Presidential Greatness: A List to Ponder

Presidents Day apparently was a prime time to release the new rankings of presidential greatness. Who is judging which president is greater than another, you may ask. The answer: 170 members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

You may ask further: what are the political leanings of these 170 members? The answer with respect to political party: 57.2% of respondents were Democrats, while 12.7% were Republicans, 27.1% were Independents, and 3% selected Other as their option.

The other question asked was whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Here’s that breakdown: 32.5% consider themselves ideologically liberal, while 25.9% consider themselves somewhat liberal, and 24.1% consider themselves moderate. Only 5.4% consider themselves ideologically conservative, while 12% say they are somewhat conservative.

In my experience, those who call themselves somewhat liberal are being too modest; they are usually quite liberal but don’t like to be labeled as such. If I’m correct, that would put the ideologically liberal as well over half the respondents while conservatives overall top out at just under 18%.

Gosh, I wonder if that skewed the results of this survey?

To be fair, I think there were some solid selections of greatness. For instance, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington come in as #1 and #2, respectively. Given Lincoln’s gargantuan task of navigating a civil war and Washington’s precedent-setting tenure as our first president (and giving honor and dignity to the office), I take no issue with those choices.

But, as is always the case with a liberal-dominated group, we find FDR voted in as the third-greatest president in American history. This is the man who tossed aside the Constitution, who allowed the federal government to dictate an ever-higher portion of each individual’s life, and who put into place policies that extended the Great Depression for an entire decade.

Sorry, but that’s not my idea of greatness.

FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, comes in fourth, probably because he began the movement toward more “progressive” policies and even ran for president later on the ticket of the newly formed Progressive Party. Now, there are things I like about TR as well, but not those.

The #5 spot went to Thomas Jefferson. I’m currently teaching a course on the Early Republic and if you were to ask my students their view of Jefferson now, you probably wouldn’t get too many superlatives. He did his best to undermine both Washington and John Adams. He thought the French Revolution was a wonderful event. He signed an embargo act that practically froze all American commerce and his presidency ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Ah, but the Declaration of Independence makes up for all of that, I guess.

I admit to being pleased, and somewhat surprised, to see Reagan included in the top ten, coming in at #9. What was less surprising was to see Obama just ahead of him at #8. Let’s see now: one president revived the economy and was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union; the other reigned over an economy in the doldrums, attempted to take over the entire healthcare industry, and apologized the world over for America even existing.

Can you tell I disagree with that ranking?

LBJ comes in at #10, just behind Reagan. He only put FDR’s New Deal on steroids with his Great Society. And I don’t think we can call his Vietnam policy a sterling success.

I won’t try to go through the whole list, but here are some more thoughts as I look over it.

Woodrow Wilson ahead of James Madison? Really? Bill Clinton fell from #8 to #13 in this new ranking—a nice trend. Keep it going. Grover Cleveland all the way down at #24? I guess that’s what happens when someone believes in reining in government spending and warns against big-government paternalism.

Jimmy Carter at #26 ahead of Calvin Coolidge at #28? Give me a break. Why is Carter so high comparatively? His presidency was a near-total bust. Coolidge had integrity and presided over a robust economy. But he was Coolidge, you know, and that’s all it takes for a liberal-dominated voter pool.

Filling out the bottom of the list were some of the perennials: Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison (hey, give the guy a break; he was president for only one month), and James Buchanan.

Oh, I almost forgot. At the very bottom is the name Donald Trump. Now, that’s hardly fair with only one year under his belt. Even though I’m a great critic of Trump’s character, etc., I would hardly place him below some of those perennials noted above. At least not yet. Let’s see how this plays out over the next three years.

Lists like these are interesting, but you always need to know who the respondents are. A liberal-dominated electorate will always give a decided nod to those who have expanded government power.

Healthy Candidates?

The health of the presidential candidates has come into prominence as the election approaches, as well it should. In the past, candidates have tried to hide health problems, so we are seeing nothing new today.

Franklin Roosevelt was far too ill to run again in 1944, but he did so anyway. He then died three months into his fourth term. John Kennedy’s publicity machine made him appear youthful and vigorous when, in fact, he had a number of physical ailments that led him to trust in a “feel-good” doctor who gave him injections of steroids to mask his infirmities.

Hillary’s near-total collapse at the 9-11 remembrance has apparently caused a tumble in her polling numbers. We’ll have to see if she has bottomed out yet. The campaign brushes it off as simple dehydration complicated by pneumonia. Well, why shouldn’t we trust what her campaign says? Maybe it has something to do with her history of secrecy and misdirections.

reflex

The release of some of Colin Powell’s e-mails, with his negative comments on both Hillary and Trump has caused some stir. Publicly, he has rejected Hillary’s attempt to tie him to the reason she set up a secret e-mail server. He thinks neither candidate deserves support, apparently.

both-idiots

Shortly after Hillary’s “episode” on 9-11, there were rumors of finding a replacement. I know of at least one person who is waiting in the wings:

break-glass

Trump refuses to release his medical records also. Anyone who is 70 ought to let the public know his health status. All we get is an assurance from a doctor (a loose description of this particular individual—I’ll let you research him on your own) that Trump is the healthiest man ever to run for the presidency. The language sounds like it emanated from Trump himself. The hyperbole makes one less confident in the assessment, not more confident.

Perhaps the first debate should start this way:

treadmill

The public’s trust in both candidates is probably the lowest of any presidential election. The percentage of voters who have chosen third-party candidates in previous elections is about 9%; some are saying that percentage may conceivably double this time.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, it was the voters who chose to go with these candidates in the first place.

examination

We reap the consequences of our foolish choices.

A Historian’s Perspective on Bad Times in American History

I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about how pessimistic the majority of Americans are about the future. Currently, all the polls reveal that pessimism.  As I survey the scene—the spiritual/moral, political, and cultural aspects [what does that leave?]—I have grave concerns as well. I’d like to offer a historian’s perspective.

Since I teach American history, I have a more in-depth knowledge of what has transpired previously. I can imagine myself transported back into earlier eras and think about how I might have felt about current events at those times. Bad moral climates, disunity, and devastating government policies have cropped up throughout our history.

If my life had spanned the late colonial and revolutionary era, for instance, I would probably have been quite distressed over the state of affairs. The colonies had declared independence, and it was a thrilling prospect, but the progress of the war was anything but thrilling.

George Washington was often near despair over the inability of the Congress to pay his troops or provide for their needs. Thousands deserted during events such as Valley Forge. There was talk of meekly bowing to the British because all hopes for the future now appeared to be delusional. Even after achieving independence, the new states didn’t seem to want to work together; the entire national governmental structure was on the verge of collapse.

If I had experienced the 1790s, I would have been shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth daily in some of the newspapers, particularly those that accused Washington of wanting to set himself up as king. The French Revolution, which took place at that time, was one of the bloodiest episodes in all of history, and many in America were hailing it as a magnificent development. I would begin to question the wisdom of the electorate and wonder if this fledgling country could survive its first decade after the Constitution.

Later, during the War of 1812, our military defenses were so disorganized that the British actually burned Washington, DC, including the president’s house and the Capitol. Their troops were ravaging the countryside, destroying everything in their path without any effective countermeasures. What a low point for a nation.

Then there’s the Civil War and the decade that led to it. Passions were so heated in Congress that representatives started bringing their weapons with them into the House and Senate for protection. Slavery, by this time, had become entrenched. The Founding Fathers had hoped to eliminate it, but now the South was proclaiming it to be a positive good from God.

The nation split; more than 620,000 died in the war that followed, the highest tally for any American war. Bitterness remained for years afterward [you can still see its remnants today].

The Progressive Movement, after the turn of the twentieth century, introduced more government involvement in people’s lives and decided that the Constitution was an outdated document that had to be reinterpreted. Woodrow Wilson, a racist and a eugenicist, took the presidency. The eugenics movement sought to limit who could have children; only the “best” should reproduce. This movement formed the cornerstone of Nazi policies in Germany later.

Wilson moved the country down the path that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—the fulfillment of progressive dreams as the government took charge of getting the nation out of the Great Depression. FDR’s policies were so dismally foolish that the Depression continued until WWII. If I had lived during those decades, I would have mourned the loss of Biblical principles and constitutional limitations. The reigning ideology tossed out the concept of the rule of law. Now, anything could happen.

I did live during the 1960s and 1970s. It was not pleasant. First was LBJ’s Great Society, which could be described as the New Deal on steroids, followed by the rancor of the Vietnam War, then Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, and finally, the debilitated presidencies of Ford and Carter. The economy was in the tank, the worst since the Great Depression. Along the way, we also concluded that innocent children in the womb could be murdered.

I say all of this to make this point: there have always been bad times. Quite often, those who believe in Biblical morality and constitutionalism have come to the edge of despair. Yet we are still here. There is still hope to turn things around. We survived the disunity of the Revolution and the Civil War. We overcame the disgrace of the burning of the nation’s capital. Calvin Coolidge reversed Woodrow Wilson’s policies and Jimmy Carter brought forth Ronald Reagan.

Will the disaster that is the Obama administration become a footnote in our history that will bring forth another resurgence of sanity, or have we turned a corner and lost our way forever? That page in our history has yet to be written. We are the ones who will write it. If we take our responsibility seriously, hope remains.

Shlaes’s Coolidge

Amity ShlaesAmity Shlaes is a very good writer. She’s also a top-notch researcher. Her niche is showing how the 1920s and 1930s are not what many people think they were. Tackling academic political correctness is not for the fainthearted, so she apparently has a rather stout heart. I first became acquainted with her writing in the book The Forgotten Man, which lanced effectively the liberal-progressive theme that FDR was the nation’s savior during the Great Depression. Now she has struck again.

CoolidgeHer newest work is simply entitled Coolidge. In it, she resurrects the reputation of the president that most liberals enjoy ridiculing. I’m only about halfway through the book, but already I deeply appreciate her ability to explain people by placing them into the context of their times, rather than imposing a later worldview onto them for the sake of merciless critique.

What I find especially interesting in her portrait of Coolidge is her depiction of his journey from a progressive Republican to what he is better know for today—the staunch conservative that Ronald Reagan used as a model when he took the presidency. Her research indicates that it took some years for Coolidge to fully develop his beliefs, and that they were only coming to fruition around the time he became governor of Massachusetts and then vice president under Warren Harding after the 1920 election.

One of the highlights of the book thus far is her description of how Coolidge handled the Boston police officers’ strike in 1919. By standing firmly for law and order and rejecting the idea that police could strike, thereby harming the public safety, he won the admiration of an entire nation. It was that key event that lifted him into the national political arena.

I normally don’t review books without reading them all the way through first, but thought I’d give a heads-up on this one because I already know it’s worthy of your time.  Perhaps when I finish it, I’ll provide an update on what I gleaned from the last half. In the meantime, I just plan to enjoy the rest.

Presidents Without Knowledge

George Washington 21794

Reporter: President Washington, could you please comment on the rebellion brewing in this country over the excise tax? We hear rumors that you are going to be sending troops to deal with that, and that you yourself may be leading those troops? Is that true, sir?

Washington: Sir, as you should know, that is an ongoing investigation. It would not be proper for me to comment on that at this time. Please do not believe all the rumors you hear.

Thomas Jefferson 21803

Reporter: President Jefferson, is it true that you have been holding secret meetings with French representatives with regard to a vast tract of land called Louisiana? Why would you have any dealings with an egomaniac like Napoleon?

Jefferson: Surely you realize it would be a breach of diplomatic etiquette to comment on this. Besides, I personally have no knowledge of any such secret meetings.

Andrew Jackson 41832

Reporter: Is it true, President Jackson, that you are threatening to hang Sen. John C.  Calhoun over South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a tariff passed by Congress?

Jackson: I have made no public statement to that effect. If anyone ever said anything of that sort, I assure you I would be outraged and would go to the ends of the earth to bring that miscreant to justice. Now get out of my way. I have to go the general store. I’m short on rope.

Abraham Lincoln 81864

Reporter: It has been reported, President Lincoln, that Gen. Sherman, having taken Savannah, sent you a telegram offering the city as a Christmas present. Is that permissible, sir? Can a general give a president a city for a present? Wouldn’t that be highly improper?

Lincoln: I can assure you that I will put my top people on this immediately to investigate whether Gen. Sherman ever made such an outrageous offer. I can affirm, though, that I have no personal knowledge of any such telegram. If anyone in my administration is hiding it from me, they will be dealt with. Now, please excuse me; I have a war to win for the people.

Woodrow Wilson 21917

Reporter: President Wilson, now that we have entered this Great War, your administration has pushed for a sedition act that can be used to muzzle reporters. We’re told it may allow the government to imprison and fine anyone who dares to criticize the war effort. Is that true?

Wilson: Absolutely not. My administration respects the Constitution of the United States. An integral part of that Constitution is the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press. Reporters should always be free to pursue a story or express an opinion. Now, what did you say your name is? For whom do you work? Are you in any way involved as a conspirator against your government?

FDR 21945

Reporter: Now that you are back from the Yalta Conference, President Roosevelt, can you tell us what was decided behind those closed doors? What did you, Churchill, and Stalin agree to? Surely you must be aware that rumors are swirling about how much you gave away to the Soviet Union. Would you please comment?

Roosevelt: I can assure all Americans that I would never “give away the store,” so to speak. I can vouch for Stalin personally. He is a great friend of the United States. We want to support him sacrificially—give him everything he needs to help spread his brand of democracy. But why are you seeking information of a secret nature? Are you from Fox?

Bill Clinton-Esquire1998

Reporter: President Clinton, what’s this we hear about the Oval Office being used for rather unpresidential purposes?

Clinton: If that were the case, I would be very angry, even angrier than you or the American people. But as you know, this is an ongoing investigation so I cannot comment on it. Besides, it’s not as if the Oval Office is part of my administration. Yes, it’s in the house where I live, but I rarely go there, and when I do, you can be sure it’s for official business only. I’ve put my best person on the job of looking into this. Attorney General Janet Reno is absolutely trustworthy. I can attest she has followed my orders to a “T” in all those other investigations into the bogus scandals of which I have been accused.

Obamessiah2013

Reporter: With all these scandals swirling around your administration, how has this affected your ability to do your job, President Obama?

Obama: Scandals? What scandals? Job? What job? I have no knowledge of either. I have no knowledge of anything. I am clueless. Where are my golf clubs?

Using the IRS Against “Enemies”

So many significant stories are emerging at the same time, it’s hard to comment on everything. I wanted to be sure to write about the Gosnell verdict on Monday. I freely admit I’m disappointed by the sentence he received: two life terms without parole in exchange for not appealing. As I said in the earlier post, if ever anyone deserved the death penalty, it is Gosnell.

At the same time that the Benghazi investigation heated up last week, we learned the IRS was targeting conservative groups who were applying to become non-profit organizations. An IRS official admitted it publicly last Friday. Any group that had Tea Party in the name or that even spoke about making America better or studying the Constitution, became a target. These organizations had been telling the media this ever since the harassment began in 2009, but no one took them seriously. Now we know they were treated differently simply because of their political views.

The IRS is supposed to be a nonpartisan agency. White House spokesman Jay Carney even pointed to the fact that it has only two political appointees. In fact, the past head of the agency had been appointed by Bush. He testified that nothing of the sort was going on, but now it has come to light he knew back in May 2012. The report on Friday came in the form of an apology.

That apology is far too little and much too late, as far as those organizations who were put through the wringer are concerned. The animus of the IRS toward them was blatant.

Much of this scrutiny was apparently an attempt to blunt the conservative movement’s momentum in elections, both in 2010 and 2012. The IRS became an arm of the Obama administration and campaign.

Naturally, the White House is saying the president had nothing to do with this. After all, the IRS is an “independent” agency of the government. Yet we all know how this works. Previous presidents have been able to use the IRS against their political enemies—FDR and Nixon, for instance, did so. In fact, one of the impeachment articles against Nixon dealt with his use of the IRS to undermine his opponents during Watergate. A president doesn’t have to give anyone a direct order; those in sympathy with him at the agency can easily detect what he wants, something Obama has “joked” about during his presidency—having people investigated by the IRS. One study showed that IRS employees gave far more to his campaign than to Romney’s.

Another feature of this administration is always to push the blame onto low-level employees. In this instance, we’re told some employees in the Cincinnati office didn’t understand the parameters of what was permissible. Yet now information has come forth showing that IRS employees in Washington, DC, were right in the middle of it. But, as far as President Obama is concerned, it’s all separate from his administration. It’s just one big mistake.

I have as much trouble believing that as I do his tall tales on Benghazi.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.