The results of the latest survey, organized by economist Arthur Schlesinger Jr., were not surprising. Presidential greatness is defined as action, the more frenetic the better. Which means big government, the more intrusive the better.
Abraham Lincoln tops the list. He held the nation together during a crisis—and killed 620,000 Americans in the process. There’s no doubt that he was a skillful politician and succeeded in his primary goal. But was it worth plunging the nation into war? His predecessor James Buchanan, is judged to be a failure, and the latter did much to exacerbate sectional tensions. But he, at least, held back from the fateful step of making war on states that only sought to peacefully depart the union.
Second in the rankings is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This President, too, was a political master. His economic policies were a failure, however. The New Deal, as he termed it, might have improved Americans’ morale, but it did not spark a sustained recovery. Now, decades later, we are reaping the bitter harvest of many of his misguided initiatives: deposit insurance, which led to the S&L debacle; Social Security, which is heading over a fiscal cliff; and pervasive government meddling, which has slowed our economy’s growth and reduced our freedom.
Moreover, while his wartime leadership may have been competent, he had a wildly naive view of mass murderer Joseph Stalin. Equally important, Roosevelt maneuvered secretly to drag the United States into the worst war in human history, a decision which deserved to be debated fully by the American people.
The third and last ”great” president is George Washington.
He is the only one who deserves that designation, more for what he did not do than what he did. Washington, in contrast to so many of his successors, rejected the opportunity to accumulate power. He truly believed in individual liberty and republican government.
The near greats are led by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson who, like Washington, are good selections. Both had their flaws, but neither mistook a desire to expand state authority with public spiritedness. Next in line, however, is the odious Woodrow Wilson, a man who pushed the United States into World War I and sacrificed 110,000 lives in his belief that he had been anointed to save all mankind. His administration was the most repressive in U.S. history; he even proposed outlawing criticism of the government. He ended his presidency crippled by a stroke but hanging onto power by deceiving the public.
Then comes Theodore Roosevelt. He was a complex and fascinating man, but his lust for war was probably unmatched by any other president. His view of non‐Western peoples was disgraceful. His interventionist economics ultimately made the economy less, not more, competitive.
The next near great is Harry S. Truman. Truman is impressive only insofar as he rose above the worst sort of machine politics to perform competently enough to avoid disaster in the dangerous post‐World War II era. But his international policies exacerbated the Cold War, yielding the national security state and outsize military that plague us to this day. His mistakes in Korea turned a small regional conflict into a lengthy war with China. His domestic policies were marked by inefficient economic intervention.
The last of the almost greats is James Knox Polk, an unabashed imperialist. He initiated what was, truth be told, a war of aggression against Mexico that led to the seizure of half of that nation’s territory. He was frugal when it came to economics, but his belief that territorial expansion warranted war was more befitting a 20th Century dictator.
In contrast, Dwight Eisenhower, who ended the Korean War, warned against militarism, and moderated domestic federal expenditures, is judged to be merely average. Calvin Coolidge, who presided over prosperity and peace, is rated below average.
And Harding, whose associates were corrupt, but who restored Americans’ civil liberties after the repressive Wilson era and presided over a strong economy, is termed a failure.
What will history say of Clinton? The historians may treat him well— he has sent the military into action around the globe, proposed a massive new social program, and talked endlessly in the action‐oriented terms so loved by historians.
But history is likely to render a different judgment. It will see him as yet another in a long line of political hacks mesmerized by power. And as someone willing to sacrifice American lives, wealth, and freedom for social engineering projects at home and abroad. In short, history will not be kind to him—nor to most of his predecessors.