All the Presidents….Man!
The best, the worst, and a few inbetween.
All the Presidents...man!
My usual sense of excellent timing has led me to write about something that happened two days ago, the Federal holiday…
My usual sense of excellent timing has led me to write about something that happened two days ago, the Federal holiday known as President’s Day. If you weren’t excited leading up to the day, or over the thrill of the day itself, you are probably not sitting around on a Wednesday saying, “I wish I could turn the clock back to President’s Day!” However, the crew here at the “Hoffman Files” likes to publish on Sundays and Wednesdays, and I had already committed to a different topic on Sunday so there you have it. Besides, even though I’m a history teacher, I always thought dates, names, and places were overrated. If you know that World War Two took place at some point after World War One, then consider yourself more knowledgeable than probably half of the planet. In fact, compared to most of the earth’s populace, you are a regular Arthur Schlesinger. You go “girlfriend”.
“Who is going to kick your ass? Me and my bow tie, that’s who!” (You Tube)
At any rate, it’s never too late to celebrate President’s Day, I say. In fact, many of our younger readers may not even be aware that President’s Day is a relatively new holiday. For years the holiday was actually Washington’s birthday. Some states celebrated Lincoln’s birthday as well. Somebody decided however, “Why celebrate the Presidents who were accomplished and honorable when we could give James Buchanan (“Big Buck”) the credit that escaped him in life and in every history book ever written?” (Buchanan deserves some credit, after-all he’s the only bachelor President we have ever had)
“All this talk about Secession is destroying my ability to find a Mrs. Buchanan”. (You Tube)
Rating the Presidents is a fairly subjective ordeal. However, there seems to be a general consensus among historians, and people in general that the “big four” of American Presidents are (In any order you like) George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Roosevelt boys, Teddy and Franklin. The next five or six on the list is open to debate, and like all other discussions regarding politics in our nation, highly polarized. Usually the rest of the top ten according to most Presidential historians will include, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, and either Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Regan depending on whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. Rating a President is not an easy task since you often have to give history a chance to play out before you can truly declare a President either a failure, or whether you want to start carving them a spot on Mount Rushmore. For example, George W. Bush’s Presidency did not end particularly well, but, if after twenty years, Iraq is a thriving Jeffersonian Democracy where we can all go for our family vacations, Bush’s Presidency will have to be reexamined. (I’m not sure anyone other than perhaps Sean Hannity believes that.) On the other hand, a majority of Americans born after World War Two consider John F. Kennedy to have been a great president, and he was President less than three years. How great could he have been?
Eh-ra, “Ich bein ein…Wunderbar!” (Associated Press)
The first five Presidents definitely had it amongst the most difficult. They were starting from scratch. Washington in particular, despite his high-ranking, is in many ways underrated. Nobody had ever done what he was about to embark upon. He just kept making things up, and they were so good, every President who came after him just kept doing the same things. He really created the Presidency, and that’s not too shabby. On the down side, four out of the first five Presidents were also passionate defenders of slavery, as were several others who followed the original five. Students will sometimes ask me if this makes them racists. To be fair, certainly by our standards of 2015, of course they are. But we have to judge all people by the time period in which they lived. For their time, most of these men were not particularly more racist than the average American or European landowning male. This is no excuse of course, but it helps explain why the father of our country, the man who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the man who wrote the “Constitution” and the “Bill of Rights” were all slave owners. Only John Adams was anti-slavery. A man well ahead of his time., he was also universally loathed by all who knew him due to his “prickly” personality. He was kind of like the Larry David of the “Founding Fathers”. Brilliant, but difficult.
(“Oh Abagail, when I see you in that bonnet and corset, me thinks you look pretty…pretty good.”)
John Quincy Adams is sort of the George W. Bush of the early 19th century. He tried to one-up a demanding father and ended up making everybody miss his father even more. Andrew Jackson really stood as the last great President before Lincoln. He had a lot of nicknames, (“Old Hickory”, “Sharp-Knife”, “Andy-Boy”, “Action Jackson”, “Old Turnip Breath”) he killed a lot of Indians, (Directly and indirectly), he won a battle in the War of 1812 after the war ended, he killed a man in a duel, and was basically like a “superhero”. He was both loved and hated, perhaps more-so than any President in history. After Jackson, things tail off pretty badly. Martin van Buren had good sideburns, but not much else. William “Tippecanoe” Henry Harrison is famous for only being President a few weeks. As the oldest President who had ever been elected, (He was 68) he wished to show his critics that he was full of “piss and vinegar”. He gave a lengthy inauguration speech without his coat on in the freezing cold, and died of pneumonia a few weeks later. He may not have been too old, but he was apparently too stupid.
Lincoln, like FDR, was defined by the challenges he inherited. Lincoln should have asked for his money back because the country he inherited was broken. Previous Presidents seemed unwilling or unable to keep the nation whole. Lincoln, who arrived with very low expectations based on his one unsuccessful term in the House of Representatives, showed that until a man (or woman) is tested, you don’t really know what they are made of. Lincoln’s ability to walk the tight-rope of slavery in the border states, while issuing the Emancipation Proclamation goes down as one of the great acts of political skill in American History.
Following Lincoln’s bad night at the theater, he was replaced by “Doofus Emeritus”, Andrew Johnson, followed by the befuddled Ulysses S. Grant, (His real name was Hiram. He was such a go-getter, that when the administration at West Point mixed up his paperwork and didn’t include his real name, he didn’t even bother to tell anybody) and a series of Presidents named “Rutherford B. James -Arthur- Cleveland-Harrison-Cleveland. They all seemed to be the same person. Big “Duck-Dynasty” beards, big bellies, few ideas, and a passion for doing as little as possible. How bad was it? When Garfield was killed, nobody noticed that Chester Arthur was President for over six months, and that included Mrs. Garfield.
Quick quiz: James Garfield was killed by…
A — Gus Anosopolous
B — Charles Guiteau
C — Leon Czolgosz
D — Kent Hrbek
The Answer was “B”. Guiteau hated Garfield, loved Mondays, and despised Lasagna.
After William McKinley was killed by an anarchist, the Presidency got the shot of adrenalin it desperately needed. Enter Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. The Republicans had placed Roosevelt on the ticket with McKinley for the Vice-Presidency figuring he couldn’t do any damage there, unless..heh, heh, McKinley were to be killed in office. Roosevelt seemed to understand that the Presidency contained oodles of power, and that in the hands of the right man, that power could actually be used to accomplish things that would benefit the people, while at the same time, avoid tearing down the mechanisms of big business. Roosevelt walked away after eight years and handed the reins to his protégé’, William Howard Taft. “Big Willy” is famous for having his own bathtub built into the White House due to his girth. Taft’s other claim to fame is that he is the only President to also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is unknown whether his bathtub came with him.
(Oh Willy, not the “whites”! Dark colors only, preferably with vertical stripes) (Associated Press)
The modern 20th century Presidents are better known to us, warts and all. Some were racists like Woodrow Wilson, some were paranoid and power-hungry like LBJ and Nixon. Some were great stage performers like Clinton, Kennedy and Reagan. Some were good people, but not cut out to lead, like Ford, George H. Bush and Jimmy Carter. FDR and Truman are my personal favorites. Truman for the tough if unpopular decisions he had to make, in addition to the immense challenge of replacing FDR. This task is comparable to replacing Vince Lombardi as coach of the Packers. (It was Phil Bengston) FDR didn’t fix the “Depression”, as some like to say, but he did something much greater. He maintained the American people’s faith in Capitalism and Democracy at a time when some were saying, “Hey, that Hitler guy seems to be doing a good job in Germany. Maybe we should try that?”
(“Don’t sweat it Phil, just keep winning championships.”) (Associated Press)
Obviously it’s too early to know how history will judge Obama. But if you think the job is easy, or even manageable, consider this. On Monday, CNN released a poll that said 78% of the American people want to see Congress authorize Obama’s request for fighting ISIL. In the same poll, 57% of the American people said they disapproved of the way the President was handling ISIL. This means that a majority of the American people support the idea that Congress should follow the President’s plan that the American people apparently disapprove of. Hail to the Chief!