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Ranking the Presidents Since WWII

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If, on Presidents Day 2011, I had to rank the last twelve presidents since America became the world's most powerful empire, in World War II, I'd put them in the following order:

1. Franklin D. Roosevelt: by far and away, in my view, the greatest of all our modern American Caesars -- in wisdom, courage, determination, selflessness, judgment and vision.

In the second tier I would rank these three Caesars:

2. Harry S Truman , who truly stepped up to the plate in April 1945, and made the historic decisions that ended World War II and defined the post-war era:
  • The decision to use the atomic bomb to end the war with the Empire of Japan
  • The Marshall plan
  • The Berlin Airlift
  • The decision to fight back in Korea, tho' failing to stop MacArthur from crossing the 38th Parallel.

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who brought the Korean War to an end, kept the U.S. strong but out of foreign wars (especially during the 1956 Suez Crisis) -- and attempted to find a modus vivendi with the Russians (including the second maddest Soviet emperor, Nikita Khrushchev).

4. John F. Kennedy, who introduced a youthful American idealism that inspired much of the world - and who kept his cool (and kept other cool) during the Cuban Missile Crisis: the closest we have ever come to World War III.

These four, collectively, I rank as the "great Caesars" of the American empire, or hegemony, to date.

The next three, to my mind, fall into a lower bracket or tier: American Caesars who were not great, given their defects, and yet who showed great, or near great, traits:

5. Ronald Reagan: Although derided for his wildly simplistic anti-government, anti-regulatory stance (which produced the S&L scandals), as well as forays into illegal, unaccountable actions abroad (such as arms-for-hostages) I rank him #5 because I have looked at these twelve American Caesars from a global perspective, not a domestic one. Looking back as an historian, I find myself having great respect for Ronald Reagan's consistency: his absolute conviction that the Soviet Union -- the only competing world empire at the time -- was bound to collapse! Reagan had studied economics at little Eureka College, and only managed Cs. Simplistic or not, his consistency of approach to the Soviet Union was, in retrospect, remarkable.

In particular, I think of his speech before the British Parliament in 1981, in his first year as President, when to much hooting and objection, he claimed the "Soviet Union" was "in deep economic difficulty," unable to "feed its own people," and in "decay." "I don't want to sound overly optimistic," he declared, but was more than ever convinced Marxist-Leninism would soon be left "on the ash heap of history."

To the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Howard Baker, Reagan said: "We must keep the heat on these people. What I want is to bring them to their knees so that they will disarm and let us disarm; but we have got to do it by keeping the heat on. We can do it. We have them on the ropes economically." And to prove his thesis, Reagan "added his trademark coda," I wrote: "a little detail, often erroneous, but which brought his point right home, into the family parlor: 'They are selling rat meat in the markets of Russia today.' "

6. Bill Clinton: Bill Clinton I rank highly because, tho' he stumbled in his first two years, both at home and abroad (viz. Somalia and Haiti), he possessed a terrific intellect, huge idealism, and a tremendous willingness to learn, which he did! In 1995, working with America's NATO allies, he ordered military intervention against Serbia, and succeeded in bringing peace to civil-war-torn Bosnia: a peace that, tho' fragile, survives to this day. He also guided the peace process towards resolution in N. Ireland, and even came near to doing the same between Israel and the Palestinians.

7. George Herbert Walker Bush. If ever the age required a steady hand at the American helm, it was in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and -- as Ronald Reagan had predicted -- the Soviet Union police state collapsed. George H.W. Bush was that steady hand, working with Mikhail Gorbachev, and ensuring an amazingly peaceful transition to fragile democracy.

Even when deciding to protect American oil interests in the Gulf, after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, George H.W. Bush worked with allies, and under a U.N. umbrella -- refusing his commanders' pleas to advance on Baghdad, after liberating Kuwait.

Below these seven American Caesars I see a lower tier of honorable, well meaning presidents - men who failed to establish themselves as great Caesars, but at least failed honorably:

8 & 9. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter: President Ford was taken for a ride by his predecessor, whom he unpardonably pardoned; Jimmy Carter was also taken for a ride, but by his successor, Ronald Reagan, over the return of the Iran hostages. Their biggest failing, however, as American Caesars was their incompetence in directing the White House: the imperial presidency, as it has been called. Neither president began with a tough chief of staff -- and paid the price. Their failure of command, or effective leadership at the top -- not only the top of the U.S. but of the world, in effect -- was a reflection of their "nice" personalities, but a travesty of common sense, and an insult to history. It was small wonder they were both voted out of office.

Lastly, at the bottom of the pile, in my rankings at least, I place the trio of LBJ, RN and GWB:

10. Lyndon B. Johnson: LBJ is the most tragic figure among American Caesars. Here was a true "force of nature" as he was described, who achieved something no president had been able to do since the founding of the nation: to get an effective Civil Rights act passed by Congress. Had he decided not to stand for the presidency in 1964 -- a presidency, as he told leaders of the Democratic Party that summer, he wished to relinquish -- he would probably have gone down in history on a par with Lincoln, certainly as Lincoln's heir.

Fearful of Senator Barry Goldwater's whipping up of the Republican Party to declare war in Vietnam, however, LBJ did not retire from the presidency. He stood for Democratic nomination, then for the presidential election in 1964, and won handsomely. However he then allowed himself to pushed into the very war hysteria he had worked so hard to douse. The Gulf of Tonkin episode was trumpeted -- and trumped up -- as a new Pearl Harbor, and in the ensuing four years Johnson posed as a warrior-king or emperor, but one without clothes! From having been the just leader of the western, democratic world, the United States became a failed colossus -- bereft of allies, doomed to defeat, in a war that the U.S. State Department had warned would impress no-one, least of all America's enemies.

11. Richard Nixon. The tragedy of LBJ was followed by the "treason"of Richard Nixon, as LBJ called it. Nixon's lust for supreme power led him to sabotage President Johnson's last-ditch effort at peace with the North Vietnamese in October 1968 - resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands more American soldiers, and untold further numbers of civilians in Cambodia and Vietnam. "The only place where you and I disagree," Nixon told his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, in 1972, "is with regard to the bombing" of North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. "You're so godamned concerned about civilians, and I don't care a damn." Suggesting "we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now," he asked Kissinger: "Will that drown people?" When Kissinger suggested "about 200,000," Nixon was dissuaded. "No, no, no," he told Kissinger. "I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that Henry?"

The White House tapes, recording Nixon's nefarious doings from Watergate to the bombing of Vietnam, made frightening reading once made public on the orders of Congress. Nixon had, it was true, reversed his own, quarter-century-long die-hard opposition to Communist China by embracing Mao -- but he was, by the end of his presidency certifiably insane, in my view.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was among the intelligent, calculating men ever to occupy the Oval Office. Intelligence was not, however, a trait that would characterize the president whom I rank the worst of the twelve American Caesars: George W. Bush.

12. George W. Bush. There is not space today to review the sorry saga of George W. Bush's failed presidency -- a saga which I have recounted in American Caesars. How he took, as his vice president, a Machiavellian monster, and responded -- like LBJ after the Gulf of Tonkin -- with what can only be called the grossest stupidity -- thereby granting Osama bin Laden all he could ever have dreamed of in mounting his 9/ll horror -- is a chapter that was sad for an admirer of the American presidency to have to write. But it is one that has a happy ending: with the election of a new Caesar: a man whose inspiring idealism and calm approach to America's still-leading role in a difficult world may, in the course of time, entitle him to the upper tier of the pantheon of American leaders since World War II -- American Caesars.

Extracted from a new lecture, "Ranking the Presidents," given by Nigel Hamilton to the Friends of the John Jay Homestead on February 18 as first of the 2011 John Jay Lecture Series "Presidential Power and Its Limits," in the Parish House of St. Matthew's Church's, Kotonah, New York.

Nigel Hamilton is author of American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale University Press). He is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston, and President of Biographers International Organization (BIO), whose next annual conference will be held in Washington D.C. on May 21.

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