As usual, this year, CNN published its survey of presidential historians; as usual, Honest Abe came out on top. As usual, Warren Harding, Chester Arthur and Richard Nixon ranked poorly.
Look, are we presidential historians? No. But on the other hand, what is the qualification to be a presidential historian? It’s not like being, say, a doctor or a lawyer. You don’t need a license, after all! So maybe we are presidential historians.
The stock market goes up and down, and how much the president impacts that is a matter of debate, but it’s certain that if it’s up, it will eventually go back down. And military endeavors will come along, and the president will do the best he can with the military he’s inherited. But some presidents make structural changes that fundamentally and permanently change our nation for the better or the worse, which is why we agree that Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan belong in the bottom three slots, and why Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt deserve significantly higher rankings.
So here are a few thoughts as to where the “historians” got it wrong.
Let’s start with a statement of fact about which not everyone agrees: “The United States was set up as a loose collection of independent states, each of which had a perfect right to go its own way if it wished.” Even if not true, it was something the South believed, and which the South still believes. As a matter of course, when a liberal wins the presidency, the Texas governor generally threatens to secede. As bad as it might have been to the economy of the North to lose the cotton fields, Lincoln probably should have let the bastards go their own way, and to offer sanctuary and citizenship to any escaped slave who might make it over the border. But instead he fought a costly and horrible war without ever considering how a nation is supposed to function if the losing side can just outvote the winning side after the war is over. His bumbling led to the awful, tribalist, minority-rule nation that we have since become. And his preference was to send freed slaves back to Africa.
- He wrecked the United States forever;
- He wasn’t particularly enlightened on racial matters, and
- He probably wasn’t nice to his wife.
- he liked making out with other men and seems not to have been particular troubled about it, which is kind of charming for a gentleman of the mid-19th century.
Verdict: We’d drop him from #1 to #36.
This guy always ranks near the bottom, absolutely entirely based on a complicated and relatively minor financial scandal in his administration, in which he was not involved; since the public learned of the scandal (known, obscurely, as “Teapot Dome”) after Harding’s death, the president never had a chance to explain it, or to argue for his legacy.
- He presided over an era of financial expansion and unprecedented prosperity;
- The entire country loved him;
- He was charismatic and forceful;
- He bravely pushed for a sweeping anti-racism agenda, although he didn’t achieve it in his brief two years in office. Remarkably, when his opponents tried to discredit him by alleging that he was Black, he declined to deny it, which was an exceedingly brave position to take in an era that saw the South seeking to reinstate white nationalism. “One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence,” he told a reporter. He won the election anyway.
Minuses: Cheated on his wife, including in the White House closet. We don’t think that has anything to do with presidential excellence, but “moral authority” is a category on the list, and judging from the results, it seems to refer to adultery.
Verdict: We’d bump him up from #37 to #12.
Ineffectual in almost every possible way.
- He wore nice sweaters, late in his administration;
- His clunky incompetence wins him some sympathy points, like a klutzy five-year-old who fell in the mud, and is sitting there, dazed, in the mud, wondering what went wrong.
- He was the worst communicator of all modern presidents;
- He destroyed the Democratic Party for a generation, shepherding in a weird, right-wing, supply side realignment that would never have happened otherwise;
- After arm-twisting Israel into wide-ranging territorial concessions for a promised peace, subsequently spent the rest of his presidency and post-presidency bad-mouthing both the prime minister he had arm-twisted and the entire nation. The promised peace has yet to arrive;
- A bunny rabbit attacked him, which made him a laughingstock. Insisting that it was a “killer” bunny rabbit didn’t help him;
- He was ineffectual at handling the economy and ineffectual at handling foreign relations;
- He claimed to be a nuclear scientist but never learned how to pronounce the word “nuclear”;
- He was ineffectual at handling negotiations with Congress, controlled by his own party;
- He permitted tiny, impoverished Iran to make the United States appear weak and defeated;
- He’s often praised as one of our best ex-presidents, because of his charitable activities, or something. Tell that to the presidents who have had to deal with his meddling. So if one may even count a post-presidency in a president’s rating, then Carter’s post-presidency is a minus.
Verdict: We’d drop him from #26 to #40.
At the time that he ascended to the presidency, Chester Arthur was as crooked as they come, living off graft and carousing with hookers and corrupt machine politicians. But as president, he looked to the idealism of his youth, rather than the corruption of his middle age, to become a brave, bridge-burning reformer.
- Chester Arthur stands, to date, as the only professional horror fiction writer elected president; his story, “The Defaulter — A True Tale” was published in The Antiquarian and General Review (it wasn’t a true tale);
- As president, he wrote a progressive and brave denunciation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was visionary for its time, and he managed to somewhat defang the law when threatened with a veto override;
- We think the hookers were an affectation to impress his friends, since Chester Arthur gets extra credit here for his cheerfully romantic youthful love letters to another young man; he wrote of “sitting up like owls till two or three in the morning with our pipes … laying bare to each other our adventures and experiences … & then tumbling into bed in the ‘wee sma’ hours’ & falling soundly asleep in each other’s arms”;
- He was a civil rights lawyer, in his pre-presidency, who desegrated New York City’s public transportation system;
- He reformed the civil service administration, which prior to his administration was a cesspool of graft; this was especially remarkable, given the powerful allies he alienated by this move. Indeed, his life is a poetic arc, of an idealistic abolitionist and civil rights attorney who lost his way then found ultimate redemption in the presidency.
Minuses: Due to his single, partial term, his achievements didn’t match his potential.
Verdict: We’d bump him up from #30 to #11.
OK, he “resigned in disgrace.” Ironically, had he stayed and fought, and remained in office, he would be considerably higher on the list. Our “last liberal president” (as Pat Moynihan once praised him), Nixon’s achievements are legendary, from realignment with China and his brave exit from the Vietnam quagmire to his efforts to save the state of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and a visionary concern for environmentalism that brought us the Environmental Protection Agency, which he created by Executive Order. His civil rights record was also commendable (the “Southern Strategy” notwithstanding.) The tapes that have been released in the years since his fall have revealed a prescient support for marriage equality.
Verdict: We’d bump him up from #31 to #9.
And don’t forget:
George H.W. Bush:
His “Willie Horton” campaign paved the way for Donald Trump’s racism; his Iraq War paved the way for his son’s Iraq War; he was the first president in decades to veto a civil rights bill. He changed America for the worse.
The Verdict: We’d drop him from 21 to 32.
Image: Steven S. Drachman from a photograph John Bakator