Friday, February 12, 2010

Presidents' Day: Top 5 Best/Worst

To kick off this Presidents' Day weekend, I've created my own "Best" and "Worst" U.S. Presidents list. I think there's a lot to learn by who was successful in that office and who was not, why and what the implications may be for now and into the future.

Sure, there are Presidents who are certainly candidates for either the good or bad category not on my list, and not every one I've listed is 100% good or 100% bad. But, I've tried to select presidents who in my opinion (and I believe objectively) had a monumental and lasting impact on our nation in either a good or bad way. To put another way, had we not had these specific leaders at the precicely right (or wrong) time, the history of our nation would be either terribly worse or terribly better respectively.

On Presidents Day itself, I'll "reverse course" and do a post about some bad things the good presidents did and some good things the bad presidents did.

But for now, here's my list. See if you agree.

Top 5 Greatest U.S. Presidents
Listed in chronological order:

George Washington (Independent, 1789-1797). Washington makes the list not just because he was the first US President, but for the tremendous job he did holding the Union together in the nation's very first and shaky years. At a time when some were calling for - believe it or not - an American monarchy, when there was a percentage of the population still loyal to England, when many states would rather have just gone their own way rather than join a Union, Washington was the person to keep the piecces together and point to a common way forward. Perhaps nobody other than the revered top general from the victorious Continental Army could have done this. No doubt among our very best.

Thomas Jefferson (Democratic Republican Party, 1801-1809). Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independance, a major leader of the American Revolution, governor of Virginia, founder of the University of Virginia and major proponent of a relatively limited federal government, the separation of church and state and, well, many other things that have become the cornderstone of American freedoms. For those works alone, he would be remembered as a great American. But, none of those things are really associated with him when he was president. Serving as top man from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson led the nation through many of its early years and accomplishing a lot. For example, his administration executed the Louisanna Purchase that doubled the size of the country, sponsored the Lewis & Clark expedition, established the U.S. military accademy, signed the law making it illegal to import slaves into the United States (but certainly not ending slave trade by any stretch of the imagination) among other actions. I personally also like how Jefferson was very suspicious of the aristocracy (even though he was pretty much one of them), banks and the need to shake things up every now and again if they became untennable or stale. His tenure as President following Washington and Adams served the nation well as a republican (small "r") counterbalance to the Federalist agenda of the previous two administrations. A giant if we ever had one.

Abraham Lincoln (Republican Party, 1861-1865). Perhaps no other president faced as daughting and critical circumstances during his time as president than Lincoln. Following the disintigration of the Union by the secession and aggression of southern states, Lincoln perservered to rally the nation and pursecute a military campain to re-establish the full Union. Also known as The American Civil War, this conflict was a monumental time in our nation's history, and Lincoln our leader in it. And, in that fight, Lincoln found an even higher calling to rally the nation...the abolition of slavery through the issuance of The Emancipation Proclamation. For these two accomplishments alone - saving the Union and abolishing slavery - Lincoln stands as one of our greats and, in my opinion, perhaps our greatest president.

Teddy Roosevelt (Republican Party, 1901 - 1909). While perhaps not as universally revered today as he was, say, in the first half of the 20th Century, there is a reason "TR" is on Mount Rushmore. Actually, there are several resons he makes my top five list. First, he came into office following the assassination of President McKinnley, assuming the top post from his position as Vice President. Not an easy task. TR also ran an administration that started to bring the United States into a more modern era. For example, he championed laws to regulate and curb dangerous business monopolies (often called "trusts" back then), enacted some of the first consumer protections from dishonest business practices, stood for a strong but not internationally aggressive military policy ("speak softly but carry a big stick"), and as a strong conservationist he initated the U.S. National Park System. These were big moves for an early time...dragging the nation in many ways forward towards a transformed nation.

Frankin Delano Roosevelt (Democratic Party, 1933-1945). You want to talk about accomplishiments? How about leading the nation out of the depths of The Great Depression and leading us through the largest war in our - if not the entire world's - history. Well, FDR did both. Lets not minimize this stuff. Seriously, at the time when FDR came into office, the nation was in REAL trouble with the financial and econimic system collapsed and our very way of life under serious threat.

An unfettered, unregulated laissez-faire approach to the economy and government had led the country to near ruin. There was no such thing as social security, no health insurance for the poor, no meaningful regulation of financial markets, very few labor laws - zero safety net for Americans unless you happened to be rich - an isolationist policy aboard and other elements that led to the crash of 1929 and the ensuing massive unemployment and associated problems that plagued the nation.

The alteratives were to do nothing in hopes that "the market" would magically correct things or to inject the resources of the Federal goverment to try and aid the current situation short term and to avoid the same thing from happening in the long term. Guess which choice FDR made?

Realizing that "do nothing" invited catastrophy for our society and the very real chance of a turn to the extreme right or extreme left in attempts to fix the situation, Roosevelt instead introduced and pushed through Congress a comprehensive legisative program for relief, recovery and reform called the New Deal . It helped create jobs, address holes in our system and re-build our economy. In short, FDR made the fundamental leap that the Federal goverment does indeed have a role to play in ensuring the well being of society. Relying on business and charity is not enough. We are, after all, all in this together at some level. While these concepts ended up being the prevailing mindset for goverment in ensuing decades, they also were (and still are) an outlook of America that conservatives have been trying to undo ever since...and I may add they had their greatest succes in doing so in the 1990s and 2000s. Guess where that got us? Again.

As for leading our country in World War II against both Hitler and the Japanese? Well, FDR was exactly the right guy to do it. Masterfully working with allies, he was at the center of devising the strategy that ultimately felled both foes. Not to sell Winson Churchill short (he is another GIANT of the 20th Century), or to minimize the ruthless pursuit of the war against Germany by Stalin and the Soviet Union, but no victory - or certainly no victory in the relatively timely and advantageous way to unfolded under his leadership. Sure, some say he "sold out" eastern Europe by ceding it to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, but do you really think we could have or would have benefitted from engaging in a "hot" war with Stalin's Red Army immediately following WW II? No. Finally, in both his domestic and wartime leadership, FDR also gave Americans a boost of confidence in these times of troubles - a brave face in light of worldwide dangers, a bright outlook and "can do" attitude in the face of dire economic circumstances. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Honorable mention: John F. Kennedy (Democratic Party, 1960-1963). Perhaps not a "great" president given his tragically limited time in office, he did preside during the critical Cuban Missle Crisis. His leadership helped pull the world back from the brink of nuclear war with the USSR. For this alone, not to mention other achievments such as initiating the U.S. space program, JFK is honorable mention for great president.


Worst 5 U.S. Presidents

James Buchanan (Democratic Party, 1857-1861). As president immediately before the Civil War, Buchanan rates low in my opinon for...well...not doing anything. Personally believing in slave owners' rights, he staked out positions like it was illegal for the South to leave the Union, but it was also illegal for the Union to go to war over it, and slavery was bad but it was not legal for the Federal goverment to do anything about it. His statement on the issue of whether slavery should be allowed in new states and territories was, "happily, a matter of but little practical importance." His term functioned as a pressure cooker regarding North/South relations that blew up just after he left office with the breakout of the Civil War. Had he been more creative, committal and forward looking, perhaps history could have turned out differently.

Ulysses S. Grant (Republican, 1869-1877). U.S. Grant was a Civil War hero - the Union general that finally and decisively defeated the breakaway Confederates. It is no surprise that he was easily elected presdient when he ran not long after the conclusion of the war. What is surprising is how bad a president he ended up being. For someone blessed with the ability to lead and command, he presided over an adminstration rife with graft, corruption and horrible decision making - leading to economic downturns (Panic of 1873), a series of high profile scandals and an overall not good era for the United States. Amazingly, he was elected for a second term. This is possibly, even likely, due to his war hero status and who he was running against.

Herbert Hoover (Republican, 1929-1933). Hoover was the president when the sock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression quickly hit afterwards. But simply presiding in office when these events took place is not why I regard him poorly among our presidents. No, it's his - and to be fair, his predicesors Coolige and Harding in the 1920s - championing of Federal degregulation of business and finance markets along with massive tax cuts for the wealthy and business that paved the way for crash and depression to happen in the first place. (By the way, does this sound familiar to you?) And, unlike his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover felt that the goverment should have a very limited - if any - role in solving the nation's economic woes. His idea of a recovery plan? Volunteerism. Seriously, the man believed that the way to pull the country out of massive and wide-spread economic depression was to rely on companies and individuals to voluteer to help each other out of the goodness of their hearts...and that's about it. He felt that goverment intrusion would errode "self-reliance" and "individuality."The result of this reaction to the Depression? Twenty four percent unemployment, massive homelessness, poverty for huge chunks of American citizens...and the springing up of shanty towns for the poor that were accurately called "Hoovervilles." Hoover was not a bad person and actually proved himself to be quite a good ex-President. But as President, I rate him as one of our worst.

Richard Nixon (Republican, 1969-1974). Ah, tricky Dick. Yes, he is the only president to resign while in office. Of course, he did this due to his likely impeachment on grounds he orchestrated an elaborate scheme to cover up the Watergate political break-ins made by members of his re-election campaign. But, his lying and coverup of Watergate is not the only reason Nixon is among our worst presidents in my opinion. Let me give you three more: 1) the covert and illegal war in Cambodia launched by Nixon that ended up deepening our problems in Southeast Asia rather than helping them (not to mention getting so many people killed), 2) his aggressive appeal to "the silent majority" of Americans and for "law and order" were code (and practice) for extending policies that hurt minorities and women and curbed civil rights and social justice for all, and 3) his use of politican and law enforcement agencies to spy on, intimidate and martinalize those who he consider "enemies." Nixon's parnoia and poor decision making on a number of key areas certainly set our nation backwards on a number of fronts.

George W. Bush (Republican, 2000-2008). Some may say that it's too early to judge W, that only history can do that. Well, I'm going to go ahead and spectulate that "history" will judge Bush as one of our worst presidents. The monumental, profound and long-lasting screw ups that this man sanctioned and presided over will weigh down our country for decades. Bush has a long history of absolutely running anything he touches into the ground, only to have others come in and clean up after him. His time as president proved to be a tragic extension of that track record. There are so many things to cover, but here are a few that make my point:

  • 9/11 happened on his watch. Remember, the worst attack on the United States in our nation's history happened in his term, on his watch and under his command of our military and intelligence services. Ignoring clear warnings from intellience services that Bin Laden was likely to attack the U.S. using airliners as weapons, Bush did virtually nothing and, well, you know the rest of the sad story.

  • His call for and Republican passage of tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation of financial and other markets led directly to our current economic problems. The lessons of the 1920s and Herbert Hoover were not learned. This moved us from a nation with a surpluss to a defecit, from a country with nearly "full" employment to nearly 10% unemployment, going from a respected economic power to a faltering one.

  • He used 9/11 as an excuse for a number of radical changes and actions - both foreign and domestic. The most significant of which was to invade Iraq...a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. That war has lasted more than six years, cost untold number of lives and a bloody fortune that could have been spent domestically. A close second was initiating laws and policies such as The Patriot Act and others that circumvent the Constitutional protections of privacy, search and seizure, right to a fair trial and more.

  • His administration appointed buddies and cronies to high positions and the American public paid the price. This is best exhibited in the whole Hurricane Katrina fiasco in which Bush buddy and horse breeding association guy "Brownie" was in charge of...well, scewing up big time the response to the storm and it's aftermath. This ended up costing some people their lives, and others their livelihoods.
  • Environmental incompetence. What a missed opportunity! At the very moment our country could use a transition to a "green" economy and all the historic economic and health benefits this could have brought to the U.S., Bush and company rewarded their oil industry buddies instead of forward and long term for all Americans. And what is the result? A tragic, and perhaps nationally fatal, missed opportunity to transition our economy, preserve the global environment and keep our edge on the rest of the world.

Dishonorable mention: Andrew Johnson (Democratic Party...and others...1865-1869). Succeeding the assassinated Lincoln, Johnson presided over the reconstruction period following the Civil War. He did this badly, becoming the first predident Congress attempted to kick out of office via impeachment.


Presidents' Day Weekend kicker. The President I bet you never heard of is...Chester Arthur. Check him out HERE.

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