Years ago I got tired of hearing how “dumb” President Reagan was. An “amiable dunce”, a B actor, dumb as a stump, all hat no cattle, etc. So I read biographies of all the Presidents that preceded Ronaldus Magnus. It was depressing. It seems clear that one other person used the same reading list: Laurence J. Peter. From his research he came up with his famous principle. Examples abound!
We have had one great President and two near great Presidents. George Washington is in a class by himself and he too was not regarded as particularly smart. The two near great Presidents are Abraham Lincoln and the aforementioned Reagan. Lincoln was driven by one objective…preserving the United States. The blindingly incompetent James Buchanan spared no effort to ensure that the Civil War became inevitable. Lincoln famously told Horace Greeley: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.” Happily he both preserved the Union and freed the slaves which I think he knew was the inevitable result. Reagan campaigned and governed with three objectives: cutting taxes, unleashing the economy and bringing an end to the Soviet Union. Three up and three done.
So how should we grade our Presidents? Here are my criteria: (1) short-term policy achievements; (2) long-term policy achievements (determined at least 15 years after they leave office); (3) Reaction to unforeseen events such as 9/11; and, (4) moral issues…honesty, adherence to campaign promises, values.
We must exclude any President who did not serve at least one full term. So out go W.H. Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Warren Harding, JFK and Gerald Ford. Trust me when I tell you that this is a group that walked off the the stage having achieved a well-deserved obscurity. Want to stump someone ask them to name a single accomplishment by any one of these men. As opposed to Mount Rushmore this lot would inspire chalk drawings on the bottom of a rock quarry. JFK is the most over-rated of the bunch but he was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe which counts for something.
There are Presidents who were failures based on the policies of their administrations. The three worst were: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Ponzi Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Note that the three worst wars in US history occurred under these men. Then there have been Presidents who were abject failures because they were manifestly incompetent: James Buchanan, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. When these three men jumped out bed in the morning they were already in over their heads.
Let’s assess the damage done by Wilson, FPR and LBJ. Wilson was a “Progressive” which means: “Well I am so much smarter than you that I should tell you how to live your life.” This is usually an exercise in self-delusion by a self identified genius. Wilson was an avowed racist and re-segregated the government agencies. He was responsible for the passage of the 16th and 17th amendments. The 16th permitted taxation at the Federal level and yielded the most intrusive and most powerful agency in Washington…the IRS. The 17th changed the manner in which Senators were elected. The Constitution provided that US Senators would be appointed by the respective state legislatures and not directly by the people. It was an integral element of the concept of Federalism. Today Senators are rarely statesmen and almost always demagogues: I give you Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid as exhibits A and B. During World War I Wilson demanded and signed into law The Sedition Act of 1918. It was under this horrific law that Eugene Debs was imprisoned for having the temerity to publicly oppose the US entry in the War. Wilson shut down newspapers for opposing his policies and threatened many citizens with jail for speaking out against him. He allegedly had a stroke at the end of the war but I think it may actually have been the collapse of his monstrous ego. F’s across the board.
Roosevelt was also burdened by an inflated sense of self-importance. I had a public disagreement with Conrad Black in the pages of the American Spectator regarding the “intellect” of Roosevelt. I suggested that Roosevelt had a “middling intelligence” (I actually thought I was being generous) whereas Black took the position that he was a powerful intellect. In fact Roosevelt “took the gentleman’s C at Harvard” (meaning that he did very poorly but his name was worth a C). You must remember that 40% of each Harvard class graduates in the top quarter of their class. Then Roosevelt proved unable to successfully complete his law school studies. 100% of the disbarred lawyers managed to achieve at least that modest objective. I recommend that you read The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes which documents that fact that Roosevelt’s policies had almost no effect on the Depression there being a recession in 1938 within the Great Depression. Faced with two options, one that would generate investment and create jobs and one that would make the situation worse Roosevelt unerring chose the latter. His policies directly resulted in today’s bloated debt-ridden Federal government. Our unfunded liabilities are more than 5 times the present GDP. I was asked once why there was no Roosevelt monument in Washington. My reply…Washington is a monument to his ego and incompetence and a mere obelisk would be insulting to his memory. In 1940 he campaigned with the promise that no young Americans would die in foreign countries…didn’t work out that way and when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor Roosevelt immediately sent men and materials not to the Pacific but to Europe. One has to assume geography was not his strong suit. He incarcerated Japanese Americans and did nothing to help the Jews as they were being eliminated by the millions under the watchful eye of Adolph Eichmann. In short Roosevelt fails every test. Failing grades all around.
LBJ was a venal, corrupt man. He was a life-long racist. You must read the brilliant biography of this man by Robert Caro to fully understand his ambition and Machiavellian skill set. My father told me one political joke in his lifetime: LBJ told me in 1964 that if I voted for Goldwater there would be 500,000 men in Vietnam. I did and he was right. Thomas Sowell opined that if LBJ had asked the KKK to design a policy to destroy the black family they would have given him The Great Society. His policies created and have sustained a structural poverty that seems to be incurable. His War on Poverty could have been manged just as effectively by General Custer. To understand exactly how he could abuse the system read the history of his 1948 Senate election. He managed to get a Silver Star in World War II for making one flight in the Pacific. The flight never reached its target and no other person on the flight received a medal of any kind. It was his only action in the war. In short he would do anything to stroke his ego. No passing grade for any category.
More on this topic to follow but remember this as you assess the latest bevy of mediocrities who are pursuing the Presidency. I weep openly.