America has had a lot of bad presidents, many mediocre ones, and a few great ones. As we continue with the endless spectacle that is the 2016 presidential campaign, we thought it might be interesting to do a brief review of a few of our past presidents, each leaders in their own ways; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
President Trump is one of a kind, the first in the history of the United States to gain the presidency without having served in any elected office or the military. He won the election by attacking foreigners, both in terms of immigration and imports. Yet his wife is an immigrant from Slovenia and Melania Trump becomes only the second First Lady to be born outside the US, and the first since Louisa Adams became first lady in 1825. Trump’s election probably marks the biggest upset in the history of the presidency, as his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was better financed, better organized, and far more politically experienced. Trump is a rich Manhattan rich estate developer who somehow managed to establish a political base among the rural working class. Despite having insulted and alienated seemingly every voter base from traditional conservatives to women to Hispanics, he gained victory in the electoral college while losing the popular vote nationwide.
BEST MATERIAL FOR TABLOIDS
Not a bad president in terms of policies, but such remarkably poor judgment with women. Trailed by sexual harassment and rape allegations into the White House, he managed to disrespect the most interesting job in the world by having sex with an intern while conducting official business. He should have been kicked out of office for his choice in women, if nothing else; the most powerful man in the world and he chooses an average looking bimbo like Monica Lewinsky? At least Kennedy had better looking mistresses. Possibly traumatized by having sex a few times with Hillary early in their marriage, leading him to see any other woman in the world as utterly irresistible.
BEST PRESIDENT WHO WAS NOT TOO BRIGHT AND DIDN’T WORK TOO HARD
Remembered for napping in the afternoon, jellybeans, and the glamour he and his wife returned to the White House after the lean years of Jimmy Carter. Reagan helped engineer the economic rebound that lead to the roaring 80s, as well as all the excesses of that period. His increase in defense spending helped lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not a rocket scientist, but the right man for the time. A good man and a good president, even if he wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box.
Was perhaps the most clueless of presidents, at least in recent memory. A good man and an ineffective president, his most memorable foreign policy adventure was giving away the Panama Canal. His economic policies helped contribute to stagflation – a combination of inflation and stagnant economic growth – during his time in office. He lost his reelection campaign by a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Proof that while bad men can be bad presidents (see Nixon) good men can be bad presidents as well.
LEAST DESERVING OF THE OFFICE
Timing plays a role in every politician’s career, but none can be luckier than Gerald Ford, who managed to ascend to the presidency having only been elected as a congressman, thanks to the corruption generated resignations first of Spiro Agnew as VP and then of Richard Nixon as president. He is the only president who was never elected to the vice presidency or presidency. Before being appointed VP by Richard Nixon after Agnew’s resignation, Ford was an unknown congressman from Grand Rapids Michigan. He generally seemed like a decent man, but, then again, anyone would have seemed pretty good following Nixon.
Nixon is that rare human being who can be terrible both in style and substance. Elected as a conservative tough-on-crime Republican he betrayed every principle on which he had been elected. He sacrificed Vietnam to the Communists, opened relations with Communist China, took American off the gold standard, instituted wage and price controls, and established the EPA. His VP, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign due to corruption charges, and Nixon himself would have been impeached if he had not resigned following the Watergate scandal. He ended up wondering the halls of the White House talking to himself. On the positive side, his rise to power shows that even someone with absolutely no social skills and a complete lack of commitment to any ideals can be successful in America.
MOST GENERALLY REPULSIVE AND SLEAZY
Liked to have meetings and give dictation while on the toilet, the usual presidential skirt chasing, and sleazy business deals: He spent his life in politics but ended up owning TV stations in his wife’s name. On the domestic front he helped usher in the “Great Society” programs associated with the idealism of the 1960s, greatly expanding the role of government throughout most sectors of society. He accelerated US involvement in the hugely divisive Vietnam War. As a politician, he was known as an abrasive bully. Bad man, bad policies.
John F. Kennedy
His presidency marked the beginning of the trend whereby the president and his family became America’s celebrities-in-chief. He deserves credit for facing down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis but also ordered the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. A man basically put into power by his father, Kennedy was of the lowest moral fiber possible, and seems, in retrospect, to have spent most of his time chasing women around the oval office. He was deified following his assassination, which just shows, as in the case of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, that an early dramatic death can bring lasting fame to even the most mediocre of human beings.
MOST POWER MAD
In addition to dramatically expanding the role of government, trying to pack the Supreme Court, and jailing his personal enemies, FDR broke with precedent to cling to power until he died in office early in his 4th term. If you love taxes, bureaucracy and the welfare state, then FDR is your patron saint. Otherwise, hard to say anything good about him.
MOST FOOLISHLY IDEALISTIC
Almost all presidents do and say wildly stupid things, but even in that context Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that World War 1 was “The War to End All Wars” stands out. The US entered World War 1 under Wilson after he had won reelection on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”. A former president of Princeton, most things Wilson did sounded better in a college lecture room than in reality. He presided over a lot of progressive legislation and reintroduced the income tax. His bid for a league of nations was rejected by the Senate. Despite suffering a stroke, he unsuccessfully tried for election to a third term.
Born a sickly child with asthma, he overcame his physical challenges through an active lifestyle. He operated a cattle ranch, became a war hero in the war in Cuba, and fought corruption in the New York City Police Department. He became president at 42 years old after the assassination of President McKinley. After his presidency he went on safari in Africa and hunted big game. He later led a two year expedition through the Amazon. His most lasting achievements may be as a conservationist and his role in establishing the national park system.
If Jefferson was the European ideal of a Renaissance Man, then Abraham Lincoln was the American ideal of a truly self-made man who could do just about anything with enough fortitude. Born in a log cabin, Lincoln survived the death of his first fiancé, sister, and mother. His son also died, and his wife went crazy. He failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, lost at least 5 political campaigns, and had total national political experience of one 2 year term in Congress before being elected president. It was never inevitable that the North would win the Civil War, and if the South had triumphed, the world would look like a very different place.
Overrated from a moral point of view, but still brilliant and fascinating. Like Washington, Jefferson was a plantation owner. Like 4 of the first 5 presidents, he was a Virginian. Perhaps the most interesting of the presidents, which may account for the cottage industry of biographies he has spawned. A slave owner and father of one of his slave’s children, he was a spendthrift and indulged a taste for the good life that he could not afford, dying deeply in debt. But, unlike Washington, he was a brilliant man who read widely in a number of languages, constantly toyed with architecture and inventions, and made some truly lasting contributions: most important of all the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the US. He was also principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statue for Religious Liberty, and founder of the University of Virginia.
As commander of the Revolutionary Army, in large part thanks to sheer force of will, he managed to keep America’s rag tag army together and defeat the far better organized, trained, and experienced British army. George Washington was truly the indispensable man; the one man so respected by all the factions at the time of the US founding that there was no real question who would be named president, and, had he so wished, he probably could have had himself named president for life, or perhaps even King. But he relinquished the position after two terms, setting a critical precedent. Yes, he owned slaves, and he was not a great military tactician, but, nonetheless, one of the few truly indispensable men critical to the founding of the country.