Accomplishments of Recent Presidents Worth Remembering

12/16/2011 02:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

In the heat of he moment, it can become difficult to see the contributions that presidents make. Our divisive political nature allows for exaggerating the accomplishments of those presidents we support and minimizing the feats of those we oppose.

But from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush, each commander-in-chief has made lasting accomplishments that warrant our collective praise.

Lyndon Johnson: In spite of a legacy that includes his poor handling of Vietnam, Johnson launched his Great Society policies, which included Medicare and Head Start, he also ended segregation with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.

Richard Nixon: Nixon negotiated the end to the Vietnam War and eased tensions with the Soviet Union. Though overshadowed by Watergate, the full impact of the diplomatic opening to the People's Republic of China may have been difficult to see in the moment, but the benefit of hindsight we easily see the value of the metaphor: "Only Nixon could go to China."

Gerald Ford: Ford noteworthy accomplishment came less than a month after assuming the presidency -- he pardoned Richard Nixon. A decision that may have cost him the presidency in 1976, but it was in the best interest of country. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a vocal critic of Ford's actions in 1974 the said the following in 2001:

Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.

Jimmy Carter: When I told some of my conservative friends that I was writing this column, they quipped in unison: "Does that include Carter?" Carter made human rights part of the American lexicon like no other president. His leadership led to the Camp David Accords and the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.

But Carter's contribution is for the advice not taken. Carter's televised energy speech on April 18, 1977 was one of the most prophetic given by any president. By classifying our energy challenges as second only to preventing war, Carter stated: "The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly."

That was 34 years ago. How might history have differed had we heeded Carter's warning?

Ronald Reagan: Reagan is the most mythicized president since John F. Kennedy. In fact, both the political left and right have been guilty of mischaracterizing Reagan for their own purposes. But Reagan does not, in my opinion, receive enough credit for his deep desire and efforts to remove nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. 

George H.W. Bush: Bush may have had a problem with "the vision thing," but his tax increase in the wake of his "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge was courageous because he placed governing ahead of politics.

Bill Clinton: Though Clinton was the last president to preside over a healthy U.S. economy, his lasting contribution is the leadership he provided to stop ethnic genocide in Bosnia.

George W. Bush: Bush did more than any of his predecessors to combat the AIDS pandemic on the African continent. Bush may have left office with the lowest approval rating in history, but it cannot be denied that his leadership on AIDS saved millions of lives in Africa.

Looking back, without the emotion of the moment, it is easier to see the presidents we supported may not have been quite as good as we perceived nor were they as bad. Maybe we can keep that in mind as we tackle our current challenges.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at