Sunday, June 13, 2004

Greatest President of the 20th Century (Introduction)

This greatest president thingie has turned into quite a study project for me, so I'm going to break this into multiple posts. Having been out of school for over 20 years, I'm a bit out of practice - on the other hand, I don't have to do stuff like this anymore, so it'll be fun!

Why the "greatest" and not the "best"? Almost any poll concerning Presidential history discusses them in terms of greatness - that implies a certain stature, not just better than good. Given the desire on the part of some (but certainly not all) of the framers of the Constitution to make the office of the President non-imperial - the first among equals - that is significant. The first few Presidents certainly had enormous stature, but there have been periods in U. S. history, the late 1800's for example, when the power and the stature lay in the Senate. The return to isolationism in the 20's after the Great War and the post-Watergate period of the 70's were times when most Americans seemingly wanted to minimize the role of the President. Those periods are typically not going to produce "great" Presidents - on the other hand, I don't believe it's necessary to have a world war during an administration for a president to be considered great.

In establishing criteria for this, I've tried to be at least somewhat objective. Otherwise there'd be no conservatives even considered and I'd end up talking about who I think were the best Presidents and not necessarily the greatest. I've also tried to avoid looking at this as a popularity contest (either among the public in general or among historians of whatever political leaning) - I did look at a number of polls (the InfoPlease website has some pretty intersting links to a number of Presidential greatness polls) but only to take a look at what sorts of things those polls considered. In some sense, popularity does play some role - part of the sense of greatness is the ability to persuade voters, Congress, other nations, etc. of your policies and ideas. But it's only one factor to consider. I'll discuss others as I get into the study itself.

There were seventeen Presidents in the 20th century to consider (I'm relegating McKinley to the 19th century) - from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. I will start by as objectively as possible eliminating a bunch of them from consideration as greatest and then we'll get into the hard stuff.


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