AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
It has become an American journalistic and literary tradition to rate past U.S. presidents in long essays and books. These evaluations and lists have varied themes, i.e., the “best,” the “worst,” the “most” this or the “least” that — the categories seem endless, while no two lists in any theme over the years are identical.
We even witness today an attempt, employing the weak excuse of so-called “political correctness,” to denigrate various founding executive figures of the republic, as well as major later figures, by trying to apply modern subjective values or now generally accepted standards to their dissimilar eras.
In short, every presidential rater or list maker has a political axe to grind. (Caveat lector! Let the reader be wary.)
Some local and national Democrats have embarked on a quest of political self-immolation by discarding Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the two early presidents who did the most to create the original Democratic Party. Citing aspects of their private and public conduct, their names have been excised from the Party’s annual dinners.
Recently, a notable number of historians have written to restore or reverse the reputations of presidents long held in low regard, including John Tyler, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge. At the same time, other historians have published accounts reevaluating the previous high regard for Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama. The esteemed view of those Democratic figures has been attributed to a frequent liberal bias among contemporary historians.
A pronounced example of this has been the historical treatment of the Kennedy presidency. Kennedy was a rare example in the 20th century of a president who had good relations with the press. The reporters covering him were often fawning and uncritical, as were many historians who wrote about his political career. Perhaps most notable of these was Theodore White whose Making of the President, 1960 was for years treated as a classic—until this year, when Irwin Gellman’s Campaign of the Century exposed White’s book as deeply flawed by personal bias for Kennedy and against his November opponent Richard Nixon. Kennedy and his entourage hid from the sympathetic media his fatal Addison’s Disease and his compulsive liaisons while presenting himself as a model husband and father. As with Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis three decades earlier, a willing media covered it up.
(To this might be added the irony that Kennedy, still the hero of many liberal Democrats, was by today’s standards a hardline military hawk and economic conservative.)
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison each became early U.S. presidents, but their contributions as architects of the Revolutionary period 1776-89 often outshone their terms in office. Their reputations face periodic reevaluation.
Brion McLanahan’s recent book 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America takes on Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt for their actions outside their proper constitutional powers while praising John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge for heeding those powers.
Essays and books rating presidents on foreign policy, economics, civil rights, management skills, relations with Congress, campaign performance, military achievements, and more, fill publications and bookshelves all the time.
Lincoln, arguably the greatest president, is a favorite target of those writers who want to shatter conventional historical wisdom. Lincoln, like everyone, had flaws and made mistakes, but his overall presidential performance and timeless American eloquence easily resist naysayers. Only his feckless predecessor, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison (who served a mere 30 days as president) don’t seem ripe for a historical reappraisal.
As for the current president and his predecessor (who could be president again), ranking them with other presidents is complicated by how close in time we are to their presidencies – and the absence of perspective that such proximity imposes. Only a year in office, Mr. Biden now trails Mr. Trump in almost every popular vote poll!
Chief executives Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan entered office in low regard, and were dismissed as lightweights by many during their presidential terms. But today, years later, the two have high standing and are now regarded by many to be among the better presidents.
A presidency is a vessel in motion on history’s stormy sea.