CECELIA BOOK REVIEW
THE PRESIDENTS: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives (PublicAffairs New York, 2019) 523 pages, large print
By Brian Lamb, Susan Swain, and C-Span
Reviewed By Steven R. Maher
In 2000, 2009 and 2017 C-Span surveyed presidential historians on the 44 American Presidents. Donald Trump was not analyzed formally because C-Span only includes those who have left office, though it did include a few sidebars on Trump. The results were analyzed, for each President, by a single historian, many of whom have written biographies of the Presidents they wrote about for this book.
There were two tools used for this survey: a ranking based on leadership qualities; and a comparison of the 2000, 2009, 2017 surveys to see which President has gone up or down in the historical rankings. For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower has gone up form ninth on the list to fifth, and is now ranked directly behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt. The shifting opinion of good and bad Presidents by historians is a recurrent theme in this book.
The following were the leadership qualities each President was examined on:
● Public persuasion;
● Crisis leadership;
● Economic management;
● Moral authority;
● International relations;
● Administrative skills;
● Relations with Congress;
● Vision/setting an agenda.
● Pursued equal justice for all.
● Performance within the context of the times.
The Top Ten Presidents
Based on these testing points, the following were judged America’s best Presidents:
🇺🇸1. Abraham Lincoln. The man who saved America and won a bloody civil war while talking of “malice for none” and “charity for all”. Wrote Richard Norton Smith in the introduction: “By the time he climbed into a carriage bound for Ford’s Theatre in 1865, Lincoln had outgrown the racist society which had produced him, as demonstrated in his public advocacy of at least some form of public advocacy of at least some form of black suffrage.” Lincoln placed first in all three C-Span surveys of presidencies.
🇺🇸2. George Washington. When the first President took office, the federal government consisted of Washington, Vice President John Adams, and the driver on Washington’s carriage. He led America to victory over England, provided the first stable, solvent, government, and kept the country at peace. He also owned slaves, the one big flaw in his character. Washington later said that he would have joined the north if civil war about slavery erupted.
🇺🇸3. Franklin Roosevelt. Faced with an economic catastrophe when he took office, Roosevelt promulgated the New Deal, creating public works jobs for millions of unemployed. He led America to victory in World War II. Records the summary: “He [Roosevelt] and Abraham Lincoln are the only two presidents to have been consistently ranked in the top ten in every leadership category.”
🇺🇸4. Theodore Roosevelt. America needs a Teddy Roosevelt today in Washington. A republican stalwart, “Roosevelt confronted the bitter struggle between management and labor head-on and became known as the great ‘trust buster’ for his strenuous efforts to break up industrial combinations under the Sherman Antitrust Act. He was also a dedicated conservationist, setting aside some 200 million acres for national forests, reserves and wildlife refuges during his presidency.” Sounds like the type of President who would stop global warning and break up the Internet monopolies.
🇺🇸5. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike’s ranking continues to rise: “Dwight Eisenhower has moved up four spots since C-Span’s since first survey in 2000, the largest upward movement of any president in the top ten.” Eisenhower made peace in Korea, balanced the budget, and eased a public panic over the Soviet Sputnik launching. Eisenhower seems destined only to rise, but with Lincoln, Washington, and the two Roosevelts ahead of him, Eisenhower has some tough competition.
🇺🇸6. Harry S. Truman. “Give ‘em hell Harry” certainly lived up to his nickname with his astounding surprise defeat of Tom Dewey in 1948. Truman had already shown great decisiveness when he brought World War II to an end by nuking Japan. Truman went on to face the Soviet Union in the Cold War, fight Red China in a bloody war in Korea, and instituted the Marshall Plan to revive western Europe. It says something about the “Greatest Generation” period that three Presidents – Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower” – were in the top six ranked Presidents in American history during this generation.
🇺🇸7. Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana purchase, in which Jefferson bought from Napoleon for $15 million 530 acres of land was Jefferson’s greatest presidential achievement. In one deal and without firing a shot, Jefferson doubled the country’s size. It is barely mentioned in this book. The authors gave a higher priority to the Sally Hemmings episode, where Jefferson fathered several children with one of his slaves. It also wanders off into Jefferson’s pre-presidential biography, writing at length about his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his career as Vice President and Ambassador to France. There was less an emphasis on Jefferson’s Presidency because the book said Jefferson’s years practicing law “were terribly important” to his evolution.
🇺🇸8. John. F. Kennedy. I was surprised but not disappointed at JFK’s high ranking in the Presidential Survey. Surprised because Kennedy’s Presidency was a short three years because of his 1963 assassination. Not disappointed because, having grown up in an Irish Catholic home in Massachusetts, JFK was a hero to me. This is not to belabor Kennedy’s achievements: starting inter-planetary travel with his efforts to put a man on the moon; facing down Russia in the Cuban missile crisis; and aiding third world countries in transitioning from European colonies into independent countries.
🇺🇸9. Ronald Reagan. Reagan deserves a place on Mount Rushmore because he collapsed the Soviet Union. But his economic policies were disastrous: short term prosperity at the cost of trillions of dollars of debt. As the long-term damage of supply side economics ultimately impacts the United States, Reagan is sure to drop in the historical rankings.
🇺🇸10. Lyndon B. Johnson. Given his mismanagement of the Vietnam war, one would think Johnson would be listed among the top ten failures of American Presidents. One certainly does not expect to find LBJ among the top ten successful Presidents. Apparently, his civil rights accomplishments have outweighed his Vietnam debacle.
It takes a special character flaw for a President to be impeached. Because this is a hot topic as this article is being published (after the House impeached Donald Trump but before the Senate has tried him), a brief digression into impeached presidents feels timely.
1. Andrew Johnson. This President owned slaves while other Americans were dying on civil war battlefields to free African Americans. Johnson told Confederate sympathizers coming to pay him bribes for pardons, “If you’d only listened to me and stayed in the union, we’d still have slavery.” When Johnson tried to undo the north’s civil war victory, radical Republicans failed by one vote to impeach and remove Johnson from office.
2. Richard Nixon. When Nixon was elected President in 1968, he already had the nickname “Tricky Dick”. When Dickie got a little too tricky and tried to cover up the bugging of the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate, he became the only President in American history to reign to avoid being removed from office.
3. William J. Clinton. A trail of scandals followed Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton into office, and, despite his many accomplishments, the scandals never quite let go. Like Trump, Clinton had enough Senatorial support to thwart the two-thirds 67 vote Senate super-majority necessary to remove him from office.
4. Donald Trump. We’ll await the judgment of future historians on Trump.