I saw a thing the other day where a Presidential historian had written that George W. Bush was the worst President in U. S. history. I think that’s pretty absurd. It’s too soon. We can’t really rank Presidents until at least some time has passed since their Presidencies. In Bush’s case, for example, the main thing he’ll be known for is probably the war in Iraq. We don’t know the end of that story. Maybe things will turn out really well, both in Iraq and in neighboring states. I didn’t like the man, and voted and campaigned against him, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’ll turn out to have been more successful than we thought.
And yet, it’s irresistible, this urge to rank things, and Presidents is a category much loved by history nerds. Who are the (5 or 10 or 20) greatest rock bands of all time? Who is the greatest shortstop? Who makes the best hamburgers? What is the greatest Spielberg movie, or where does Spielberg rank among greatest film directors? Greatest composers, greatest novelists, greatest painters: it’s human nature to make these kinds of lists, and it’s also a conversation-starter, arguing about them.
Who is the greatest President of all time, then? First, it has to be someone who came to office in a time of national emergency, who steered our country through very difficult times, who left the country better off than when he first took office. It can’t be someone like, I don’t know, Calvin Coolidge, who became President with the country at peace and the economy doing well, and left office in the same condition. That’s not nothing, but it wouldn’t seem to meet a definition of ‘greatness.’ By the same token, a really bad President would be one who inherited a country at peace with a humming economy, and left office with the country in much worse shape. So the candidates for greatest President would pretty much have to be either Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, and the candidates for worst President, James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover. I don’t think it’s accidental that the two greatest Presidents followed the two worst–cleaning up the other guy’s mess almost defines a great President.
I don’t think most Presidential historians would disagree with that definition of greatness. But just ranking Presidents, going ‘first, second, third,’ would inevitably lead to the absurdity of arguing that, I don’t know, Franklin Pierce, say, is the 28th greatest President, and having to defend it. What interests me more would be categories:
So, for example, Presidents who were consequential, but in creepy ways. Andrew Jackson comes to mind. His was a transformative Presidency. He redefined the office, almost more stylistically than anything. He was the first non-patrician President, neither a Virginia plantation aristocrat, or a Massachusetts blue-blood. He was rough and tumble, all frontier firebrand. A whiskey-drinking, duel fighting tough SOB. Orphaned at fourteen, informally married to someone legally married to someone else, a self-made millionaire. An Indian fighter, who adopted Indian children and raised them as his own. Father of the Democratic Party, a limited-government conservative, who nonetheless used the power of the federal government to illegally evict the Cherokee from their homes. The two worst things the United States has ever been part of were slavery and Native American genocide. Jackson was our most enthusiastic contributor to both. How to rank him? Our third greatest? Or third worst? Or both?
Or what about color-less competence? James K. Polk comes to mind. When he took office, in 1845, he planned to serve one term, and accomplish four things: reform the Treasury department, annex Oregon, annex California and New Mexico, and reduce tariffs. He spent the four years of his Presidency working himself to death; in fact, he died shortly after leaving office. He accomplished those four things, and left office with the United States owning territory stretching from coast to coast. He had to fight a war with Mexico to accomplish it, while avoiding war with England. He did it. That’s a pretty impressive record.
Or, how about guys nobody thought would ever be President, who did better than expected. Chester Arthur, for example. He was just the worst kind of machine politician, part of Roscoe Conkling’s Republican machine in New York, he became Collector of the port of New York, a really dandy center for corruption and a nice place to get rich. Really, to get lots of people rich. To balance the ticket, President Garfield held his nose and made Arthur vice-President. And then got himself shot. Three months of bad doctoring later, Garfield was dead. But Arthus did fine; pushed for Civil Service reform to end the practice of political patronage. To reduce political corruption. Well, no one knew that world better.
Who knows where historians will end up ranking President Obama, or President Bush. Certainly, President Obama came to office in a national emergency, and has done pretty well to pull us out of it. I think he’ll be regarded as a top-tier President. Not great, but pretty good, all things considered. If he wins a second term, and if he can actually pull of the substantial reductions in nuclear arms he’s talked about, he could be regarded as a top ten President. But we’ll have to see, won’t we?