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...

Things I Think About While Running (Yuck! Edition)

"It's 6:30 in the morning and it's already 76 degrees? This is going to suck!"

"There is not a single breathable oxygen atom in this soup some like to call an atmosphere."

"Obviously no one else felt like running today because I'M the one clearing all the god-damn spiderwebs off the trail with my face!" [Every 10 frickin' feet I smack through the detritus left from Ungoliant's spawn - they might not be Shelob-sized, but there's a bunch of those suckers. Enough that I feel a little like Frodo by the time I'm through]

"15:30 at the first turn - should have made it in 14:45. Might as well be walking."

"I'll trade somebody some of these frickin' black flies for some nice friendly mosquitoes! Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?"

"Okay, stop thinking about it - pretend you're in Blowing Rock - it's October, the leaves are turning, you're running around the lake at the Cone Manor..."

"Who the hell knew it could be so bloody hot and humid in Blowing Rock in October!?! This sucks!"

Still 2/10 of a mile from home - "Screw this, I'm walking the rest of the way..."

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Non-Presidential Blogging (True Crime Edition)

Okay, how have we all missed this one (link courtesy BoingBoing)?
This week, a jury in Martinez, a small town outside San Francisco, will retire to consider the bizarre, brutally violent cult surrounding one Glenn Taylor Helzer, a lapsed Mormon accused of bludgeoning and dismembering five people in an elaborate extortion racket intended to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Helzer, a former stockbroker who has already pleaded guilty and faces the death penalty, exerted a charismatic hold over an eclectic group of followers including his younger brother, a former girlfriend turned Playboy centrefold model, and a self-described "good witch" who once offered to raise money for Armageddon by appearing in porn films.
You've got beheaded victims, a Playboy Playmate (September 2000), the daughter of Elvin Bishop apparently both a conspirator and a victim, the Mormon Church, rottweilers... and we're having to bloody read about this in the British press? WTF? Where the hell is Fox News?

Congratulations, Larry Brown and Detroit!

I'm shocked, awed and tickled that the Pistons did such a number on the Lakers and that Larry Brown finally won an NBA championship to go with his 1988 NCAA win. He's always been a good coach and a good guy and it's great to see him finally get to start out with a decent team and coach them all the way to the championship. And PC's theory on UNC influence being essential to an NBA championship is proven true once again.

The other positive by-product is that Kupchak and company are now going to have to clean house in LA. Jackson is gone, Kobe will be gone, who knows about Malone and Payton - time to clear the rolls and start from scratch. I would assume they'll still have the most dominant player in the league to build around and Fox isn't going to play anywhere other than LA - other than that, who knows? When the shock subsides, it should be fun.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Non-Presidential Blogging (Comic-Con Edition)

I know I seem to have been preoccupied by US Presidents past, present and future lately, so here's an entry that has absolutely nothing to do with anything Presidential.

JennySlash and I had given some serious consideration to attending the HeroesCon in Charlotte this year, put on by the Heroes Aren't Hard To Find comic book store. It has grown to be quite a huge deal, one of the largest and the third oldest behind San Diego and Chicago. Unfortunately we let the date slip up on us before we could make Damien-boarding plans, but we will almost definitely go next year. If you've never been to a comic-con, I would strongly suggest that you rent Comic Book: The Movie, a spoof/homage to comic book fans and comic conventions directed by Mark Hamill. It's mostly set at the gargantuan San Diego Comicon and has a bizarre cast of ex-Playboy Playmates (well, one - Donna D'Errico), cameos from comic icons like Stan Lee and Kevin Smith and a cast made up almost entirely of cartoon and video game voice talent (like Billy West, who does most of the voices on Futurama). It's not Christopher Guest quality, but it's not bad and it definitely hits the right notes. (You can also get a feel for it from the beginning and end of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, which is just a brilliant fucking movie anyway.)

There were a number of guests on the schedule that it would have been nice to see this year, including my all-time favorite comic book artist - Bill Sienkiewicz - who canceled at the last minute anyway so no loss. I've also become a huge fan of Phil Noto (Danger Girl and Beautiful Killers) and of Brandon Peterson (bunch of Crossgen titles). Just to give you a little taste, here's a sample (in the order above):

But there were no Neil Gaimans or Alan Moores or Frank Millers or Kevin Smiths this year, so it's probably okay.

So lest you think that we go every year and that this is an anomaly for us, we've actually only been once, in 1987 when we were living in Charlotte for a short space of time. The con was MUCH smaller at that time, sharing ballroom space in the Adam's Mark Hotel in Charlotte with a mink oil sales conference (and if you think a bunch of comic book nrrds mixing in the lobby with a bunch of mink oil salesdroids has the makings of surreality, you'd not be mistaken). PC and Stacy Guess came down from Chapel Hill for the weekend, the highlights of which (for me) were: a panel discussion with Mr. Sienkiewicz (and the giveaway Wedding of Peter Parker and MJ poster with artwork by the aforementioned), listening to PC interview Bob Burden (Flaming Carrot, Mysterymen), catching a pristine, newly restored copy of Duck Dodgers of the 24 1/2 Century and the looks on the faces of the other competitors after Stacy got an honorable mention in the quick-draw contest - he apparently stared at the paper for fifteen minutes while all the geeks were drawing their little superheroes, then drew an outline of his hand and stabbed his pencil through it and turned it in (not sure whether the judges were amused or frightened).

It's much bigger now, having moved to the Charlotte Convention Center (and I'll guarantee they ain't sharing the space with anybody else) and I've got some holes in my collection that I wouldn't mind filling (hard to believe after doing an inventory over the Christmas holidays and finding that I had over 4200 comics), so we're going to find some way to get down there next year. With some money to spend. And we'll remember our friend Stacy, who is no longer with us, and hope some equally talented kid will shake up the spandex-drawing crowd with something truly out of the ordinary.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Credit Where Credit is Due

I didn't see the White House unveiling of the official portraits of Bill and Hil (did C-Span7 show it?) but from what I've been able to gather from the AP story and from the bit I saw on ABC News, President Bush was thoughtful, witty and charming. Frankly I was astounded - no, I didn't expect him to be an ass necessarily, but I did not expect the warmth and grace that I saw and read either.

Therefore I officially give him tomorrow off - no sniping at Mr. Bush until after midnight Tuesday night.

(and for my next magic trick, I plan to say some rather surprisingly positive things about Tricky Dick in my next "Greatest Presidents" entry)

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Greatest President of the 20th Century (Part One)

(If you didn't read the Introduction post from earlier this evening, go read it first)

Bottom of the Barrel One of the first elimination criteria I came up with was that any President that ran for reelection to a second term and lost can't qualify for greatest. While I said earlier that this was not just a popularity contest, it seemed reasonable that if a President, with the power of the office behind him, can't get reelected, then there must be some huge negatives that should disqualify them from the greatness discussion.

If we accept that, we disqualify Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter and Bush. As Harding is generally considered one of the five worst Presidents in history, I'm going to add him to this list as well.

I find a lot of parallels between Hoover and Carter - both were engineers that paid too much attention to detail and were much more comfortable with numbers than with people. Each started efforts and programs to correct serious economic problems (the roots of which in both cases went much further back than their terms) that their successors were able to take credit for. Both were defeated for reelection by charismatic leaders that clearly then set the terms of the political debate for years to come (Roosevelt's New Deal and Reagan's conservative revolution). I think they're both unfairly maligned to some extent, but clearly neither can be called the greatest President of the century.

Taft was TR's handpicked successor, but tried to walk a line between TR's progressivism and the conservatism of the other half of his party - and the whole time all he really wanted was to be on the Supreme Court (a wish that was finally granted). He continued the trust-busting of the previous administration, which certainly didn't endear him to the more conservative arm of the party, but the increased tariffs and the retreat from internationalism caused TR to pull a large chunk of the Republican vote with him away from Taft, opening the door for Wilson's win in 1912.

Ford never really had a chance, but he didn't help himself in any way. The response to the runaway inflation resulting from the Nixon wage and price freezes (remember WIN buttons?) was woefully inadequate and the pardoning of Nixon really hurt Ford's reputation.

Frankly it's too early to adequately evaluate Bush's administration - but clearly whatever one thought of the Persian Gulf war, any positive view was negated by his handling of the economy and the continually growing budget deficits.

Harding is generally viewed as a disaster. I have nothing with which to argue against that.

So that's six down, eleven to go!

Kerry Rocks!

Title link from Slapnose - site includes info on the garage band from Saint Paul's School that Kerry played bass in (The Electras) as well as a link to his appearance in Doonesbury in the early days of the strip. Pretty cool stuff - and after listening to the mp3's, not freakin' bad, either!

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.

Neil Gaiman's reading the Greensboro News and Record

Saw this from his Friday post:
There's a mystery beast in North Carolina, unless it's someone playing in photoshop.
From the article:
"What in the world?" Bill Kurdian asked himself when he saw the animal for the first time.

About the size of a fox, but with short brown hair and a long cat-like tail, it looked more like an animal in a National Geographic spread out of Africa than any critter native to the woods of central North Carolina.
Opinions in the on-line forum varied between really bad image manipulation to "I've seen it myself - in Ohio" to grey fox with parasites making its fur fall out before degenerating into the typical you're an idiot/why are you being so mean?/you're all idiots sort of intelligent discourse that I've come to expect in open forums (and which drives me screaming away from them).

So what's the deal, Greensburgers? Is it real, or is it Photoshop?