The Wife and I watched a series of programs over the weekend about the Presidents on the History Channel. It went from Washington to FDR. Then today, I see a poll on CNN asking for the best President in history. These are the results:
Abraham Lincoln: 18%
Ronald Reagan: 16%
John Kennedy: 14%
Bill Clinton: 13%
Franklin Roosevelt: 9%
George Washington: 7%
Harry Truman: 3%
George W. Bush: 2%
Theodore Roosevelt: 2%
Dwight Eisenhower: 2%
Thomas Jefferson: 2%
Jimmy Carter: 2%
Gerald Ford: 1%
George Bush, Sr.: 1%
George W. Bush outpolls Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt? As apt a demonstration as I can think of as proof that if George W. Bush slit some guy's throat on live television in the Rose Garden, he would still have uncritical supporters who would insist that he's the best leader humanity has known since Jesus himself. Pass the Kool-Aid!
But seriously, I’m wary of ranking post-war Presidents along with the more historical figures, because we lack sufficient historical perspective to really evaluate them. Still, I’m a fan of Reagan, for the same reason I’m a fan of James K. Polk and William Howard Taft – all approached their tasks with specific goals in mind and focused their energies on successfully accomplishing those goals. Polk and Taft? Yes. Even though both were one-termers, they made very significant contributions to America and demonstrated substantial leadership during their Presidencies.
James K. Polk fulfilled the promise of westward expansion, creating the modern boundaries of the United States (excepting Alaska and Hawaii) and had the grace to leave office after the conclusion of that mission – some say that the White House broke him; he died just over three months after leaving office. A flawed man, to be sure, particularly with regards to slavery. But he deserves as much mention for his expansion of the country as does his more public relations-friendly slaveholding predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. Trivia: Polk was the only Speaker of the House to ever become President.
William Howard Taft created the modern legal system that governs our country; he, more than anyone else, is responsible for the way law is practiced and organized today. The importance of those reforms echoes through almost every aspect of American society to this day. Taft considered being President less important than serving on the Supreme Court, and he was appointed Chief Justice by President Harding, serving with distinction until shortly before his death in 1930. Perhaps I admire Chief Justice Taft more than I do President Taft, but his leadership on legal reform was critical during his Presidency too.
But I’ve got to give the top nod to George Washington, who transformed himself from a revolutionary war hero into a statesman and the architect of government in a modern liberal democracy. This is not to diminish the achievements of James Madison or Thomas Jefferson or John Adams in creating the overall structure of our government – but the question is who was the best President, and Washington breathed life into the body that Madison and his colleagues created. Without Washington, Mr. Madison’s Constitution would have made a very interesting theoretical construct. With him, Americans bought in to the idea of a strong, central, divided, and federalized government.
We owe it all to George Washington. CNN readers only give him 7%? That’s a rip-off, big time.