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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Who Were the Best and Worst Presidents

By Tom Morrow

Many of us have lived to witness a number of U.S. Presidents and the question often asked is: who was the best you remember?

I was six-years old April 12, 1945, the day Franklin Roosevelt (1933-54) died, so I can’t comment too much on his tenure other than what history tells us – and, recent years have brought more critical comment. I well-remember Harry S. Truman’s (1945-54) nearly two terms. At the time he wasn’t all that popular with my parents and grandparents. Looking back as times pass, one has to ask: where’s Harry and his common-downhome sense and logic when we need him?

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-60) was one of our most popular presidents even though he had his detractors. Democrats chided him for taking naps and playing too much golf. There were complaints he didn’t do any work, but those naysayers forgot Ike was an Army General used to delegating and not doing things himself. Those in the know agree his White House ran fairly smooth with only minor hitches. He left us our fabulous Interstate system – an idea he got studying Hitler’s autobahn at the end of the war.

In college political studies, historical rankings of presidents are garnered from surveys conducted to judge their success. These surveys are of academic historians and political scientists or popular opinion. The rankings focus on the presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures, and faults, but I find personal observations often can be a better barometer.

Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George Washington are usually the three highest rated presidents among historians. The remaining places in the top 10 are often rounded out by Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson, and John F. Kennedy. More recent presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are often rated among the greatest in world opinion polls, but do not always rank as highly among our (U.S.) presidential scholars and historians.

Kennedy (1961-63) followed Ike. It was my first election (1960). I didn’t vote for JFK, but I wept when he was gunned down – as I saw it, it was an assault on America. Today’s Democrats would recognize him as more conservative than liberal.

The bottom 10 often include James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor, and George W. Bush. Buchanan always is listed in last place and often is blamed for allowing the Civil War to take place.

David H. Donald, noted biographer of Abraham Lincoln, relates that when he met John F. Kennedy in 1961, Kennedy voiced his deep dissatisfaction and resentment with historians who had rated some of his predecessors. Kennedy said that “No one has a right to grade a President — even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

A 2010 Siena poll of 238 presidential scholars found former President George W. Bush was ranked 39th out of 43, with poor ratings in handling of the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments, and intelligence. Meanwhile, the then-current president, Barack Obama, was ranked 15th out of 43, with high ratings for imagination, communication ability and intelligence and a low rating for background (family, education and experience). Time will tell if either assessment holds up.

In 2012, Newsweek magazine asked a panel of historians to rank the 10 best presidents since 1900. The results showed that historians had ranked Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama as the best since that year.

A 2015 poll administered by the American Political Science Association among political scientists specializing in the American presidency had Abraham Lincoln in the top spot, with George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson making the top 10.

Incumbent President Donald Trump is not yet included in any survey, as none have been conducted since his January 20, 2017 inauguration. However, at the end of his term(s), it will be interesting to see how he fares with historians. One thing is for certain for future scholars of history, Trump’s tenure will not be a boring read.


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