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The Best American Presidents

February 28, 2011 - John Stack
A couple weeks ago, Gallup released a poll on who Americans thought were the nation’s greatest president. In a smack at any pretense that Americans know any history, Bill Clinton and George W Bush both made the top 10 in this list. George Bush above Thomas Jefferson?

What makes a great president? The number one item needed for a great president is some distinct historical event and how they reacted to it. Bill Clinton never had a chance? What great historical achievement happened on his watch? Nothing. How about W? Well, we had the 9/11 attacks – of which he bungled terribly. That’s where Lincoln, both Roosevelts, George Washington and Kennedy rise above all the rest. They took on seccession, slavery, building a new country, world wars. The only reason Teddy Roosevelt isn’t in the consensus top three is there were no incredibly historically significant events that shook the country as much as these others. Nixon actually presided over a tumultuous time in American history, but was of course destroyed by his own lack of scruples. How about as uniters and communicators? Again, the cream rises to the top. Reagan was a great communicator and uniter. Clinton was a great communicator but not exactly a great uniter, but there was no real pressing need. Then there is Lincoln. Who wouldn’t want to go back and hear the Emancipation Proclamation? John Kennedy’s speeches roused a nation. Teddy Roosevelt lived for his speeches and could have won reelection by running as either a democrat or republican. This is why W doesn’t belong here. Poor communicator, known as the ‘great divider’. Bush senior was a much better uniter than his son. Eisenhower was a great uniter who was also tempted by both parties to run on their ticket.

How about decisions or deeds done for the country? Lincoln and Washington stand alone here. Roosevelt probably comes in just behind.Kennedy revved up a nation, as well as his service record before the presidency, but his time was cut way too short. Thomas Jefferson rises here. These presidents also had the right time and circumstances. Teddy Roosevelt probably was the best president not to preside in a war or true national emergency – but his legislative resume is incredible – trust breaking, national forest preserves, the panama canal, workers rights is unmatched. And his record as a colonel and leader of the ‘Rough Riders’ cemented him as giving all for his country.

How about the ‘presidential gravitas’? None represents this quality like George Washington, our very own benevolent Caeser. Although his life cut short by an assassin, today Abe Lincoln holds the place as probably the most revered and beloved of presidents. I’ve stood in front of the Lincoln Monument in awe. As did nearly every other tourist there. I visited the monument in the day and night, and the same reverence and hope pervaded. The first bunch of presidents were all larger than life – Washington, the Adamses, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson. In the last 50 years, only Ron Reagan could probably be put into this group with Ike being the last before him. (with JFK missing out mostly because of his short time in office).

What about other visceral qualities, like compassion? Well W was the ‘compassionate conservative’ ..(oh, how I can make myself laugh…) JFK needs to be up there. Obama is up there. Lincoln again make the grade. Teddy Roosevelt (Nobel Peace prize!)and FDR are up there. Carter makes the list at last.

How about all around honesty and integrity. Well, Nixon is off first. Followed by W, Clinton and JFK (if only for personal moral integrity). Again, Lincoln hits the apex. Washington. Teddy Roosevelt. Carter. Jefferson (even with the Hemming affair).

So, where do I rank them? I think Lincoln is the easy number one. Washington number two. Teddy Roosevelt then FDR and Thomas Jefferson. Reagan , Ike and JFK might squeak into the top ten. Not top ten quality? Clinton, either Bush, Obama (not yet at least, history will tell), Carter, Nixon, or Johnson.


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