Flashback: Good and Bad Presidents

In anticipation of the shutdown of Apple’s MobileMe service, I am re-posting some of my old blog entries before they become harder to retrieve.

This entry was originally posted on November 24, 2004. Please note that the original post did not contain any hyperlinks; I have added links to the Wikipedia entries for the named presidents.

A few weeks ago (before the election), I got into a discussion with a friend of mine. My friend asserted — and I disagreed — that George Walker Bush is the worst president in American history. I stood my ground, arguing that James Buchanan, our fifteenth president, deserves that title.

That discussion got me to thinking, though. How does one define what makes a president good or among the best, and how does one define what makes a president bad or among the worst? Am I being fair to our fifteenth president by labeling him our worst? Yes, I realize that on his watch, polite discourse over the topic of slavery came to a grinding halt, effectively setting the stage for the Civil War. If not Buchanan, then who is?

Conversely, when we think of our greatest presidents, Washington, Lincoln and FDR are generally bandied about as among our best. Do they deserve it?

I’m not going to summarize the lives and times of all 42 of our presidents (I’m only counting Grover Cleveland once, in spite of the fact that he was both our 22nd and 24th president) in this blog entry, but I would like to at least try to define what makes a good or a bad president.

Let’s start with some of the presidents who I feel never got a chance to prove what kind of a president they were/could have been.

William Henry Harrison. Died after a month in office. So he made two big mistakes: first was not wearing a coat during his inaugural and second was his choice of vice president (John Tyler). Let’s take him out of consideration for anything.

Warren Gemaliel Harding. Had what was arguably the most scandal-plagued administration. Like Ronald Reagan, there is scant evidence of his personal involvement in any of his administration’s scandals. The myriad scandals in his administration effectively prevented him from governing effectively. I’m somewhat fond of the legend that says that, when he died in a bathtub, it was of a broken heart.

Herbert Hoover. If there ever was a president who was prevented from achieving what he wanted by events that were clearly outside of his control, it was Hoover. Seven months after he took the oath of office, the stock market crashed, and the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. The stock market crash was the culmination of at least a decade’s worth of bad economic policy.

Gerald Rudolph Ford. Our only president who was never elected either president or vice president. He did two things that cost him dearly in the popularity contest, however I believe that both were the right thing to do at the time: first was pardoning President Nixon, and second was pardoning the draft dodgers.

So how do we define what makes for a good or bad president? The US presidency is a complex job, and we may put different emphasis on different aspects of policy, depending on the circumstances. All presidents make mistakes, however which ones are so egregious that they bring down an otherwise good presidency? I happen to think that Lyndon Baines Johnson was quite effective in terms of his domestic policy, but his foreign policy was poorly thought-out, ill-advised, and generally brought down an otherwise reasonable administration. Was Vietnam more egregious than, say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s attempts to pack the supreme court with justices who generally agreed with him?

How about the hindsight of history? Andrew Jackson’s presidency ushered in a system where political favors begat political favors in a form of mutual backscratching. This was commonly known as the spoils system. The assassination of President James Garfield was a direct result of this system, and the assassination of President William McKinley was an indirect result of it; both men were killed by people expecting an unreciprocated political favor. Would it be right, fair, and/or just to fault Jackson himself for the assassinations two presidents who were elected more than 40 and 60 years after he left office? (And 35 and 55 years after he died?)

What about the actions of the 34 presidents who lived long enough to become ex-presidents? Can we argue that their post-presidency actions may redeem their otherwise unremarkable presidencies? Is it possible that their post-presidency actions may bring down their otherwise great presidencies? Whether we’re talking about John Quincy Adams, who served one term as president, was defeated by Andrew Jackson, and went on to distinguished service in the house of representatives, or William Howard Taft, who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or Herbert Hoover, who came up with many of the ideas used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his “new deal”, or Jimmy Carter, who continues to exemplify what is right with America in his actions, there is something to be said for the president who assumes the role of “elder statesman.” Conversely, did Theodore Roosevelt, by his antics that led to the formation of the Bull Moose Party mar an otherwise truly progressive presidency?

By examining the post-presidency actions of those who did not die in office, are we short-changing the eight presidents who died in office? Had John Fitzgerald Kennedy lived to become an ex-president, I suspect that his presidency would not be as admired as it is today. While he ushered in an era of hope for what was ostensibly an entire generation, isn’t it reasonable to point out that it was marred by the Cuban missile crisis and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs? Scant attention is paid to the fact that Kennedy began the escalation of our involvement in Vietnam. Would the Civil War or World War II have ended when and how they did, if Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt had lived long enough to see them end?

Is it necessarily fair to label any president in the last 30 years as either a “good” or a “bad” president? I think the ultimate example of that is George Herbert Walker Bush, a staunch advocate for most favored nation trading status with China. I single out this stand because his advocacy of this status (granted by congress) will probably be his longest-lasting legacy on US policy. And here we are, about fifteen years after he proposed it, and I still don’t know if it’s a good idea. Is it bad to reward a country with such human rights abuses, or is it good that it has effectively opened up a huge (and I do mean huge) market for American goods and services? Is it necessarily good to have this large a market? After all, this increase in demand is at least partially responsible for the rising oil prices today.

When does foreign policy trump domestic policy, and vice versa? Richard Milhaus Nixon had a much more robust foreign policy than domestic policy. William Jefferson Clinton’s foreign policy, although idealistic at times, seemed to be more reactive to events than proactive (except for Northern Ireland) He was much better at domestic policy, if we are to simply look at the way the economy was driven under his presidency. (See my disclaimer above about presidents in the last 30 years…)

The word “leadership” is a very vague term, and I feel as though I must make some kind of statement with regard to military service prior to the presidency. One would think that a military man who makes the rank of General (or Admiral in the Navy) would make for a good leader. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Of presidents who were previously generals, I point only to George Washington as an effective president. The others — and I’m discounting William Henry Harrison due to his short tenure as president — seemed to have been a bit incapable of leadership off the battlefield and in the day-to-day droning of political life. This is why Dwight David Eisenhower shone brightest when he sent the National Guard in to Little Rock, but caused more problems than he solved on most other peacetime concerns.

I’m not going to come any closer to defining what makes for a good president or a bad president in this essay. It seems to me that contemporary reverence for John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ronald Wilson Reagan are overstated, and that the relative disdain for Richard Milhaus Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson are, at best, unfair, but that’s about it.

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