Thursday, June 17, 2004

Greatest President of the 20th Century (Part Two)

I said in an earlier post that I wanted to find some relatively objective criteria to use as a starting point. Failure to be re-elected seemed a good way to eliminate a fair few of the candidates - conversely, it seems reasonable to pass on to the final round Presidents that won two elections and served out both terms. Therefore, Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton get consideration. To that group I'll add Teddy Roosevelt and Truman, both of whom served out most of their predecessors' last terms and were subsequently elected in their own right. That's 7 of the 11 remaining candidates that I'll automatically consider. So what of the other 4?

I feel pretty comfortable in rejecting Coolidge out of hand. While one could make the case (and some did) that a do-nothing President is what the country needed at the time, a President that in fact did nothing could hardly be called "great". Maybe the "best" if what was called for was little or nothing, but not the greatest. And in fact it's pretty clear in retrospect that a do-nothing President was NOT what the country needed to prevent the Great Depression which started within a couple of years after Cal's exit from office.

Johnson and Nixon are certainly two of the most interesting Presidents, with many parallels between them. Both were about as far away from the Eastern money establishment that produced the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes (yes, the Bushes) as anyone could be. They both grew up poor, went to undistinguished colleges and made their mark specifically in politics, rather than business or the military or academia. Both were known for or suspected of dirty campaigning and both, it seems clear, lived for politics. And frankly, I'd say that neither one were very nice men. Despite all of that, they both could very well have been considered a couple of the greatest Presidents in history. Johnson's Great Society and civil rights legislation (beginning with his last Senate term), Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, funding for public radio and TV and national arts and humanities endowments, environmental legislation, product safety legislation - and the list goes on. And despite one of the most liberal Congresses in history, he still had to fight for many of those programs. Even taking into consideration that much of that type of government intervention is now considered flawed, it is not a reach to call the President who spent so much energy and time fighting for an end to poverty and an end to discrimination a great man. Nixon, despite being a red-baiter and Commie-hater, did more to open up relations with the Soviet Union and China than any other single President. The trip to China, SALT I and other arms limitation agreements, grain sales to the USSR - not what one would have expected from the Alger Hiss prosecutor. Domestically he was relatively moderate and probably closer to a New Dealer than any other post-war Republican, advancing many of the same types of programs (including environmental legislation) as the previous administration. (And if you're shocked that I just praised Richard Nixon, think about how I feel!) But then there was Vietnam. And then there was Watergate. So while they both coulda been contenders, their glass jaws dropped them in the middle rounds.

So finally, what of JFK? His approval ratings were relatively high while in office and they've soared since his assassination. In polling done a few years ago, his approval ratings were in the 80's. He started some of the civil rights work that LBJ expanded on, in many ways he shook the country out of its lethargy, daring people to do great things. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and achievement of the test ban treaty was one of the best manifestations of toughness with restraint, a policy that likely allowed the world to survive the Cold War. And yet. And yet. The Bay of Pigs incident was badly thought out but not a greatness killer. With foreign policy he was more a crisis manager than pro-active, but he had some pretty serious crises to deal with and handled them well. And yet. And yet. I truly believe that he had all the right elements for greatness - personality, political savvy, vision - but just wasn't given enough time to achieve greatness. I'm afraid we're left with potential, what could have been. My apologies if I've offended any of you, but I've gotta call 'em as I see 'em.

The final round starts this weekend...

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