Jeffrey Valentine has given us a perfect send-off into Presidents Day weekend with an epic post ranking the 44 men who have led our nation.
When I was a lad, Presidential ranking lists were common and popular. Jeffrey’s version is better and fairer than most of them. Then as now, the historian cabal was overtly political, overwhelmingly liberal, and successfully misleading the public with false narratives gilded into accepted truth. Worst of all was Kennedy’s house historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who was routinely treated by the news media of the time as an objective authority, which he most certainly was not. He placed his friend and idol JFK in the “Near Great” category, scrupulously ignored the warts on Democratic Presidents like Wilson and Jackson, and was especially unfair to Eisenhower, whose “hidden hand” Presidency has gradually won admirers the more we learn about what he was doing.
Ethics Alarms is dedicated to the subjects of both ethics and leadership, so Jeffrey’s commentary is especially welcome as well as timely. Here is Jeffrey Valentine’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Big Lies Of The “Resistance”: #8 “Trump Only Cares About Himself, Not The Country.” I’ll be back for a brief comment at the end:
Perhaps moreso than the original post, Adimagejim’s comments about former President Obama [JAM: Commenter Adimagejim was extremely critical of President Obama ] got me thinking about how I think about Presidents and how they rank. The more I think about it, I put Presidents into seven distinct categories. As you will see, my personal opinions don’t always mesh with popular opinion. I will also note that while I find the Presidents fascinating, I won’t even pretend to study them to to the extent that our host has.
The categories are as follows:
1. The Greats with no caveats. These are the Presidents who could objectively say “I was a great President because…..”, have a really reasonable explanation of why they were great, and not have to explain away any major part of their respective presidencies. In this category, I place George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Ronald Reagan. [You’ll note these categories won’t create perfect rankings, per se, as I believe there is at least one president (Roosevelt) in paragraph 2 objectively better than Jefferson, Monroe, Polk, Truman, and Reagan].
[Note One: This ethics blog is often very critical of Jefferson-reasonably so as a man- but I’m ONLY analyzing the presidencies of these men. I think his presidency was clearly successful-even if he wasn’t an ethical individual. In fact, Jefferson may be the major exception that probes Jack’s rule that, generally speaking, the country is better served by an ethical man holding the presidency.]
[Note Two: James K. Polk doesn’t quite seem to fit on this list. I think his reputation is a function of consequentialism, however. He expanded U.S. territory, which set the stage for the civil war. Historians blame him for this- I don’t think that’s fair. I read somewhere that a historian once stated he resolved matter for HIS time. I think it’s unfair to expect a president to do more. What he resolved for his time- he resolved well. He was, therefore, a great, but not legendary, president.]
2. The Greats with Significant Caveats: These are the Presidents who could objectively say, “I was a great president because…”, have a really reasonable explanation about why they were great, but would have a major controversy or issue to to explain away in terms of their legacy. Caveats are always, in my mind, considered based on their respective times. My more liberal friends might put Washington in this category, because he owned slaves. I do not. This list includes Andrew Jackson (Trail of Tears), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Japanese American Internment), Dwight D. Eisenhower, (McCarthyism), Lyndon B. Johnson, (The Vietnam War), and Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky).
Note One: Johnson’s caveat is horrendously unfair to him- he inherited that issue from Kennedy, most people supported the war in the beginning, and once you’re in a fight-it’s hard to get out. All I can say is that there ain’t nothing fair about being president-so this list ain’t always fair either.
Note Two: My very conservative friends say FDR actually lengthened the depression in a way that was terrible for the country. I’ve never seen compelling evidence of this, although I don’t pretend to be a economy expert-is there such a thing? I will say that even if that’s true, the suffering had become so great, one could reasonably argue FDR had to act. In a pure list of most successful presidents, FDR is easily top 5-probably top 3.
3. The Presidents whose significant caveats are so bad, their other successes seem dwarfed by the caveats themselves. These Presidents could say, “I was a great president because….”, but no one would listen due to the major mistakes/evils that they did in their time in office. In other words, the mistake or evil action the president took, makes it so they take a major tumble down my list, even if some of their other actions were extremely good for this country. This list, as of today, is two Presidents in my opinion: Richard Nixon for Watergate, and John Adams for the Alien and Sedition Act.
Note One: My late grandfather probably believed Clinton belonged in this list- and every year I age- I get closer and closer to thinking he’s right. I’m not there yet, though. Give me ten years, and I probably will be.
4. Presidents who were “meh” for various reasons. They have some successes, but they just weren’t great either. Generally, these are the presidents whose names won’t come when you try to list the presidents from scratch. This list includes John Quincy Adams (Good infrastructure work- but just didn’t get politics enough to be a great president), Chester A. Arthur, (very serviceable term- but no major achievements to point to- and, like many, failed to help with discrimination in the south), Grover Cleveland-(2 Serviceable terms-but there’s a reason this is the president I always forget-did modernize the military- but also didn’t help protect the 15th amendment in the south), Benjamin Harrison (the Sherman Anti-trust Act was good, the Dawes Act was bad), William McKinley (strong foreign affairs work especially with Spain, poor work on the domestic side-with respect to African American interests-he might have risen to a higher level if he had not been assassinated-he might have been more help in the South in his second term-as he would have been less politically restrained), William Howard Taft, (a better lawyer than a president, I think, who, like many lawyers, acted too cautiously at times, also wouldn’t hire African Americans to do federal jobs if it would cause racial friction-again, TOO cautious), and Gerald Ford, (I think pardoning Nixon was necessary and good, he doesn’t have much successes to his name beyond this-also had a terrible economy during his presidency).
Note One: Gerald Ford was the hardest President to place. He was never elected, for one. Should that benefit him or hurt him in this exercise? The best things he did seems to have been pardoning Nixon and choosing not to bail out New York City when it went bankrupt. Those aren’t that impressive, but I also don’t know of any majorly negative things he did. I feel in my gut like I ranked Ford incorrectly.
5. Objectively bad Presidents who have reasonable excuses for their failures. These are the presidents who cannot reasonably argue that they had a successful presidency. These are the presidents who you read about their presidency, and you think, “well, they tried, but their personalities at the time weren’t strong enough to fulfill their duties to the country.” This category and the next will have the most names- which goes to Jack’s point that the vast majority of Presidents really do mean well for the country. The list includes James Madison (wrongly believed the War of 1812 would greatly benefit the US), John Tyler, (not elected- first vice president to ascend, when it wasn’t clear that’s what should happen after a President’s death), Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, (All three men who didn’t have the strength and leadership needed to lead America prior to the civil war. Often considered among the worst presidents. I’ve never been sure their reputations were fair. I’m not sure any individual president could have protected the union AND ended slavery. Each recognized this and decided that preserving the union was more important. Perhaps all three would have been excellent presidents at another time- we will never know.), Andrew Johnson (was VP only for political reasons- and was, therefore, placed in a horrible position by Lincoln’s assassination-also just didn’t know how to play the game of politics at the level that was necessary at that time), Rutherford B. Hayes (tried but failed to address racial disparity in the South-also failed to reform civil service appointments despite his efforts to do so during his term. Of all the Presidents, this was the saddest ranking-the man really tried to do the right thing. Frankly, probably a better man than the country deserved at that point in our history), and Herbert Hoover (didn’t respond quickly enough to the stock market crash-but I think that was because he understandably didn’t want to overreact-a mistake that any reasonable president could make-but by that point, he was completely dead in the water).
Note One: Again, there’s nothing fair about being president or about this list. My sincere apologies to President Hayes. If we were ranking men-instead or presidents- he would be near the very top. [And Jefferson would be near the bottom.]
6. Objectively bad Presidents who had no reasonable excuses for their failures. These are the Presidents who were bad, and you can’t really point to any significant issue that ought to have been too big for their respective personalities during their time. This list includes Ulysses S. Grant (serious scandals throughout his presidency with limited success otherwise-I always thought that odd for a military man), Woodrow Wilson, (This guy was a major racist, who objectively failed to get the U.S. to buy into his best idea-the League of Nations. He gets credit for ultimately being right about that issue, but I’m not sure what good that ultimately did the country. It’s not enough to be right. It’s not enough to be smart. You also have to be able to sell the idea. He was too much an intellectual-not enough a salesperson. [Ironically, I think this issue is what would make me a TERRIBLE president-not that anybody asked]. I’ve always been told he was a top-tier president. I just don’t see it. Sometimes, his reputation actually makes me feel like the whole rest of the world is gaslighting me.), Warren G. Harding, (serious scandals and not a lot of successes to make up for them), Calvin Coolidge, (Didn’t seem to get the management part of being president-kept Harding’s cabinet despite the scandals attached-was, at least not a racist, but his successes are very few), John F. Kennedy, (Kennedy’s decisions set the stage for some of the worst conflicts over the next 70 years, somehow managed to make the evil Fidel Castro look like a national hero, laid the groundwork for conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq, and also he okayed illegally wire tapping Dr. Martin Luther King. He seems to me objectively a terrible president- his death, I think, did more to aid his legacy than anything else), Jimmy Carter, (when militant Muslims take over my President’s embassy and take American citizens hostage-my president damn well better be saying “let them go, or I solemnly promise we’re going to kill you all.” If it’s not, that president loses all of my confidence. Jimmy Carter was too weak to be president- and never should have been.), George H.W. Bush (failed to fully resolve the Iraq crisis when he should have, very little other successes to his name-other than possibly the Americans with Disabilities Act- which I think was necessary, but bungled-was made way over broad in some areas), George W. Bush, (if you’re going to invade a country, have a friggin’ plan. If you don’t have a plan, stay home. Also wrong about same-sex marriage, failed to respond to Hurricane Katrina in a timely fashion, but possibly did some good with the Patriot Act), and Barack Obama (failed to meaningful address race relations despite his unique ability to do so, actively made them worse at every turn, resolved the only issue that wasn’t an actual issue in healthcare, which made things objectively worse for the real issues [poor people don’t care if you send them outrageous medical bills-they throw them away- and nobody sues poor people-the issue was the middle class-which got majorly screwed], made us actively look weak on the world stage, made a concession deal with Iran-[had he never read about Neville Chamberlain?], but may have helped the economy recover with the stimulus package in 2009.)
7. Presidents who never got a chance to truly be President:William Henry Harrison, Zachary Tyler, James Garfield.
Note One: I find it really annoying and unethical when ranking lists actually rank these three, and invariably rank them near last. That’s not fair. If you don’t get at least two years as President, you should obviously get an Incomplete.
A few extra notes on Obama and Trump:
Obama angers me more than the other bad presidents. I think it’s in part because he’s so smug about it. He says things like “I think I was a good president.” Okay, Mr. Former President, but why!? What was so good about your Presidency?” I see very little actual success that made the country objectively better. I see him as one of the biggest disappointments ever. Only time will tell if that’s because it’s fresh- or because it really is that he’s such a terrible disappointment. I will note it may be a little unfair of me to say that he had so much power to help with race relations BECAUSE he was the first black president. But on the other hand, didn’t he sell that as one of the reasons to vote for him?
Trump, right now, belongs in Category #2. He’s done, as far as I can tell, great work for this country. His caveat is a strange one. He would have to explain why he’s such an asshole, at times. That issue, to me, will always keep him out of the top tier presidents. I’m fine with that. I don’t want a guy who acts like Trump taking up the same space as Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. It feels like be belongs better in the company of Clinton and Jackson, doesn’t it?
I am going to wrestle my metaphorical tongue to the ground and restrain myself, because my complete reactions to Jeffrey’s ranking would be at least as long as his post. However, he has done an excellent and perceptive job regardless of any cavils I might have. Other than two brief observations that I cannot resist making immediately, I’ll restrict myself to the comments, and encourage a lively discussion there.
My first point is that Washington and Lincoln were so important, their challenges so momentous, and the potential costs of their failures so calamitous that they should occupy a top tier category by themselves.
My second is that seeing Bill Clinton in Category 2 made me throw up in my mouth. The closest comp to Clinton, in my view is Richard Nixon, and depending on my mood, I am sometimes convinced that Clinton’s long-term damage to the country and our society may be worse than Nixon’s. Almost every thing Jeffrey says about Obama I would say about Clinton. He makes me angry. His was a great opportunity lost, to make the country less divided, to strengthen bipartisan cooperation and to mitigate the generational divide. Unlike Obama, he had the political skills and experience to accomplish this. He failed, launching us into the current period of poisonous polarization, for the most selfish and juvenile of reasons, other than the fact that he was reflexively corrupt: he couldn’t keep it in his pants.
I think Jeffrey should listen to his grandfather.