Friday, December 30, 2005

Presidents (4)

Okay, now we're in the home stretch. Buckle up, because these are the best of the best.

10. Franklin Roosevelt - This is such a tough one, and really I need a whole blogpost for this one. When we're talking about presidential "greatness," it's really hard to exclude mere importance as a factor. Like him or hate him, FDR had a tremendous impact on the country and the Presidency - much of it bad, some of it good. It's difficult to fully castigate the man who guided the Nation through World War II, and who also used his office as a source of inspiration to a people mired in economic turmoil. It sounds trite perhaps, but the emotional impact of his presidency should not be scoffed at too lightly.

But there is just too much baggage to ignore. His emotional guidance might have helped, but his actual polcies did not end the Depression, and some economists argue that they prolonged it (and others, obviously, disagree. I'll leave that up to the economic historians). He set in motion the complete centralization of the American government, and he also began the march of the imperial presidency. He didn't create, but he certainly expanded the American nation's role as a nanny state. He threatened to subvert the independence of the Supreme Court through his attempt to pack the Court. He eschewed 150 years of American tradition by arrogantly assuming himself to be indispensable, thus running for a third term. And then he ran for a fourth when it was obvious he would not survive this final term. And though he was at death's door, he failed to properly train his would-be successor, keeping him in the dark on matters of the utmost importance, essentially meaning that Truman would have to learn on the fly (a testament to Truman's own greatness, but more on that later). I could go on and on about King Delano I, America's would-be dictator, but you get the point.

So how do I include him in the top ten? After writing all that I realize that I've been as suckered in by the man's legend as anyone else. But it's just impossible to ognore the man's importance. Perhaps he just deserves a special category.

9. Teddy Roosevelt - I used to have him much higher in my estimation, but he remains the greatest Roosevelt who was ever President. He was a mild demagoggue, but he'd be passed in his rhetorical flourishes by later Presidents. As an example, Roosevet did a lot of barking, but he did not promise the sun, the moon, and the stars to the American people. When a major piece of legislation passed - I forget which, I believe it was the rail monopoly bill - he said that it was indeed a good bill, but it was not the millennium. This is the sort of modesty lacking today. He also helped push America more grandly onto the world stage though his intervention in the Russo-Japanese conflict. But it's hard to ignore his pushiness, and even more so his pettiness. He was an idealist who threatened to push his ideals too far, but who was restrained by his own party. Thankfully.

8. James Monroe - It's hard not to appreciate a President who presides over unending peace and prosperity. But like a later 20th century President, the surface-level harmony was just that, and masked a deeper division within the Nation, and helped blind Americans to impending troubles.

7. Andrew Jackson - A somewhat over-eneregtic, demagogic indidual, Jackson nonetheless had a veneration for the American Constitution. He masterfully squelched Calhoun's disastrous nullification doctrine, and though he properly overstepped his bounds with Chief Justice Marshall, his quip that "Mr. Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it," is a sentiment I can appreciate. He was not the would-be tyrant the Whigs made him out to be, but he did help spur the democratic revolution in America- and I do not say that as a positive thing in his favor.

6. Harry Truman - As mentioned, he was thrown into an unenvious situation, but he dealt with it admirably. He made perhaps the toughest decision any President has ever had to make, and he decided wisely. His forceful advocacy of the Marshall Plan helped save at least half of Europe from Communism. He stood firm against a hostile Congress - even when said Congress was controlled by his own party. He was stubborn as hell, a trait which served him well at times, and was disastrous on other occasions. He was too late in controlling MacArthur, but he also managed to fend off what could have been a much more tenuous situation. There were various hits and misses throughout his two terms of office, but our Nation was well-served bu Truman.

5. Thomas Jefferson - Shocking I know, but we're talking about his presidency, not political philosophy. There is no mistaking that his first term was one of the greatest presidential terms in American history. He paid down the debt while slashing taxes, and he made the single greatest acquisition in American history, while sponsoring the expedition of Lewis and Clark. But his second term was just as much a disaster as his first was a success. He endorsed a ridiculous embargo that discredited the Nation and would have rammifications later on that would cause America to enter a needless war. Mr. civil libertarian also had no problem encouraging the silencing of dissent in the press when the focus now was on his presidency and not the Federalists. At the very least his adminsitration showed that it really was sometimes the office, not the man, that mattered.

4. Dwight Eisenhower - Ike's greatest skill was his managerial ability. He had no problems dealing with a cabinet that was often divided against itself, and he often used such debate to help formulate a more thoroughly informed policy. Conservatives will probably decry his inability to roll back the New Deal, but it is rather doubtful that Ike would really have had the ability to smash the New Deal into the ground during that era, not when over 50% of the people were registered Democrats. He was a careful man, cautious almost to a fault. But his caution helped keep America stable and secure.

3. Ronald Reagan - A transformative conservative. He helped restore American confidence, energize da stagnant economy, and was the main impetus behind the fall of European communism. He brought an optimistic streak to an ideology that needed a dose of it. He is the main reason our economy continues to thrive today. He transformed a world and a nation. So, yeah, he gets to be near the top of the list.

There are two more, and I want to devote a separate post to them, because they stand apart from everyone else.


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