Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ranking Presidents

[posted by Callimachus]

Our friend XWL at "Immodest Proposals" has the kind of presidential ranking list I can live with.

First, he limits himself to the post-WWII crop of executives, which assures we're talking about men who held roughly the same level of authority in the same nation and faced a similar plate of challenges and opportunities.

Second, he grounds his targe not in the concrete of academic authority, but in the honest mud of a "Completely Subjective, Thoroughly Biased, Mostly Fact Free and Easily Dismissed Ranking." Which is how such things always ought to be presented, no matter who makes them.

So in the spirit of his ranking, here's mine. I didn't take his post into account; in fact, as soon as I read what he was doing, my mind automatically stacked up the names in this order, before I'd even seen how he ranked them.

1. Reagan I never fully appreciated him while he was in office. But I was a young punk at the time. What he set out to accomplish, he brought to pass. He dreamed victory and said, "why not?"

His administration made some bloody missteps, notably in Latin America, but they were characteristic American Cold War blunders, and considering the effort we were putting forth to oppose Soviet expansionism, the crimes pale before the unforced blunders of the Kennedy or Ford Administrations.

And in the end, he, along with Thatcher, John Paul II, Walesa, Gorbachev, and about 10 million Germans and Eastern Europeans, finally brought to an end the miserable Cold War and the Soviet Union, and we all got to witness something perhaps unique in human history and still unappreciated: A mighty empire, armed to the teeth and paranoid, dying without a spasm of violence and war.

Domestically ... well, if you're old enough, compare 1980 to 1990.

2. Eisenhower Don't be fooled by the fact you can't think of anything important that he initiated during his administration. It took tremendous skill to maintain equilibrium during the feverish early game of the Cold War.

Ike knew the ways of the U.S. military, at all levels, and so was able to call bullshit on the more absurd requests and proposals of the Pentagon. One of the main Democratic lines of attack against him was that he wasn't spending enough on defense.

And he had an innate sense of what the Russian enemy was really capable of fielding, as opposed to what the enemy was threatening to do. He knew the sound of a plastic sabre rattling. And he resisted the temptation to use the Soviet threat to advance some unrelated agenda.

Just compare him to Kennedy, who followed him in the White House, and who was easily panicked, an alarmist (perhaps an adult ADHD case who craved crisis), and prone to accepting the most absurd schemes.

Domestically, again, Eisenhower oversaw a great economic expansion that touched almost all Americans, and he abetted (reluctantly at first) the civil rights movement in its nascent years.

3. Truman Grew in the job. Endured. Saved the nation from MacArthur. Kick-started national desegregation via the armed forces.

4. Clinton Probably handled a divided government as well as it could be handled. Didn't interfere with a booming economy. Addressed some much-neglected domestic issues. Damaged by his personality, but I think the qualities that tripped him up are so intertwined with those that made him at times a great president, you can't imagine him without both.

5. Bush I Oversaw the end-of-Cold War transitions adequately. Didn't make things better, but didn't make them much worse. Gulf War I was at least a chance for us to measure the cost of doing things in the world via multinational coalitions, rather than with a few well-chosen friends.

6. Johnson Domestically, his heart was in the right place, but he was hamstrung by Vietnam, where his mistake was -- perversely -- a lack of confidence in himself. Haunted by JFK and a sense that the polish and fraud of the Kennedies was a genuine character that he lacked, he never cleared out the "best and brightest" mis-managers in Kennedy's team and thought for himself, using his Southern instincts.

7. Ford Could have been much worse. Could have been a lot better. Killed by a surfeit of Kissinger. Domestically? "Our long national nightmare is over." Nope, it was just beginning. And anyone who presided over the opening scenes of it was going to be helpless. At least he made good fodder for "Saturday Night Live."

8. Kennedy Joe McCarthy with better hair and smoother delivery. He squeaks into the middle third of the list more for the awakened spirit he inspired in American people than for actual accomplishments. Peace Corps, space program -- imagine how much they would have amounted to without the accompanying foolishness.

9. Bush II At least so far. Probably was doomed by the nature of his election and could only hope to ride out a relatively calm period in world history. He didn't get it. We overthrew Saddam for all the right reasons, but the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and half of America think we went there to kill Arabs, steal oil, and do the bidding of our Jewish overlords. I blame the media first for that, but Bush and friend come in second.

10. Carter At least he issued a tacit "mea culpa" with his 1980 defense budget. I don't factor in what they did before or after they occupied the White House. Carter only could do so much with the bitter and resentful nation Nixon left behind. He didn't even manage that "so much."

11. Nixon Someone mixed up the invoice: Humphrey for president, Nixon for Secretary of State.

For what it's worth, XWL's listing looks like this:

1. Reagan
2. Truman
3. Bush II
4. Clinton
5. Eisenhower
6. Bush I
7. Johnson
8. Kennedy
9. Ford
10. Nixon
11. Carter

And yes, I'm officially declaring "Ranking Presidents" to be the Band Name of the Day.