking office and issued an executive order segregating the civil service on racial lines. During the war he exercised powers that Lincoln could only have dreamed of and sharply curtailed freedom of speech and the press. He jailed any who dared to criticize his administration or the war. Wilson’s obsessions with the war also lead directly to the suppression of most serious efforts to deal with the crisis of the influenza pandemic in the Fall of 1918. This lead to the deaths of more than 700,000 Americans, almost three times as many as were killed by the Kaisers army.

And finally on a very petty point of peevishness I note that it was Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, an outspoken white supremacist and puritanical Methodist (yes there were such things at one time), who on taking office in 1913 swiftly moved to abolish the immemorial custom of the daily ration of rum for all enlisted men in the Navy. Mr. Daniels was one of the movers and shakers behind what would eventually become Prohibition. To this day all Navy ships are dry and remain the last vestige of Federally enforced prohibition.

*Note: William Henry Harrison and James A Garfield both were in office for less than six months and I believe can not be fairly ranked.


Priest David Thatcher said...

Wow, undoubtedly know a lot more about Woodrow Wilson than I do, but your assessments seems off to me. First, Wilson was extremely reluctant to get into WWI, and only did so after Germany threatened our shipping (for a 2nd time), and conspired to induce Mexico into the war with promises of recovering USA territory. Second, Wilson reduced tariffs, a conservative fiscal policy. Third, did not Wilson lobby against the punitive aspects of the Treat of Versailles? (The USA never signed off on it, anyway.) Fourth, wasn't his monetary policies an important control on banking, restoring confidence after some huge scares?

I never studied him or WWI in detail, so I could be off.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Wilson should rate much lower than most historians place him. Not only the re-segregation of the federal government but also using armed force in Latin America were reminiscent of Jackson's treatment of Indians and blacks. Chasing Pancho Villa across the border may have been justifiable after Villa's raids into the U.S., but shelling Veracruz?

Wilson was a native of Virginia, and despite his political and academic career up North, it would seem his upbringing may have led him into grave and harmful errors in these areas.

Priest David Thatcher said...

Hmmnn! I would have never anticipated spending President's Day defending someone that I have given little thought to before now -- but really, Anonymous! What a reading of history! Are you aware that Pancho Villa crossed over into USA territory and sacked one of our cities? He was a terrorist, and Wilson sent Pershing into Mexico to get him. It's analogous to our going to Afghanistan after 9-11. The Veracruz incident, if I'm remembering correctly, involved the aftermath of the unjustifiable capture of USA sailors or marines. I'm shooting from the hip, here, so correct me if I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

You don't mention anything about abolition under Lincoln. Surely that goes along with "saved the union" to put him in the number one slot.

Eric John said...

Way to take Andrew Jackson to task! We should stick a better president on the $20 bill.

Death Bredon said...

Calvin Coolidge was far and away the best President the US ever had -- the "hesychist prez." :-)

[Wilson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln are far and away the worst -- so much blood on their hands.]

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Yikes! You are harder than I am. I am not sure I can agree with your views on either Lincoln or FDR (I assume that's Roosevelt your referring to). I do like Coolidge a lot. My main reason for not rating him more highly is that he never had to deal with a serious crisis. It may not be fair, but one simply doesn't know how he would have handled things had he been in office during a war or major depression.

On the subject of Wilson, I am reconsidering that one. If I decide to revisit this post next year I may let Wilson out of the cellar. But there is no way he will break out out of the bottom ten. There are a few other presidents who on thoughtful reflection might move up or down a couple slots.


mellehcimb said...

I completely agree with you on Andrew Jackson. He definitely deserves a spot near the bottom. He definitely does not deserve to be on our currency.