Salon is SO predictable. For President’s Day, they post a piece posing the question, “Who’s the worst president of them all?” And of course, since that site is totally in the grip of Bush Derangement Syndrome (still), it boils down to a choice between George W. Bush and someone else. In this case, Buchanan.
Of course, being Salon, that’s why they ran it. But you know where they would go before you clicked on the link, right? So partisan. So parochial. So lacking in historical perspective.
Me, I’m not interested in a worst, or a worst list, because that just doesn’t seem in the spirit of Presidents’ Day, which is about celebrating rather than tearing down. So, who are your Top Five, All Time, Desert-Island presidents?
Oh, and if you include Barack Obama, which to me would be the flip side of picking W. as the worst, as if you can’t think outside your own 21st century chauvinism, I’ll just quote Barry at you:
Couldn’t you make it any more obvious than that? What about the Beatles? What about the Rolling Stones? What about…Beethoven? Track one side one of the Fifth Symphony?…
(You sort of have to know Barry to get that. And if you don’t, I definitely recommend that you read High Fidelity, which is where I got this mania for Top Five Lists. The movie’s fine, but read the book.)
My own list is a little shaky, but I’ll just throw some out there to get this started:
- Abraham Lincoln — The guy who held us together at the fulcrum of our history, and did it with heroic force of will and epic strength of character while at the same time maintaining his own instinctive humility. He seemed at times to stand alone, politically, in his insistence on holding the nation together (and thank God he did). No one outdoes him in rising above finger-in-the-wind politics to embody leadership; only Washington and FDR come close. That brooding statue at the memorial is the visual evocation of what I’m talking about, which is what makes it so iconic. Of course, if you’re of pacifist tendencies, you have to note that no one person in our history was more singlehandedly responsible for the shedding of more American blood — without his force of will, the nation likely wouldn’t have stayed the course that long. But then, you have to ask yourself, was it worth it? Unfortunately, we’re still fighting over that in SC.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt — Again, almost superhuman leadership through crises of such scope and sweep that they stagger the mind. Argue all you want about the effectiveness of the New Deal, I think it was this cripple’s ebullient refusal to be a cripple, or let his country wallow in its troubles, that pulled us through the Depression more than anything. As for the Second World War — the nation was right to feel panicky when he died just before we’d finished winning it; his leadership was that critical on an abstract, spiritual level. The fact that we went ahead and won it quickly is a testament to what he’d already done, but also, it should be said, proof that the nation’s greatness and strength exceeds that of one man, however great the man. You could say that anybody who was president through those crises would be deemed great after they ended successfully. But I would say the nation was very fortunate to have this particular man at that time. And the people of this country knew it, which is why they elected him four times.
- John Adams — OK, he’s not necessarily the greatest AS president (in fact, that was one of the low points of his career), and sure, there’s that business where he let the more partisan Federalists maneuver him into the Alien and Sedition Acts. It’s just that, if you take his whole life — and his whole adult life pretty much was devoted to getting this country started, being the most eloquent advocate for independence, getting backing from abroad (the French, the Dutch) for the revolution, suggesting Washington to head the Continental Army, (and suggesting Jefferson do the final writing on the Declaration), and on and on — it’s hard to imagine one guy contributing so much to a new country. But he did. I guess I’m putting him on here as a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award.
- George Washington — Back when I was in college, it wasn’t fashionable to emphasize Washington as much as some of the other Founders. You know, because he was so obvious, it was uncool. (We were like Barry, in other words.) I tended to focus on the idea guys — Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton. But over time, I’ve come to understand better the importance of his leadership — both in terms of being an inspirational leader that the country could rally around (something he cultivated consciously, which would make some dismiss him, but I think he saw what the country needed and provided it), and in terms of his self-effacing refusal to become a king or a facsimile of one. In other words, my understanding and appreciation has progressed beyond the cherry-tree myth.
- Theodore Roosevelt — I used to think that Teddy was on Mount Rushmore for the same reason that people tend to put W. and Obama on their best and worst lists (depending on their inclinations): He was the president at the time, so they put him up there. But having read the first book in Edmund Morris’ trilogy (I need to get to the second; it’s sitting on my bookshelf waiting), I’m far more convinced of the role he played in transitioning the nation from what had been since 1776 and taking it to what it would be in the 20th century. His building up of the Navy would have been enough to get him on a Top Ten list. But then you look at his Progressive initiatives, his passion for reform, and that takes you much further. A lot of detractors would dismiss his imperialism, but I think that’s another sort of temporal chauvinism — applying today’s standards to a man of another time. I would look at the positive side of that — he saw the importance of the United States taking its place alongside the “Great Nations of Europe,” and saw aggressive posture as essential to that. In other words, you can take his “Bully!” a couple of ways. But in my book, as you know, I think the world is better off with the United States in the leading role, rather than some of those “Great Nations,” as they were then. And I worry about a future time when a nation that would never, ever produce a TR is in that role. Roosevelt personified American vigor, optimism, innovation and industry, making him a sort of archetype, an embodiment of the nation at that point in history — much the way JFK did later.
Wow. Barry would really be dismissive of MY list. It’s like, Mount Rushmore minus Jefferson, plus two. But I can’t help it; the “name” presidents do tend to be among the best, if you’re honest about it. (And I was going to put Jefferson on there, crediting him for the Louisiana Purchase and dealing with the Barbary Pirates — both flying in the face of his own ideology, and I love it when politicians rise above their party lines — but I wanted the other five on there more.
Go ahead, argue with me.