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Yglesias Ranks the Presidents

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Too busy with book revisions and class prep and hating snow to do any President’s Day posts of my own, but I thought Yglesias’ ranking of presidents was not bad. Ranking Washington 1st is fully defensible, even if I’d go with Lincoln. Establishing the precedent of peaceful transfer of power was vital (and is much to John Adams’ credit as well). TR is about right at #11; the idea of the man as a great president and great man is really falling for the self-promotional material TR himself played a central role in creating. Among other things, for as meh as Taft might have been, so much of Taft’s bad reputation today comes from TR’s self-serving biography written after their split. LBJ seems about right, as does Jefferson.

Really just two major objections and then some minor ones. I know that among the progressive blogosphere, Grant’s reputation has skyrocketed in recent years but the idea that he was the 4th best president is not something I can buy. I agree that much of the criticism of Grant over the years was Dunning School inspired and I realize that there wasn’t that much he could really do in the face of widespread corruption washing over the entire Republican Party and the creeping return of white supremacy, but he wasn’t a particularly effective president. I’d also rank John Tyler much lower. The man named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State and committed the nation to an aggressive pro-slavery policy to carve out a place for a hopeful election victory in 1844. It didn’t work but it did go very far to making sectional tensions the dominant feature of American politics. I’d rank him below Fillmore, if not Pierce and Buchanan.

I don’t think I can agree about George H.W. Bush as #8, but I’d at least be willing to hear the argument. I’d rank Cleveland lower too, but we are really getting into nit-picking mode at this point

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  • LeeEsq

    I imagine that George W.H. Bush is #8 because of the American with Disabilities Act and relatively competent handling of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait since grouping is for Americans that furthered civil rights or the welfare state policies or competent foreign policy.

    • Warren Terra

      I imagine he’s there because he’s the only person identified with the modern Republican party (in which category I don’t really put Eisenhower) who isn’t dreadful.

      • ScarsdaleVibe

        I don’t think Ford was dreadful, although he served what, half a term, was never actually on the ticket, and even if he had been a brilliant president mentioning him would always conjure images of Nixon.

        • Warren Terra

          But what do you credit Ford with, other than pardoning Nixon and retaining Kissinger, both of which were destructive?

          • sparks

            WIN buttons?

            • wjts

              Some pretty funny SNL bits back in the day?

          • StarryEyedHater

            He inspired one of the best headlines of all time.

          • Emily68

            He invited George Harrison over to the White House.

    • JustRuss

      I’ll give him both of those, but compared to the ACA, guiding the country from the brink of economic collapse, the Civil Rights Act, and Great Society, I don’t think they’re enough to put him ahead of Obama and LBJ. Although LBJ has Vietnam, so I can see giving Bush the nod.

      Not to mention he raised the President who deliberately ignored anything related to competent when it was his turn to deal with Iraq…and the economy…and just about everything else.

      Also what WarrenTerra said.

      • LeeEsq

        See what Tyro said bellow. George H.W. Bush also managed to tidy up the ends of the Cold War as best as possible. It could have gone a lot worse with different decisions by the United States and others.

        • JustRuss

          Good point. That’s the problem when things go smoothly…no one really notices. Still, I’d put Obama ahead, shit was getting very real in 2008, and could have got a lot worse.

          • Davis X. Machina

            How can it conceivably have gotten worse — as it was, we didn’t get the public option!

            • tsam

              First president born in Africa. We have hit rock bottom for sure.

              • Warren Terra

                Almost certainly the first President born simultaneously on two continents and in the middle of the Pacific! And the first President to use time machine technology (so far)!

                • wjts

                  And the first President to use time machine technology (so far)!

                  What on Earth are you talking about? Everyone knows James K. Polk was really the First Doctor.

        • Ronan

          i see here youve noted that

        • postmodulator

          George H.W. Bush also managed to tidy up the ends of the Cold War as best as possible.

          I think Russia could have come out of the end of the Cold War a bit less completely fucked than they did, but I’m not certain that GHWB could have done anything to affect this.

          • Brett

            That probably would have required too many changes in what actually happened. Shock Therapy is rightfully despised now, but they had precious few examples of how to move an authoritarian socialist country into a more liberalized direction back in 1991 (and the ones they did have were either ambiguous – China – or brief as in the case of the Warsaw Pact countries).

        • ScarsdaleVibe

          Certainly deserves kudos for his statesmanship (although the Panama business was questionable, at least it was quick). I’ve read a few thinkpieces favorably comparing Obama’s realist streak to Bush I’s, and since I’m predisposed to that way of thinking that makes me think of him positively.

        • Bruce B.

          I am not in a position to know how much responsibility Bush and his administration bear for unleashing the right-wing advisors of looting and pillaging in the name of privatization and efficiency on Russia. If someone with way more clues wants to recommend some reading, I’ll take it – I’m basically prepared to be the worst, but wanting not to just assume it.

          • Pat

            The Savings and Loan Bailout should have dropped him into a lower category.

        • mark

          Have to agree with the cold war. Comparing what people at the time thought were plausible outcomes to the collapse of the USSR, vs. what we actually got, Bush looks pretty good. And even better if you score it as American self-interest (both economic and political.)

          Rolling so much of the old Warsaw Pact could be rolled into NATO without antagonizing Russia looked like a long shot. And while the people who say German unification was a given might be rate, I wasn’t convinced of it at the time–certainly some assumed we’d need to compromise with Russia.

          Lots he did in foreign policy I still disagree with, but 25 years later his administration’s skill level is higher than I gave it credit for at the time.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Is there any evidence that Bush 1 did anything at all to influence events in Warsaw Pact countries other than get out of the say and cross his fingers?

            People here give way too much credit to American influence. Fuck we bought just about every single weapon Israel uses and we can’t even get Netanyahu to delay a speech a couple of weeks. What makes America is exceptional, but not nearly so much as some people here are making out. You may as well as credit Reagan for the fall of the USSR. Geez.

            • Colin Day

              Is there any evidence that Bush 1 did anything at all to influence events in Warsaw Pact countries other than get out of the say and cross his fingers?

              Perhaps he didn’t do anything, but that might have been what the situation demanded (with a hat tip to Will Rogers).

      • Warren Terra

        Invading Panama and going into Somalia without a plan aren’t disasters on the scale of escalation in Vietnam, but that doesn’t justify them.

        • Lee Rudolph

          going into Somalia without a plan

          I seemed to me at the time that the main plan was to stick Clinton with Somalia.

          • CrunchyFrog

            Definitely, since the invasion took place during the lame duck period.

            • timb

              Wasn’t exactly an invasion

      • ThrottleJockey

        Even including Vietnam, LBJ was light years better than Bush 1. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts alone are worth 10 times more than what Bush did. Throw in appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and even including Vietnam Bush 1 isn’t even in the discussion. Hell, not only did Bush 1 piss all over Thurgood Marshall in appointing Clarence Thomas to succeed him, Bush’s Education Dept tried to ban scholarships based on race! So fuck GHW Bush.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      The ADA was huge, and the bipartisan tax increases, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, and the Energy Policy Act of 1992 were also landmarks in their own ways.

    • Ronan

      dont underestimate the diplomatic skill neccesary to oversee the end of the cold war (dont do it)

      • Ronan

        last president to have serious policy on israel palestine

        • NewishLawyer

          From James “Fuck the Jews! They don’t vote for us anyway” Baker.

          • Ronan

            still, good policy is good policy

        • joe from Lowell

          last president to have serious policy on israel palestine

          Huh? Clinton’s efforts to mediate a peace deal looked pretty serious to me. As it was, he got an Israeli-Jordanian peace deal.

          • Ronan

            I see Clinton as the man who let a good opportunity go to waste, From William Quandt:

            “Clinton’s legacy in the Middle East is a curiously mixed one. He came so close to being the president who helped bring the region to peace that some would give him a good grade for effort. In politics, however, good intentions rarely count for much. Nevertheless, Clinton did succeed in establishing a serious relationship with most of the key leaders in the Arab-Israeli arena; he gave legitimacy to the idea that peace would eventually involve the creation of a Palestinian state; his December 2000 proposals provided a serious and substantive framework for eventual negotiations; and his efforts underscored the centrality of American interests in Middle East peace. …

            The puzzle about the Clinton presidency and Arab-Israeli peacemaking is whether Clinton could realistically have achieved more than he did, especially in the period when Rabin and Barak were prime ministers. The record is not easy to read. There were moments of hope and real accomplishment, including the Oslo Accords and their sequels, the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and the Hebron and Wye agreements.
            Even the unsuccessful Camp David II summit and the Clinton plan were widely credited with having advanced consideration of the most difficult of the substantive issues in dispute. To varying degrees, the United States played an essential role in promoting these steps along the path to peace. Clinton and his team spent considerable time and energy on these issues. One cannot blame him for ignoring the region, especially in light of the many other international crises that demanded attention during his presidency. And yet, there is a nagging sense that Clinton and his colleagues could have done more, especially in his first term. They might have helped accelerate the pace of diplomacy when Rabin was at the peak of his influence, a uniquely propitious time for peacemaking; they might have helped clinch the deal between Israel and Syria; they might have held Netanyahu to the terms of Oslo more effectively; they might have persuaded Arafat to move to final-status talks more rapidly and to live up to his part of Oslo without ambiguity; they might have urged Barak to move more quickly toward reaffirming the Rabin commitment to the June 4, 1967, lines as the framework for negotiating with Asad; and they might have started the discussions on Jerusalem well before the Camp David II summit.

            While any analysis of why Clinton did not achieve more is bound to be speculative to some extent, it is still a valuable exercise to look at the main competing hypotheses. Four come to mind. First, there is the issue of presidential character. Second, one can point the finger at Congress and the influence of pro-Israeli groups. Third, one can examine the underlying assumptions behind the strategy developed by the American Middle East team. Fourth, one can place the blame for the stalemate clearly on the parties to the conflict, arguing that there is a limit to what the United States can be expected to do when the regional players are unwilling to take risks for peace. Let us examine each of these arguments.
            Those who knew Clinton best would frequently argue that his strengths and weaknesses were inseparable. He was intelligent, but not focused; personable, but not loyal; politically skillful, but deeply self-centered; flexible, but without a solid core of conviction. Some saw in Clinton a product of his generation, the result of a troubled childhood, the offspring of addictive and abusive parents. Psychology can only take one so far in understanding a complex figure such as Clinton, but it does seem clear that he had a deep need for recognition and success; was inclined toward compromise rather than principled stands; and was skillful with words and relationships to build broad coalitions of support for himself and his policies. In conducting Middle East policy, the advantage of these qualities was that Clinton had the ability to impress his many visitors—Arabs and Israelis alike—with his intelligence and seriousness of purpose. No president has been more trusted than Clinton by mainstream Israelis, for he was able to persuade them that he understood their unique security dilemmas and their historical trauma. George H. W. Bush’s less empathic personality, by comparison, left Israelis cold. Amazingly, by Clinton’s second term, some Palestinians were also claiming that Clinton was the first president to understand them. This ability to reach across barriers, to appeal to both sides of a conflict, was vintage Clinton, but so was his inability to take a firm stand with either party, especially the politically potent Israelis. Deadlines would come and go, agreements would be broken, and Clinton would find it hard to draw a firm line or to threaten sanctions. Nor would he risk controversy by taking positions that might offend the Israelis, in particular. On important occasions, no doubt hoping to encourage compromise, he would portray positions as more flexible than they really were, which harmed rather than helped the negotiating process. His closest adviser thought he was too prone to play his fallback cards, suggesting once again that Clinton was not a particularly disciplined negotiator. These traits may well have been rooted in his character. The second possible explanation for Clinton’s cautious approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking involves Congress. Without a doubt, Congress was a problem. The Republicans controlled both houses; and pro-Israeli resolutions regularly commanded nearly unanimous support in the Senate and House. Still, the American public mood, while supportive of Israel, was not strongly enamored of Netanyahu. Many Jewish groups, including the famed American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were under relatively moderate leadership. On issues such as expansion of settlements and refusal to carry out Oslo and Wye, Netanyahu could not have counted on much American support if the president had taken a firm stand. True, Clinton would have had to use some of his precious political capital in any real showdown with Netanyahu, but in his second term he could afford to draw down a bit in order to bolster his historical legacy. Yet he kept going to fund-raisers, and in early 1999 was speaking of the election of Al Gore in 2000 as his last major political goal. The permanent campaign would apparently continue. Congress and domestic politics were no doubt an impediment to Clinton’s Middle East policy, but he came nowhere close to testing the limits of the possible or engaging in an effort to ease the constraints under which any president must operate in dealing with Congress. From early in his presidency, Clinton bought the comforting “ripeness” theory propounded by his advisers, notably Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk. This placed him in the role of a facilitator, helping well-meaning parties to make peace whenever they were inclined to do so. As long as Rabin, Peres, and Barak were in power in Israel, this seemed to be a viable stance. Oslo gave it validity. Clinton could bask in the glow of the peacemaker without having to do much heavy lifting. But this way of understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict, so congenial to Clinton, seemed to assume that the United States had only a modest stake of its own; that time was on the side of peace; and that the United States could do little to accelerate the ripening process by adding to the calculus of gain and loss for the parties to the conflict.
            At the point when Clinton seemed to become aware of the need for a more forceful approach, namely during the Wye negotiations, he was already midway through his second term. Here his failure was not so much one of character, but of his learning curve. He remained dependent for too long on an approach that was comfortable but strategically weak. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers who had proved themselves competent but regularly lagging behind events. For instance, only after Oslo was the Clinton team ready to renew ties to the PLO; a more forceful push on the Syria front in 1993 or 1995 might have paid real dividends; the early “benefit of the doubt” phase with Netanyahu seems to have been largely wasted; and earlier efforts to promote Palestinian economic development and efficient and professional security measures might have produced significant dividends.

            The reassuring mantra— “we cannot want peace more than the parties do”—was intellectually empty, a fact that Clinton was slow to recognize. Indeed, the very special features of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, where asymmetries abounded, where power imbalances were so acute, and where American interests were complex, required a particularly sophisticated diplomacy, something Clinton was unable to bring to it and his advisers did not offer. Finally, it is always easy to blame the lack of progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process on the intransigence of the parties themselves.

            It is certainly true that every American president and secretary of state who has tackled this problem has felt frustrated by the rigidity of the parties at one time or another. There is ample evidence, however, that breakthroughs such as the disengagement agreements of 1974, Camp David in 1978, and Madrid in 1991 were able to succeed in the face of very considerable reluctance on the part of Arabs and Israelis. The parties were nudged to do things they would have preferred to postpone. The United States not only helped to reduce the risks, but also tried to sharpen the focus, identify trade-offs, apply discreet pressure, and mount a campaign that peace in the Middle East was both an American national interest and a regional imperative. Had Clinton looked to these models instead of to Oslo—where the parties had indeed come together out of a sense of mutual need—he might have been more ambitious, less hesitant, less prone to equivocate. Then he might have been able to point to an enduring legacy as a Middle East peacemaker. As it was, he came close, but his character and his concepts— and his monumental, self-inflicted distraction during most of 1998—kept him from making an all-out effort when the time was most promising for Arab-Israeli peace. Fortunately for Clinton he was lucky, along with all his other qualities and defects, and Barak’s election in May 1999 gave him another chance to do what he excelled at in the Middle East. He could help persuade the parties to get on with the tough job of negotiation. But in light of the difficulty of resolving the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it required more than friendly persuasion. A real restructuring of incentives through active mediation and the use of carrots and sticks was needed. Faced with comparable challenges, Nixon and Kissinger, Carter and Vance, and Bush and Baker had asserted an American interest and pressed reluctant parties to move forward.70 The results were impressive and provided the foundations for subsequent peace efforts. Clinton, for all his efforts, was only able to bring the parties to the brink of peace, and at that crucial moment, the violence that erupted late in 2000 came close to unraveling much of what had been achieved in previous years. The legacy he had sought, that of presiding over a comprehensive Middle East peace, eluded him, at least in part because of his own hesitant political style”

            • Ronan

              apologees for length and unreadibility

            • joe from Lowell

              An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is never “a good opportunity.” It is always an extremely heavy lift. Even the author of that piece states that getting the reluctant parties to reach an agreement would have required some impressive diplomatic footwork.

        • Pat

          You’re not counting Clinton’s efforts?

      • Sev

        Though for at least a year they hardly seemed to take Gorbachev seriously; remember “drugstore cowboy?”

      • ThrottleJockey

        OK, my friend, what was the American contribution to the end of the Cold War? Other than applause? The Nobel Peace Prize committee thought Gorbachev deserved far more credit than anyone in the West, and I’d have to agree. All Bush 1 did was stay the hell out of the way, which was just common sense.

        • joe from Lowell

          I have to disagree with you about that sense being particularly common.

          He bucked his party pretty hard when he avoided confrontation and worked for a soft landing for the USSR.

        • Ronan

          I agree with joe. Im not trying to overstate US influence, in fact just the opposite. Im saying that Bush 1 understood the limits of US power and was temperamentally well suited to deal with such a momentous occasion. It’s as much what he didnt do as what he did.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Fair enough, I see your point.

    • FMguru

      Bush ran Desert Storm well and competently, but it was his State department’s bad signalling that led to the invasion in the first place (anyone remember April Glaspie’s green light?), plus the aftermath led to a permanent US forward deployment in the Middle East which has been all kinds of problematic, not least on the morning of September 11 2001. His other foreign adventures (Panama, Somalia) weren’t nearly as neatly handled.

      Greatest credit goes to him for handling the winding-down of the Soviet bloc and the dissolution of the USSR in a calm and well-ordered manner, and setting up the basics for the post-Cold War global system. Points, too, for one of the last semi-honest efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

      Domestically, his record is a lot less substantial. ADA is good (but hardly something he championed and ran on), he was willing to cut a Grand Compromise deal on budget and spending (and it cost him a second term), but other than that it’s hard to see what he brings to the table. Entrenching most of the core domestic and economic policies of the previous guy, I guess. Not much of a signature accomplishment.

      • Ronan

        i said all that above you ; ) in fairness, you said it better

      • rea

        Bush I–the Last Sane Republican. Surely that’s worth something?

        • FMguru

          It says more about the people who came after him than Bush himself.

          And I slighted his expansion of the protections for clean air and water during his term. Good for him. I remember nobody thinking they were too exceptional at the time, because who isn’t in favor of clean air and water? Little did we know…

          And I almost forgot – Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign was appalling. He spent the last six weeks of it seriously arguing that Bill Clinton was a Soviet sleeper agent who couldn’t be trusted to hold the reins of power. Just pathetic.

          • FMguru

            Bush’s pardons of the Iran Contra malefactors are another black mark against him.

            His patrician air of noblesse oblige didn’t keep him from throwing red meat to the base, either. Lee Atwater was his right-hand man (his death before the 1992 campaign exposed Bush the way the death of Stonewall Jackson exposed Lee), he campaigned in 1988 on flag-burning, the ACLA, and Willie Horton, and when Rush Limbaugh visited the White House, Bush made a point to carry the man’s bags indoors.

          • ColBatGuano

            Yep, 1988 was the start of the modern slander campaign for me. 8 is far too good for him.

      • calling all toasters

        Greatest credit goes to him for handling the winding-down of the Soviet bloc

        He did get amazingly large cuts in our military, including a lot of bases in the U.S. That’s a major achievement by itself.

        • LosGatosCA

          BRAC probably cost more votes than the tax increases.

          When I moved back to CA in 92 the defense industry and the base closures pushed the state permanently blue before the demographics cemented the change. I believe the unemployment rate was almost 10% statewide, worse in the LA area.

          I took the family down to LA for a day trip on United for $20/person. Black Friday – the stores were empty. Then we drove over to Rodeo Drive. We were literally the only people in many of the shops. We had dinner in Santa Monica – no wait anywhere. I said ‘It was worth the $10 to fly down here.” My wife said ‘Definitely worth the $10 to fly back.’.

          We had fun as a family but the whole experience was depressing. People who said the economy was misunderstood when Bush ran for re-election never traveled out here.

          • FMguru

            1992 was a tough, tough year for California, a perfect storm of body blows to the state economy.

            1) It wasn’t just base closures, it was the end of the Reagan buildup that suddenly dumped a ton of people working in defense onto the street. I grew up in San Diego and watched NASSCO and General Dynamics pretty much implode right before my eyes.

            2) The state’s growth in the 1980s was fueled by, among other things, the spigot of free money pouring out of barely-regulated (but federally insured!) Savings & Loans. Well, when that punchbowl got taken away, it did a huge number on construction and real estate jobs.

            3) The 1992 bust coincided with the bursting of the Japanese bubble, money from which had been flowing into the state like water. No more.

            4) Another big pillar of the state economy was tourism, especially from the Pacific Rim. Well, a national recession and especially the collapse of the Japanese bubble suddenly put an end to that.

            Add in an unusually high number number of disasters (drought, mudslides, the 1989 SF earthquake, the 1992 LA riots, etc.) and the early 90s were just a bad time to be in California.

            Times were so bad they changed the state’s politics – a lot of those defense workers in point one packed up and left the state for what they thought were greener pastures (Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Virginia). These people were overwhelmingly white and Republican and their departure really set the stage for the state’s transformation from solidly red to solidly blue. Add in Gov. Pete Wilson’s decision to blame all the state’s problems on Mexicans (which activated the traditionally under-involved Latino population and made them into staunch Democrats – hey, they’re only the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, what could possibly go wrong) and you have the state the gave us Nixon and John Birch and Reagan and the Tax Revolt becoming completely uncompetitive for the GOP in just a decade.

      • “the winding-down of the Soviet bloc and the dissolution of the USSR in a calm and well-ordered manner”

        Although that Russian guarantee of Ukrainian borders and sovereignty isn’t looking so good these days. At least from Kiev.

      • He did run on it. I’m still trying to figure out his influence on passage.

      • joe from Lowell

        Domestically, his record is a lot less substantial. ADA is good (but hardly something he championed and ran on), he was willing to cut a Grand Compromise deal on budget and spending (and it cost him a second term), but other than that it’s hard to see what he brings to the table.

        The federal Wetlands Protection Act and the Clean Air Amendments of 1990 were huge pieces of legislation that he championed. He is a top-five President on the environment.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Greatest credit goes to him for handling the winding-down of the Soviet bloc and the dissolution of the USSR in a calm and well-ordered manner, and setting up the basics for the post-Cold War global system.

        What, precisely, did he do to “calmly and orderly” wind down the USSR?

        • Colin Day

          Nothing, which his son would not have had the wisdom to do.

          • joe from Lowell

            Let’s expand on that “nothing.”

            He maintained the friendly bilateral relationship that was established between Reagan and Gorbachev. The American government did thousands of things every week in regards to the Soviet government.

            He made soothing noises or kept his mouth shut, instead of taking the bait the pro-Kremlin hardliners kept throwing out in an effort to provoke some jingoistic American response that they could use as a rallying point. For example, refusing to recognize the independence of the Baltic states when there was no chance in hell of Russia letting them go.

            It isn’t so much that he did “nothing,” but that he maintained friendly relations – which is an actual, affirmative policy – against the advice of many Americans who wanted him to spike the football in the Kremlin’s face.

    • elm

      While Bush might deserve to be in “the good ones,” he’s probably more appropriate at the top of the “Just fine” category. Clinton was far from great, but I’m not sure you can put him below Bush, unless you’re giving him serious demerits for the sex scandals (which I wouldn’t.)

      Jefferson probably belongs in the Good Ones category on the Louisiana Purchase alone, as it did shape the country (quite literally.)

      • rea

        And almost as important, he gave up on narrow construction of the spending clause in order to make the Purchase, thus giving us an effective national government.

      • JMG

        To me G.H.W. Bush is the last of the Eastern Establishment Presidents, the last Cold War consensus thinker who despite being a Republican accepted the basics of the New Deal as a foundation of the American power seen as essential for world order (remember the New World Order?). Democrats of that era were stalwarts of the national security state also seen as essential. It’s possible Matt has some sort of nostalgia for that mindset. I’m older than him so I don’t. Yes, he was better than Republicans of today, who believe in the use of lethal force against all their imagined enemies foreign and domestic. Not a high bar to set.

        • CP

          I was about to post that. At the risk of reducing everyone into neat little categories, I’ve always thought that a lot of the good things about George H. W. Bush could be credited to the fact that he was the last president raised in the old school Eastern Establishment wing of the Republican Party and not the batshit insane Western wing that gave us Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, and has completely taken over the party since.

          • CrunchyFrog

            If you think back far enough you’ll find that Bush basically held to Eisenhower positions on pretty much everything until he had to adopt the Reagan line on stuff like abortion to get signed on as Reagan’s VP.

            In fact, there is a bit of unwritten history regarding the dualing factions in the GOP from 1976-1996, which can roughly be thought of as the Rockefeller traditionalists versus the Heritage types who rallied around Reagan. The first battle was over the 1976 nomination, which Ford barely won. The second was the 1980 nomination of Reagan, but even then the traditionalists held huge power as they were able to force GHWB onto the ticket over Reagan’s own objection. (Any chance of reconciliation between the two was lost when Bush’s close buddy’s son attempted to assassinate Reagan early in the first term.)

            The traditionalists continued to hold power for quite a while. When Iran-Contra boiled to the surface the deal which saved an impeachment charge against Reagan was to let traditionalist Howard Baker take over as chief of staff and steer the whole apparatus back to normalcy. GHWB’s nomination, of course, was another victory for the traditionalists, as was Dole’s. It was getting the Bush son to be the figurehead for the Heritage types which ended the power of the traditionalists – though they did make a minor last stand in the last two years of GWB’s presidency after he fired Rove, took away Cheney’s toys, and handed over policy power to his daddy’s old friends.

            • FMguru

              Not entirely unwritten – Perlstein’s latest book covers the replacement of the Eisenhower/Rockefeller crew with the Reagan/Heritage crowd as the center of power in the GOP.

              And yeah, the “soft coup” of 1987-8 (where Baker took over day-to-day operations of the White House after Iran Contra and Reagan’s advancing dementia) has been underexamined. I always understood it to be a quiet, bipartisan deal – we won’t impeach the President and put him and the nation through another Watergate circus, but you have to give up control of the policy levers to trusted establishment types. It’d be nice to see some decent historical analysis of the era and not just first-draft-of-history works by contemporary journalists.

        • efgoldman

          I don’t like broccoli, either, so I gave GHWB lots of credit for that.

          • Warren Terra

            Erik has his own famously strongly held opinions on various foodstuffs, and may appreciate GHWB’s validation of such stances.

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I always thought Bush I was a solid president, and I was never much of a Republican (even when registered as one, like I was in 92). Certainly wouldn’t rank him #8, but definitely top third (so 14 at the lowest). By the time he came the Reagan Revolution was over, and we lost. Certainly given his war record the fact that the Reagan camp was able to paint him as a wimp was absolutely nonsensical. Unlike his deadbeat drunkass son he actually served, and unlike Johnny Eject-o-matic he wasn’t an incompetent pilot.

      In my first ever presidential election, I’m not ashamed to say that I voted Bush over Clinton in ’92. There was something I didn’t like about the New Democrat crap, and I figured Bush was all right-the Reagan Revolution was already solidified, what’s another term? This was before I really paid much attention to the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas is certainly a shitstain on his legacy, and Clinton for all his faults did give us RBG.

    • Brett

      I’d also give George H.W. Bush points for dealing well with the end of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, as well as the sensitive issue of German reunification (it’s easy to forget that Thatcher was opposed to it at the time). The only real foreign policy fuck-up he had was in encouraging the Shiites of Iraq to revolt without back-stopping them in anyways after kicking Saddam out of Kuwait.

    • joe from Lowell

      relatively competent handling of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait

      More than just that, he basically handled the shift from the Cold War to a post-Cold War foreign policy, inventing it from the ground up.

  • wjts

    These presidents created major elements of the American welfare state, forged its foreign policy tradition, and turned the state from an enemy into an ally in the fight for racial justice.

    None of these are things that I think of when I think of the George H.W. Bush presidency.

    • Nobdy

      Right. He’s the quintessential just did fine president. A one termer who didn’t really shake things up in a meaningful way. Unless you count vomiting on the prime minister of Japan, which was pretty funny but not ultimately of much historical consequence.

    • JustRuss

      GHWB’s coalition-building and limited-objective warfare could have started a good foreign policy tradition, if his son hadn’t decided that stuff is for wimps.

      • Lev

        You forgot Poland!

      • joe from Lowell

        I’d argue that it did start such a tradition, and in many ways, the Obama presidency represents a return to the Bush/Clinton tradition after the radical departure of W.

    • joe from Lowell

      If we expand “welfare state” to include the regulatory state, GHW Bush gave us the ADA, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and the federal Wetlands Protection Act.

  • Manny Kant

    Grant has the distinction of being “better on Reconstruction than Johnson or Hayes,” but that doesn’t mean he was actually particularly good. He almost immediately began retreating from Radical Reconstruction, and presided over most of the process of redemption. He also, as you say, just wasn’t very good at being president.

    • MikeJake

      He sicced the army on the Klan. Forget everything else, that’s leading with leadership.

  • sleepyirv

    Grant has gone from underrated to overrated in a short period of time.

    The George H.W. Bush ranking is frankly bizarre. Last “reasonable” Republican President? Harding is better than average? Better than Taft? It’s better to laid the groundwork for the Great Depression than the Civil War? Does poor Herbert Hoover have to suffer for all of Coolidge’s and Harding’s sins?

    I’m left with three thoughts: 1) The office of the Presidency has changed so much 19th Century to the 20th that you seriously can’t compare pre-Civil War Presidents to current ones. 2) They get pretty silly when you’re talking about the ones who weren’t great or terrible. 3) We over-glorify the office. James Monroe always gets a better ranking than John Quincy Adams in these things even though the major difference between them is Adams didn’t get to have the services of Monroe’s excellent Secretary of State – John Quincy Adams. (Sure, Adams failed to get his domestic agenda passed, but do you remember Monroe’s domestic agenda? Do you care?) John Q. Adams was a legitimately great statesman who doesn’t get to be remember as such as most of his best service happened before and after he was President.

    • Davis X. Machina

      1) The office of the Presidency has changed so much 19th Century to the 20th that you seriously can’t compare pre-Civil War Presidents to current ones.

      Baseball has the same problem with the dead ball era.

      • Manju

        It’s football. And it was only one damn game.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Okay, okay, so Grant is 4 with an asterisk. Satisfied now?

        • Grant will get to number 1 if he has to fight it out on this line all summer century.

        • Davis X. Machina

          Next, steroid-era presidents. Like Reagan…

          Totally PED-distorted.

    • Warren Terra

      Harding is better than average?

      Quick: defend Harding’s ranking – heck, defend Harding’s existence – without looking him up.

      Then look him up and try again. It’s not easy. Per Wikipedia, he didn’t blow anything up, he meant well, he ended the Red Scare, and he died young. That’s about it, after you cut through the fluff and the inevitable.

      • Lev

        He pardoned Eugene Debs and hosted him at the White House.

        • Warren Terra

          Yup. I included that in “ended the Red Scare”.

          Harding was apparently a pretty good human being. But I don’t see much indication that as President he did much that was important and wasn’t inevitable.

          • dn

            I suppose he gets some points from Yggy for looking good on civil rights compared to his predecessor.

          • rea

            Harding was apparently a pretty good human being.

            Harding was a pretty face who could hardly tie his own shoes unassisted. The kind of guy who, while senator, missed the vote on the Nineteenth Amendment.

      • Manju

        Warren Terra launches a war on Harding.

        • Warren Terra

          I note you’re snarking on me instead of trying to defend Harding’s high ranking.

          • Hogan

            I think he’s making a War on/Warren joke.

    • elm

      Coolidge is way overrated. Supported “Scientific Taxation,” the precursor to the Laffer Curve; vetoed the Bonus Bill giving compensation to WWI vets; supported the Immigration Act, which lowered immigration in a fairly racist faction and actually issued a signing statement saying he wished it were more racist by also restricting Japanese immigration; and he did nothing while the Mississippi flooded.

      He was decent on civil rights, outside of immigration, and I guess you have to give him credit for trying to outlaw war, but I think I’d take Hoover over Coolidge in a heartbeat.

    • dn

      Yeah, as poorly as Hoover assuredly did, Coolidge and Harding getting off scot-free while Hoover takes the fall for them is ridiculous.

      • TheTragicallyFlip

        Yeah, Hoover only took office in March 1929, pinning the whole Great Depression on him is a lot like pinning the Great Recession on Obama.

        • Warren Terra

          I think he does fairly take the blame (and absurdly take the credit from Amity Shlaes) for his Austerian response, though.

        • mpowell

          I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Your view reflects an almost perfect misunderstanding of what caused the great depression. With Hoover instead of Obama in 2008 we get the GD II. Remember, the GD only started in 1929. The economy continued cratering for a good 3 years afterwards before even starting to bottom out.

          • Salem

            Yeah, pretty much this.

        • ScarsdaleVibe

          Or letting Pierce and Buchanan off the hook and pinning the Civil War on Lincoln.

          The section Harding and Coolidge are in is the “left the country mostly as they found it.” Which is boneheaded even for MY. That only makes sense if you interpret the phrase “left the country as they found it” literally. Yeah, the country didn’t *immediately* go to pieces when Harding died and Coolidge left office, so they pretty much left the country as they found it! I guess Yglesias slept through the 20s in history class.

          And there’s no intelligent reason for Harding to be 10 places ahead of Coolidge. I think these rankings are silly, because there are some atrocious presidents and some great ones, and you just need to fill in the mostly average presidents somewhere. But even still, no excuse for putting Harding in the top third. Massive, idiotic oversight. Completely inexplicable.

          • LosGatosCA

            Actually, I think he buried the click bait.

      • If you call being the target of an immortal quip by Dorothy Parker scot-free. Harding, by contrast, is merely forgotten.

    • joe from Lowell

      Grant has gone from underrated to overrated in a short period of time.

      And Wilson has done the opposite. He’s being put in with the unmitigated villains like Nixon and Buchanan in some lists.

      • sleepyirv

        I have a pet theory that the Bull Moose Progressive tradition is right now ascendant in Left, while the Wilson-Brandies Liberal tradition has been sitting in the back with their corresponding Presidents getting ranked on that basis.

  • Warren Terra

    Whatever happened to the state-by-state politician lauding/skewering exercise this blog once had? It seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    • People got so up in arms about my rankings of Indiana politicians that I found it too irritating to continue with the project.

      • Malaclypse

        Thus ensuring I really will be in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missouri.

      • Sev

        The Failure lives.

      • rea

        I, for one, apologize. I mistakenly thought that the whole point of those posts was for us to argue with you (civilly, of course)over the rankings.

      • mikeSchilling

        You best not dis Leslie Knope.

    • Warren Terra

      the series in question.

      Snark aside, the Indiana comments don’t seem that obstreperous.

      • rea

        There was one guy, “John,” who stepped over the line a bit, I think.

      • timb

        It’s weird, because as a Hoosier, I’m pretty sure all Hoosier politicians post-Birch Bayh suck. Except, for the future President Pence, of course. A genius and a scholar

  • Tyro

    The case for George W.H. Bush seems to be that his foreign policy team managed a smooth transition with respect to the end of the Cold War and collapse of the warsaw pact: the Soviet Union didn’t devolve into civil war, the unification of Germany was deftly arranged, and Russian was able to take over the Soviet Union’s seat at the UN without anyone getting agitated. It is entirely possible that Yglesias is being prescient here and historians in 50 years will mark this as a foreign policy miracle of the end of the 20th century.

    • Warren Terra

      the Soviet Union didn’t devolve into civil war

      Umm, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Transnistrya, Abkhazia, Ukraine, etcetera

      Sure, there’s a question of scale, and of delay – but the former Eastern Bloc has hardly been free of civil wars

      • Tyro

        Sure, there’s a question of scale, and of delay

        Yes. Yes, there are.

        Look, the entire Soviet Union could have become one big Yugoslavia, but with nuclear weapons, and it didn’t. I think that’s something to be thankful for, and claiming that it ended badly because of disputes in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya doesn’t change that.

        The Bush administration had a weird attitude towards Yugoslavia– on the one hand they wanted it to spin apart, but on the other hand, they didn’t like the mess that its collapse unleashed yet didn’t want to get involved or mitigate the disaster. So they left it for Clinton to deal with.

    • Lev

      But the U.S. Government’s role in the end of Communism was not all that great. It was the people of Eastern Europe who liberated themselves, and it was the Soviet government that destroyed itself, ultimately. The main thing Bush did was beg the non-Russian Soviet Republics not to break off from the USSR in Kiev in 1991, advice which they ignored. Admittedly, he didn’t fuck it up, which is something he deserves real credit for. Restraint was exactly the right approach. I doubt any president after him would have had the balls to just let it unfold like that without interfering. But that doesn’t make you one of the best presidents in history.

      I’d probably put him ahead of Truman, though. Saving Europe via the Marshall Plan outweighs starting the military-industrial complex, but he had no domestic policy accomplishments of note. I mean, you could categorize desegregating the Army that way if you like, but it’s a stretch.

      • Tyro

        I don’t credit GHW Bush with ending communism, simply helping the collapse of the warsaw pact and the unification of Germany leave the rails in an ordered fashion. And this is why MattY is giving him a much higher ranking than most people would normally think of giving him.

        • CrunchyFrog

          GHWB didn’t end communism – it had been rotting from the inside for a very long time (foretold in the Long Telegram). In the late 70s CIA researchers determined that the only think keeping the USSR afloat was a steady stream of hard currency from oil exports (why did everything in the latter 20th century come down to oil?). The Reagan administration coordinated a world wide depression in oil prices in 1985-6 to both boost the domestic economy and starve out the Soviets. It worked. They could no longer afford to subsidize the satellites. By the time GHWB was inaugurated regular escapes over border fences in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were being reported. The only hold out amongst the satellites was Erich Honecker of East Germany, and Gorbachev visited him shortly before his “resignation” and subsequent falling of the wall.

          Probably what GHWB did to well is to offer a supporting stance to the former SSRs – basically going against advice of the Reagan-era hardliners who wanted to grab as much territory and assets as fast as they could. While this was a good thing, it was also extremely obvious.

          At the time it did seem a foreign policy coup to get basically the entire world to agree to a UN resolution authorizing the attack on Kuwait. Until that time you couldn’t get any resolution through the UN on anything substantive, but Hussein had completely isolated himself so even Russia and China were on board. There was also an general sense that Hussein would cave before the attacks began, and then a general hope that the deadline would pass, the US would give him a couple days to save face, then he would cave. In fact the attack started the moment the deadline expired and in doing so many countries resolved to never pass such a resolution again.

          Moreover, all the good feelings of the Gulf War coalition collapsed with the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was really just a mirage – a lucky happenstance of an odd transition moment in history, and not something great that Bush had accomplished.

      • LeeEsq

        Truman attempted to get universal healthcare passed. Desegregating the army was a substantial first step in demonstrating the Democratic Party’s interest in and commitment to civil rights.

        • Lev

          Lots of presidents have attempted to pass universal healthcare. Truman was not unique in that. But the story of his presidency is basically recession, labor unrest, Taft-Hartley veto override, red scare, military-industrial complex begins, proto-McCarthyist loyalty oath shit, Korea, scandals, gridlock, and we’re out. To a large degree he was a victim of circumstance, in that he had to deal with the outcome of many things initiated before him. But so did Lincoln.

        • CP

          Truman was the first Democratic president I’m aware of that put civil rights front and center on the Democratic agenda, inciting the first third-party secession of the Dixiecrats in the process.

          That alone puts him pretty high in my good graces. It’s under him that the Democratic Party recognizably becomes the entity I identify with today. FDR did a lot of the work to bring it about (he got the economics and the foreign policy right), but the party under him was still bound by its segregationist roots, something Truman threw down the gauntlet to.

        • Brett

          Eh, from what I’ve heard Truman authorized the desegregation of the armed forces, but didn’t actually bother enforcing it until the Korean War happened. Don’t give him too much credit for it.

  • Malaclypse

    Jesus Fucking Christ on a Fucking Pogo Stick. Eisenhower “created major elements of the American welfare state, forged its foreign policy tradition, and turned the state from an enemy into an ally in the fight for racial justice”? Liberals are supposed to praise the foreign policy of the man who gave us Richard Fucking Nixon, John Foster Dulles, the 1954 Guatemala coup, and the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh?

    Dude ran a hell of a European Theater, and gave a hell of a farewell address. That’s it.

    • Jewish Steel

      I wonder if the some modern Republicans on this list are benefitting from W’s appalling counterexample.

      • CP

        I think they are.

        Quite honestly I can’t think of a single election from 1932 onwards in which I wouldn’t have voted Democrat over Republican, and in which I don’t believe that the country either was better off because the Democrat won, or would have been better off if the Democrat had won. The best you could say for Republican candidates in those days is that they followed the trail the New Dealers had blazed years earlier.

        At the local level it’s a different story, but as far as the presidency goes, I think the country would’ve been better for it if Hoover had been the last Republican president.

      • calling all toasters

        The soft bigotry of low expectations in action.

    • nbeaudrot

      I assume he’s referring to the Interstate Highway system as a major element of the American welfare state. Which, eh.

      He also appointed Earl Warren, William Brennan, to the Supreme Court, plus I believe his other appointments also moved the Court leftward on civil rights, so, yes, he gets credit for advancing the civil rights agenda.

      • Warren Terra

        You could make a case for Little Rock. Federal troops enforcing access to education might count as building the welfare state.

        And without forcing it into fitting that label, it’s pretty important.

      • Malaclypse

        Little Rock and Warren I’ll grant you, but think they need to be balanced against my list. The Interstates did more than anything else to kill off long-distance rail, and I think in a generation we’ll see them as a huge mistake.

        In any event, his foreign policy was a disaster.

        • wjts

          In any event, his foreign policy was a disaster.

          What have you got against the St. Lawrence Seaway?

          • Davis X. Machina

            Lampreys. And zebra mussels.

          • Warren Terra

            Have American governments (certainly, empowered post-WWI American governments) every really considered dealings with Canada to be properly part of foreign policy?

            Heck, did Brian Mulroney?

            • matt w

              I hope Brian Mulroney didn’t consider dealings with Canada to be part of his foreign policy.

              • Warren Terra

                My insinuation was that Mulroney permitted Canadian policy to be dictated from Washington, as if of right.

    • wjts

      Eisenhower proposed and championed the first federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction (Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960). Nationalizing the Arkansas National Guard and deploying the 101st Airborne against Orval Faubus were pretty good ideas. He also made sure the armed forces didn’t backslide on Truman’s desegregation order. And I’ll personally count the establishment of the Federal Interstate Highway System and and a civilian NASA as positive achievements.

    • LeeEsq

      Besides what others mentioned, Eisenhower continued and even slightly enhanced New Deal when many Republicans, especially in the Taft faction, wanted to reverse it completely because they had the chance.

      • Lev

        Probably the best argument you could make along this vein is that Eisenhower was one of the best-ever presidents at staffing. Aside from the Dulles brothers, who he politically had to take, and the godawful Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower appointed a lot of really competent people to major governmental posts and (more importantly) a ton of pro-civil rights judges in the South. These choices bolstered the institutionalized aspects of the New Deal and were instrumental for the advance of civil rights.

    • joe from Lowell

      I think that passage is supposed to be read as though there is an “or” between the items. I’m pretty sure Yggie isn’t singling him out for his foreign policy.

      Although telling the British and Israelis to suck it was really something.

  • Nobdy

    Most of the Obama presidency has been trying to reconstruct the country after Bush completely trashed it, while the Republicans in congress spent the whole time trying to keep him from accomplishing anything. I think that he’s a president who will grow in stature in retrospect.

    • nbeaudrot

      Does history remember which party controlled Congress?

      • calling all toasters

        If there’s an impeachment, yes. It’s kind of a pity the Republicans didn’t pull the cord on that one so history would remember them as the angry children they are.

        • BubbaDave

          They’ve got a year and a half before the next Presidential election…

  • NBarnes

    Nobody is lower than Nixon for me. I hope he burns in hell for the rise of the politics of nihilism this country’s experienced, and I draw it all back to Watergate and Nixon’s total disinterest in ‘democracy’ and ‘ideals’ and ‘freedom’.

    • Sev

      I was wondering if he should be rated so low, and I almost literally got the hate with my mother’s milk- she told me when I was 6 or 7- early sixties- in discussing ’60 election, I think, that Nixon was an awful man. Of course later I got to see this for myself. Doesn’t Nixon deserve any credit for domestic policy achievements of early 70s, environmental laws, etc? As often noted on this blog, he was largely forced into accepting them, but certainly didn’t resist as Reagan later did. And detente, and China.
      And Watergate was a hell of an entertainment and civics lesson.

      • dn

        If you take the Hunter S. Thompson line on Watergate (“He has poisoned our water forever,” “broke the heart of the American Dream,” etc.), he’s the worst of the worst. Otherwise he’s middle-of-the-pack, I’d say. Maybe in the same box with Jackson, Polk and Wilson.

      • joe from Lowell

        Nixon didn’t resist liberal domestic legislation as hard as Reagan did, only because he wanted to keep Congress happy so they’d keep supporting the Vietnam War.

        So even that minimal accomplishment is poisoned.

        • Hogan

          And because, except for draconian drug enforcement, there weren’t any domestic issues he cared about.

  • nbeaudrot

    I suppose HW Bush gets significant credit for (a) happening to be President during the collapse of the USSR, and (b) chose to respond to this by scaling back US military spending and aiding the transition to democracy in Russia and the satellite nations. He gets some credit for signing the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act amendments. I don’t know how to think about the first Iraq war. In comparison to the second it looks like a feat of diplomacy and military restraint, but that’s a very low bar.

    I thought Cleveland managed to accomplish a few things of note.

    It seems to me Truman is getting a lot of credit for … what? Integrating the armed forces? Anything else?

    • wjts

      It seems to me Truman is getting a lot of credit for … what? Integrating the armed forces? Anything else?

      Some stuff that happened in Western Europe in the late 40s and early 50s. Hardly worth mentioning, really.

      • CP

        Yeah. This is my French half speaking, admittedly, but I’d say there’s credit to be given there. Is post-World War Two the only time in history that the United States not only didn’t royally fuck up a postwar environment, but actually built or helped build something pretty damn good?

        • Warren Terra

          Post-Spanish-American-War Cuba was bad, but could have been a whole lot worse. Post-Spanish-American-War involvement in the Philippines was dreadful.

          And it’s not like there are a lot of options: prior to WWII there weren’t lots and lots of wars in which America had any responsibility for post-war reconstruction on others’ territory (as opposed to territory they annexed in the Indian Wars, the wars with Mexico, and the Pig War).

          The list I can come up with is:
          the Spanish-American War
          the Panamian separation from Colombia
          a bunch of mostly limited interventions in Latin America that Americans always forget
          WWI (and after WWI we weren’t really involved in reconstruction of much)

          Even after WWII, there’s:
          Europe and Japan, as cited
          Korea (pretty great reconstruction, but after decades of oppression and poverty)
          Vietnam (we weren’t invited to the reconstruction)
          Laos, Cambodia
          Grenada
          Various Latin American countries we disrupted by proxy and then ignored
          Panama
          Iraq/Kuwait (one is a soap bubble of oil wealth, the other we didn’t allow reconstruction)
          Haiti
          Iraq II, Afghanistan

          • wjts

            The only additions I can think of are China ca. 1850-1941 and Russia 1918-1920.

      • Brett

        That’s counteracted by the idiotic decision to back the French in trying to re-take Vietnam, pissing away any good will he had with Ho Chi Minh at the time from World War 2.

    • Cleveland managed to send the army into the crush the Pullman Strike and have the biggest corporate hack in history as Attorney General in Richard Olney. And crushing labor was pretty much his response to the Panic of 1893.

    • NewishLawyer

      Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley and was pretty pro-Labor.

  • NewishLawyer

    I think Chait has a good point here (is Chait still on a shit list?)

    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/great-and-bad-presidents-only-red-and-blue.html

    Besides the excellent points made above about the changes from the 19th to 20th century, what does it mean to be a great President? If someone is a welfare state loving liberal like me than FDR his going to rank high because of the New Deal and Johnson will rank high because of The Great Society and Truman will rank high because of his programs and vetoing Taft-Hartley.

    But a hardcore Republican or Libertarian is almost certain to disagree just like I would disagree with considering Reagan a great President.

    Also how much credit to Presidents get for stuff beyond their control?

    • Lev

      The thing about Chait is that he’s a known quantity to such an extent. If he’s talking about Israel, foreign policy or “civility”, avoid. Otherwise, he’s usually pretty good.

      • FMguru

        Also Ohio/Michigan matters, most social issues, and anything to do with movement-building and grassroots activism.

        He’s really good at inside-the-beltway stuff, even far-reaching technocratic policy stuff like carbon emissions and child care. Once he gets outside of that zone, look out.

    • CP

      Also how much credit to Presidents get for stuff beyond their control?

      This. Circumstances make the presidents as much as the other way around. We love FDR for obvious reasons, but the Great Depression and the backlash against it is what empowered him to be the transformative guy we know and love. If FDR had been around in the 1880s instead of the 1930s, either he would’ve had to make his peace with the corrupt Gilded Age order and we would’ve hated him just like the rest of the crooks, or he would’ve stayed locked out of the system and we never would’ve heard of him.

      But I think you can judge presidents pretty well by the things they do control. George W. Bush, for instance. If he had raised taxes after 9/11 to pay for his wars, nobody would’ve objected – and he could’ve destroyed anyone who did for unpatriotism. Nobody would’ve objected if he hadn’t invaded Iraq either – it took months of relentless, obsessive campaigning starting right on 9/11 to associate “Iraq” and “9/11” in the public’s mind, and if he’d put that energy into saying “no, Saddam is a dickbag, but a secular one who hates al-Qaeda as much as we do, let’s focus on the people who did hit us on 9/11,” he wouldn’t have paid a price for it. Bush was not a prisoner of circumstances there, he made deliberate decisions that made the country much, much worse off.

    • Area Man

      is Chait still on a shit list?

      Doesn’t have to be black and white. When he’s unraveling conservative nonsense, he’s pretty damn good. When he’s critiquing his own side, he’s very hit-or-miss. His anti-PC screed was ridiculous. However, I rather enjoyed his defense of football as a worthy youth activity.

    • Scott Lemieux

      is Chait still on a shit list?

      Without speaking for anyone else, my policy is still to agree with Chait when he’s right and to disagree with him when he’s wrong.

      • BubbaDave

        But how can you make a #slatepitch out of that?

      • Hogan

        You and your vapid moralizing.

  • hating snow

    You’re dead to me.

    • I know I’m in the midst of it so I might not be thinking straight, but I think this is worse by a good bit to Texas heat in the race of worst weather I have lived with. It actually really gets me down and stresses me out. I am obsessively checking the weather in the hope that my flight to a warm state next week doesn’t get cancelled because of yet another blizzard.

      • wjts

        Some days I just don’t understand a word you say.

      • To each his own.

        I was out in 4F (windchill somewhere in the minus teens) this morning and I was thinking that some snow would really cheer me up. Meanwhile the rassin’ frassin’ forecast for tomorrow has been downgraded from 3-6″ to 1-3″.

        • And because of that I get to teach tomorrow rather than have to cancel class. Which is a good thing.

        • Malaclypse

          At 4:30 this morning, I was climbing through/over/on 6-foot snow banks to try and clear the ice dams that brought water into mini-Mal’s room at 3:00. It was 5 below, with wind chills the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen, and I was soaked before I even got to the ice. Almost everybody local I know has roof leaks, or is suck home with no T, or has spend unbelievable sums on roof clearing. And all this is before the likely massive floods when this shit finally melts. Fuck this snow.

          • efgoldman

            …or has spend unbelievable sums on roof clearing.

            Yup. Northern RI checking in here.

          • Fuck this snow.

            Interest! Newsletter?

            • Malaclypse

              Rule 34. Just be careful what happens to your extremities, if you know what I mean.

              • The Temporary Name

                Don’t eat the white snow!

        • ScarsdaleVibe

          When I’m freezing my ass off, the last thing I want is snow, or ice, or slush. Or to shovel or put on boots. With that comes salt which gets all over my goddamn pants. What’s wrong with you? You enjoy that shit? Unbelievable. You sound like the Floridians in my family who come up for a weekend in the winter and are disappointed when it doesn’t snow.

          Any hostility comes from hating winter and a shitty week, not a personal grudge.

          • When I’m freezing my ass off, the last thing I want is snow

            If I’m going to be cold, I might as well get some pleasure out of it.

            What’s wrong with you?

            I would provide an answer to that question, but this blog is too small to contain it.

      • Sev

        In this context, we should perhaps not forget JFK’s inaugural.

      • efgoldman

        I am obsessively checking the weather

        I have gotten OCD about it. The first thing I do when I log into any computer is open a tab for Weather Underground, leave it open, and check it frequently.

        • Warren Terra

          The first thing I do when I log into any computer is open a tab for Weather Underground, leave it open, and check it frequently.

          and, we come back to Bill Ayers.

          (seriously, though: how creepy and misbegotten is the name of that site?)

          • Vance Maverick

            Yeah, I think they picked it for a radical-chic resonance without imagining that there was real un-ironizable history there, like appropriating Soviet-era poster design.

            However, I don’t find it as creepy and misbegotten as naming a major retail outlet Banana Republic.

        • shah8

          I have to be OCD about checking the weather. Gotta lemon, well, bush in the ground that’s gonna have to get both covered and heated for as long as we have warm air pushing into Alaska and Greenland, and thus pushing cold air down on our sorry asses.

      • joe from Lowell

        Yeah, this is ridiculous. This is not an ordinary winter.

      • BubbaDave

        Texas heat is a lot better than blizzards. The only problem, speaking as a resident of Dallas, is that it comes with a large assortment of Texans.

  • Bitter Scribe

    I have to quarrel with ranking John Adams so high. He was a thin-skinned pill who pissed all over the Constitution with his Alien and Sedition Acts.

  • Murc

    The Grant thing puzzles me. Grant’s rehabilitation as a General is entirely justified and long overdue. His rehabilitation as a President is ludicrous and sad.

    Nobody should be lower on this list than James fuckin’ Buchanan. Say what you will and Nixon and GWB, they didn’t actively try and destroy the nation. James Buchanan spent the last three months and change of his term willfully abetting the dismemberment of the country he’d been elected to lead.

    This is also why John Tyler should be much lower; he holds the rare distinction of being the only President to actually commit genuine, bonafide treason. Even if he didn’t do that while in office, it should still contribute to his ranking.

    • CP

      I recently discovered Adam Cadre’s blog, which has been working its way slowly through presidents from Washington onwards. His take on U. S. Grant was interesting: that the guy was a failed businessman with a ton of insecurities, who idolized the people who had succeeded in business (the 1%) and stacked his administration with such people, with predictable results. Beginning the tradition of the Republican Party as being, first and foremost, Wall Street’s political action committee, a tradition that’s continued uninterrupted since then.

      • StarryEyedHater

        This is essentially the take on his presidency that I’ve come out of some recent biographies with FWIW.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      i read a biography of grant some years ago (mc feely? not sure) that made a stab at trying to build up his presidency but i didn’t find it convincing. apparently i missed a trend there

    • The Grant thing puzzles me. Grant’s rehabilitation as a General is entirely justified and long overdue. His rehabilitation as a President is ludicrous and sad.

      I remember as a kid in the 80s, I used to generally see him down in the bottom 3 with Nixon and Harding. I certainly think rehabilitating his reputation to place him ahead of at least the presidents that paved the way for the Civil War is entirely appropriate. I can’t see going all the way to the top 5 or anything, but from where I recall him being, some rethinking was needed.

    • royko

      He’s a distant cousin of mine, and for that and a few other reasons, I have a great deal of affection for the man. I could maybe buy an argument that he doesn’t deserve to be at the bottom, but putting him at #4 is decidedly slatepitchy.

      • StarryEyedHater

        The case seems pretty solid that the man was unjustly slandered by the historiography for a long time. His presidency was certainly deeply flawed, but a more balanced assessment of it that takes note of the challenges he faced and the genuine good he tried to do is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

        Yglesias is still being extremely *ahem* Yglesiasian by ranking him in the top 5 though.

    • Brett

      I still think Johnson is worse. Buchanan’s crime was that he was incompetent and sat on his hands while the South revolted – Johnson deliberately chose to try and piss away any gains from the war and effectively sell out any African-Americans in the South back into effective slavery via the black codes. He also heavily undermined any effort to distribute land and property seized in the war to the freedmen.

      • dn

        This. Johnson had it in his power to join the right side and actually accomplish something constructive, with the backing of the most radical Congress in history. He deliberately chose to do exactly the opposite. Johnson is the worst.

        • Brett

          Exactly. If George Washington and Lincoln were perhaps the right men at the right time for their times, Johnson was quite possibly the worst. The post-Civil War US needed a leader who could force the break-up of southern plantations, major land reform in the South, and punishment for the principal parties who started the revolt while re-integrating the South into the US such that they never revolted again.

          They got Johnson.

          • shah8

            Given that land reform was the basis of the economic vitalization of Taiwan and South Korea, it’s a pretty good chance that simply out of the would be creation of white middle class wealth, that black people would have had more crumbs and better welfare, and more rights.

    • rea

      the only President to actually commit genuine, bonafide treason

      If you don’t count Nixon (sabotaging the Paris Peace talks) and Reagan (the Iranian hostage crisis–conspiring with the Iranians against Carter)

  • ScarsdaleVibe

    Clinton deserves to be ranked a little lower. Although presiding over the mid to late 90s economy and immediately preceding one of the worst presidents in American history definitely makes him look good, I think it subconsciously inflates his ranking (not that I can read MY’s mind). I’d keep him in the same grouping MY does, of course, but I’d put him down around Quincy Adams. He deserves middle third, not top third.

    Also, this:

    But all basically left the country in the same fundamental shape that they found it.

    Harding is pretty conspicuously misranked. Including Harding in that category is fucking hysterical. Literally the only reason you can say that about him is because he dropped dead in the middle of the 20s! Also, Teapot Dome should drop him several places. There is no intelligent reason to put Harding 10 places ahead of Coolidge.

    And it’s silly to put Harding ahead of Jefferson (who is overrated, but still) and Madison.

    But he didn’t fall prey to overrating JFK at least.

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I do think Madison deserves not inconsiderable demerits for his handling of the War of 1812, but I’d still put him and Monroe ahead of Harding.

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I should also say that while I’m no great fan of Kennedy’s, putting him at 29 ranks him at the top of the bottom third, which seems a wee bit too low to me.

      Putting Gerald fucking Ford, Coolidge, and Harding ahead of JFK seems so obviously wrong I don’t even know what to say. Jimmy Carter also should not be ahead of JFK. Zachary Taylor is a little puzzling at 20, but I guess that’s a function of being in office barely over a year.

      • Murc

        Gerald Ford deserves to only barely be above Nixon. It was Ford who enabled the completely consequence-free excesses of the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II Presidencies, by establishing the tradition that the country and its leaders were too weak and cowardly to see the law enforced on important people. This is a tradition continued to this day and upheld even by people like Barack Obama.

        • dn

          Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.”

        • joe from Lowell

          Wait wait wait…”establishing?” You think Gerald Ford established the tradition of the powerful getting breaks from the government?

          OK, how many Confederates were hung?

          • Colin Day

            Henry Wirz

            OK, he wasn’t that high powered.

    • genedebien

      I think he rated JFK a bit low. For managing through the Cuban Missile Crises and getting the Test Ban Treaty, he should be in the top half at least, if not the top third. Add in his executive orders mandating affirmative action for government contractors and prohibiting discrimination in federally supported housing, the assignment of federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders, sending troops to Ole Miss, and federalizing the Alabama National Guard to force Wallace to allow Vivian Malone and James Hood to enroll in the University of Alabama, and you can make a case that, though he was cautious, he was intent on pushing civil rights. He should also get points for appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Second Circuit, which, arguably, made it easier for Johnson to appoint him to the Supreme Court.

      Though his management of Vietnam has some troubling points (support for the Diem coup), he didn’t fall to the Joint Chiefs’ demands for escalation in Vietnam. And he resisted their calls for an American military reaction in Laos. These do get balanced by his horrible policies in Latin America in general.

      And I do think that his decision to challenge NASA to go to the moon “in this decade” helped create an engineering and technological foundation that had long term positive consequences for the US economy.

      So I’d put him higher up in the “They did fine” group. Maybe around 14 or 15. Certainly not lower than Jimmy Carter.

      • joe from Lowell

        After decades of Baby Boomers severely overrating JFK, there has been a welcome correction in how he has been evaluated. Sometimes, though, people overcorrect and give him too little credit. Especially people like Yglesias who have a grudge against Baby Boomer culture.

      • Brett

        The problem with the Cuban Missile Crisis is that it was a crisis partially of his own creation. Khrushchev went ahead with the placement of missiles in Cuba because he thought Kennedy was a bully who would back down when confronted, after Kennedy’s disastrous meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna after spending a campaign talking tough. Kennedy only gets partial points for it.

        • genedebien

          There’s no way I’m going to lay Khrushchev’s mistaken calculation at Kennedy’s feet. Khrushchev gambled on an easy fix to a difficult problem: he thought he could “correct” the imbalance of strategic nuclear power by placing missiles in Cuba. He also thought that this would teach the Americans what it was like to live with nuclear weapons “next door.” The miscalculation was all Khrushchev’s.

          Kennedy gets serious points for having the courage to say “no” to the calls for a surprise air-strike followed by an invasion and for plotting a course of action that always allowed Khrushchev a way out.

          One could argue that Kennedy’s acquiescence to the Bay of Pigs fiasco helped set up the Cuban Missile Crises. But, one would also have to acknowledge that Kennedy learned from that failure, and the lessons he learned allowed him to make the right choices in the Missile Crises.

      • joe from Lowell

        Though his management of Vietnam has some troubling points (support for the Diem coup)

        According to the career foreign service officer/ambassador who taught me about Vietnam in college (and who served in the embassy in Saigon), Lodge kept Kennedy in the dark about the coup until he could present him with a fait accompli. It’s not a case of Kennedy “supporting” the coup like Eisenhower did in Honduras or Nixon did in Chile.

        • genedebien

          I think that was the old school of thought, but the current scholarship (based on declassified documents and tapes of meetings between Kennedy and his advisors) is that Kennedy was deeply involved and did support the coup:

          The documentary record is replete with evidence that President Kennedy and his advisers, both individually and collectively, had a considerable role in the coup overall, by giving initial support to Saigon military officers uncertain what the U.S. response might be, by withdrawing U.S. aid from Diem himself, and by publicly pressuring the Saigon government in a way that made clear to South Vietnamese that Diem was isolated from his American ally. In addition, at several of his meetings (Documents 7, 19, 22) Kennedy had CIA briefings and led discussions based on the estimated balance between pro- and anti-coup forces in Saigon that leave no doubt the United States had a detailed interest in the outcome of a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. The CIA also provided $42,000 in immediate support money to the plotters the morning of the coup, carried by Lucien Conein, an act prefigured in administration planning Document 17).

          This from JFK and the Diem coup by John Prados, which can be found at the National Security Archive.

          • Ronan

            do you think kennedy would have escalated the vietnam war ? sorry if you answered this above and i missed it.(i know you say – ‘he didn’t fall to the Joint Chiefs’ demands for escalation in Vietnam. And he resisted their calls for an American military reaction in Laos’ – but that’s not the same as he
            wouldnt have)
            My understanding of it is the same (more or less) as dilan’s below..ie yes he would have.

            • genedebien

              I don’t know. You can read the tea leaves of evidence reasonably in either direction. But in the end, we simply will never know.

              It seems to me that in ’64 and ’65, JFK would have faced many of the same – if not exactly the same – problems Johnson faced in Vietnam: a massive buildup of Northern troops in the South, a Northern government determined to win through military means and absolutely disinclined to negotiate, a weak and ineffective ARVN, and a corrupt, unpopular, incompetent, nearly worthless Southern government on the verge of collapse. And, because so many senior members served in both administrations, JFK would have faced these problems with mostly the same advisers. So it seems fair to think that JFK would have been presented with the same advice and options that Johnson was given.

              The key differences though are in the domestic political situations that they might have faced and in the personalities of the men themselves. In ’65, JFK would have been in his second term and an unpopular decision (withdrawal and disengagement) might not have been so costly for him. He wouldn’t be facing re-election and his cold-warrior, anti-communist bona fides had been settled by the successful conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crises. Since it seems unlikely that JFK would have been as aggressive as Johnson in passing civil rights legislation or would have pushed the “Great Society” programs through Congress, JFK might not have faced the same pressure Johnson faced to placate conservative democrats with strong military action in Vietnam.

              Then there are just the differences in the men themselves. I think it was Mac Bundy who summed these up by saying JFK never wanted to make a stupid decision but LBJ never wanted to make a weak one. Certainly, one can see in LBJ’s initial advice on Vietnam and in the Cuban Missile Crises a tendency to favor force: “In Texas, we know the only way to deal with a rattlesnake is to cut off his head.”

              So it seems possible to me that JFK might have taken a more measured path in Vietnam and would have had the political ability to make the hard decision to let South Vietnam go.

              But we’ll never know.

      • dilan

        “Though his management of Vietnam has some troubling points (support for the Diem coup), he didn’t fall to the Joint Chiefs’ demands for escalation in Vietnam.”

        There were 700 true advisors in Vietnam when JFK took office. There were, depending on who you ask, 16,000 or 25,000 US combat troops fighting the Vietnam War (and which Kennedy lied through his teeth and called “advisors”, a whopper so big that Bob Hope called him out on it), when Kennedy was shot.

        Of course he escalated in Vietnam. He believed in the whole thing.

        • genedebien

          I was referring to Kennedy’s refusal to deploy six divisions of ground troops (about 200,000 men) as suggested by McNamara and the Joint Chiefs in late ’61 or early ’62. I also recall – sketchily and with some uncertainty – that he refused to allow air sorties above the DMZ. Johnson’s escalation of the war included both the commencement of the bombing of the North and the introduction of US ground troops, ultimately reaching more than 500,000. This is a commitment on a vastly different scale than the 16,000 advisors/ troops JFK accepted.

          JFK’s policy was a contradiction of goals – simplistically summarized as “No communist victory in the South at any cost, but no US ground troops” – that was bound to implode sooner or later. And we’ll never know which prong JFK would have ultimately selected, and so whether he ultimately “believed the whole thing.”

  • I’ll be the one to say I think he rated Harrison too low. Actually, the entire “They Did Fine” section feels a little bit arbitrary (unsurprisingly).

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I mean, that’s sort of the problem with these lists. You have the great, consequential presidents (like FDR, Lincoln, unless you’re a glibertarian), the consequential but decidedly not great (Polk, Reagan), the atrocious (Pierce, Buchanan, the first Johnson, Bush the Lesser).

      And then what? You need to fill in some of the spaces between them. So you’re stuck trying to figure out the relative ranking of Arthur versus Van Buren versus Taylor. I mean, you *can* rank most of them intelligently, I think. But the problem is once you use up your heroes (FDR, Lincoln) and villains (Buchanan, Nixon, Bush), you’re left with a lot of relatively obscure, middle-of-the pack presidents, and unless you’re a history buff you just don’t have the knowledge to make it interesting or non-arbitrary.

  • Brett

    Andrew Johnson definitely needs to be at the bottom. Buchanan is a close second for fiddling while the South seceded and seized a ton of federal armories and forts, but Johnson deliberately tried to piss away the fruits of the Civil War and let the southern states effectively re-enslave black people after the fact. You don’t get worse than that in American history – it’s no wonder he came so close to impeachment and removal.

    There’s two unfortunate things about that era. One of them was that Johnson wasn’t taken down by Booth’s conspiracy at the same time as Lincoln. The other was that the Senate President Pro Tempore was ahead of the House Speaker in the line of succession back then, so even if he had been, we would have gotten a moderate in the form of Lafayette Foster instead of the radical Republican Schuyler Colfax (who would have been great until the Credit Mobilier scandal breaks). Still probably an improvement over Johnson, though.

    EDIT: You know what else is a pity? That Garfield died so soon into office. The guy was a strong supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, a supporter of civil service reform, a supporter of a bimetal currency instead of gold-buggism, and so forth.

    • searcher

      It depresses me to think that Booth may have successfully prevented the South from losing the Civil War.

      • Davis X. Machina

        +1. Look at the Senate majority today, and the positions they hold by default, and ask yourself ‘Who won’?

        • Lee Rudolph

          Oh, come on now. If they’d won, those shiftless darkies would be sucking up even more of that sweet, sweet Secret Special Welfare—free lodging! occasional food!! plenty of health-giving exercise!!! none of those family responsibilities that they’ve never been equipped to discharge properly!!!!—than they did before the War of Northern Aggression.

    • CP

      Johnson deliberately tried to piss away the fruits of the Civil War and let the southern states effectively re-enslave black people after the fact. You don’t get worse than that in American history – it’s no wonder he came so close to impeachment and removal.

      It’s funny; by the sound of it, Johnson was the original Nixon. A guy who came into office right after a tumultuous period that had improved the rights of black people, and instead of building on that, chose to demonize them, throw the door wide open to reconciliation with Southern Democratic factions, encouraged the backlash against blacks and white radicals, and generally laid the foundations of problems that have plagued us ever since.

    • mikeSchilling

      Garfield was also the only president to discover a new proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

      • calling all toasters

        “Disappointed office seeker,” my ass– he was shot by one of those crazy Pythagoreans!

        • mikeSchilling

          “Can’t square the circle, my ass!”

      • rea

        Hard to forgive Garfield for screwing up Chickamauga

        • Davis X. Machina

          Team effort, that one.

          Everybody-but-Thomas, basically.

        • Colin Day

          Screwing up Chickamauga?

          Would the Union have been better off with Rosecrans instead of Thomas in command?

      • matt w

        That’s a nice proof! I think that’s going to be my go-to proof from here on out, on the rare occasions where I need a go-to proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

  • ScarsdaleVibe

    I would put Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan below Bush II. As awful as Shrub was, the disaster that those three precipitated was way worse.

    And as bad as Hoover was, I would put Bush below him. Unlike Bush II, I don’t think there was any malevolence in his disastrous policies. Intent still matters a little bit to me.

    Also, as much as Hoover deserves all the scorn he receives for doing jack and shit about, and in fact exacerbating, the Great Depression, wherever he is, Harding and Coolidge should not be far behind. No reason why Hoover alone should be left holding the bag for the GD.

    • Warren Terra

      I would put Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan below Bush II. As awful as Shrub was, the disaster that those three precipitated was way worse.

      I would argue that Bush II has to bear a lot more blame for creating the awfulness, for no discernible or defensible reason, which goes a long way to counteract the imbalance you point out.

      • ScarsdaleVibe

        Fair point.

      • Manny Kant

        Pierce purposefully reignited the slavery expansion issue because his administration was otherwise at a loss to imagine any policies to pursue.

        I also don’t think it’s fair to argue that Fillmore precipitated the Civil War. He came into a crisis situation, and pushed through a fairly unpopular compromise (which had parts that were extremely morally objectionable, admittedly) that more or less resolved the issue in the short term. I suppose we can say he should have held firm to Taylor’s policy, but what are the likely results of that? I certainly think that Fillmore worked to move the US away from a horrible civil war, unlike his two successors who both deliberately moved it towards one.

    • D.N. Nation

      If there’s a wingnut parallel to Internet Liberals’ reclamation project for Grant’s presidency, I think it’s for Franklin Freaking Pierce. I don’t have any links at the ready, but I’ve seen in recent years a few chimp-with-a-monocle bloated “intellectual”-types taking examples of Pierce being generally apathetic about improving *anything* and declaring them tomahawk dunks of small-government restraint. Franklin Pierce. They like Franklin Pierce.

  • mikeSchilling

    Wilson seems overrated, given that he was the most overtly and consequentially racist president since Andrew Johnson. I’d put him in with the Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan trio.

    • dn

      I think he tends to coast on his historical reputation as the granddaddy of liberal internationalist ideology. But yeah, he was really pretty terrible. Not just on race, but also on civil liberties; the Espionage and Sedition Acts were (and are) among the more atrocious laws in US history.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And he appointed the worst Supreme Court justice of the 20th century (although, to be fair, he also nominated Brandeis.)

      • Cheerful

        On the other hand he had other, progressive legislation, e.g. federal reserve which broke reliance on private banks and anti-trust. And I am not entirely sure getting us into WWI was a bad idea. You can game out various ways but the strong possibility of a German conquest of Western and eastern Europe was not going to be good thing. (And that’s not taking into account what indirect effects his championing of democratic movements may have had in Europe and elsewhere, post war.

        • rea

          not taking into account what indirect effects his championing of democratic movements may have had in Europe and elsewhere, post war

          Snubbed Ho Chi Minh, though. Bad idea.

        • Brett

          Germany wasn’t going to conquer western and eastern Europe in World War I if they won the war. They just would have force concessions on France and Great Britain, probably in the form of money and colonial territory. It’s not like Germany annexed France when they whomped them in the Franco-Prussian War (complete with the Prussian Army seizing Paris to force the surrender).

          • genedebien

            Well, to be fair, the Germans did take a big chunk of Alsace and a significant piece of Lorraine away from France in the Franco-Prussian war.

          • Manny Kant

            The German plan was to turn Belgium into a dependent satellite state and to annex the French iron fields in Lorraine. They would have also forced at least Belgium, and possibly France as well, into their Mitteleuropa customs union

      • rea

        Odd to downgrade Wilson for the Espionage and Sedition Acts, while ranking John Adams highly.

  • MDrew

    I don’t know how to make sense of LBJ’s ranking except to think that Yglesias is basically not considering foreign policy in that one instance.

    It’s fine to make all the unfavorable comparisons of Obama to LBJ on the domestic side, saying that, sure Obama did some stuff, but LBJ was The Master (ignoring that what Obama accomplished he had to do so after pulling the country out of a nosedive that threatened catastrophic harm).

    But LBJ was handed one small (for the U.S.) war and made it into a presidency-destroying, nation-dividing, generation-defining fiasco; Obama was handed two large, losing wars and made them into two smaller, long-term losing but stabilized wars whose drain on resources has been contained.

    To some extent I’m just saying that if you’re going to put Obama and LBJ right next to each other (and it makes sense to raise a comparison between the two), it’s still saying a lot to put LBJ ahead of Obama on an overall rather than a domestic achievements scale. Again, even if they’re right next to each other.

    But I’m more saying that, for all Johnson’s accomplishments, a ranking like this really does to me suggest the extent to which young liberals are willing to stuff Vietnam down the memory hole rather than deal with its policy, political, and societal consequences. (Except of course for Nixon’s duplicity and Kissinger’s war crimes – those are keenly remembered.) Johnson deserves to be further down on the list, maybe in a category of his own somewhere in the middle (High Highs and Low Lows).

    Obama’s domestic accomplishments were not as great as Johnson’s, but his foreign policy will in time be seen as prudent on the level of a GHW Bush, and he deserves his ranking near the bottom of the very good-not great.

    • BubbaDave

      Any plausible President in 1964-1968 would have continued escalating Vietnam into a “presidency-destroying, nation-dividing, generation-defining fiasco.” Very few would have been willing to lose the South for a generation in pursuit of civil rights. Vietnam was a horrific, criminal blunder — but it was a bipartisan blunder with wide support across the board.

      Without Vietnam, LBJ is fighting for a top-3 spot. Even with, he’d be #4 on my list.

      • MDrew

        That response, which I know is also Scott’s, is a complete cop-out. For no other disasters in any other presidency do we give this kind of counterfactual pass about what any other president might have done. It’s unique to liberals wanting to preserve Johnson’s place. And it’s just not what this discussion is about. It’s about what they did; for no other presidents do we talk about what nearly anyone else might have done. Others might have done much of what we give the greatest credit for in these discussions. We still give the credit because that’s who did it.

        And… top 3 without Vietnam is insane. I’d allow he’d be in the conversation for top 5 without Vietnam.

      • Brett

        That one ultimately goes back to Truman. If Truman had done the smart thing and not backed France in their quixotic attempt to re-conquer Vietnam, then there wouldn’t be a pattern of increasing intervention with Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ.

        Without Vietnam, LBJ is definitely in the Top 5. Hell, without Vietnam he probably would have been re-elected in 1968.

        • calling all toasters

          How many times have we gotten involved in a military or quasi-military (e.g. CIA) action since WWII? And yet Vietnam stands alone as a disaster because instead of getting out we escalated beyond any reasonable measure. And that’s on Johnson.

          BTW, I see the consensus is still down on Kennedy, but at least he stood up to the militarists when it counted.

          • Manny Kant

            Whenever anyone says that any president would have done exactly the same as LBJ on Vietnam, I’m reminded of the fact that LBJ was the hawkiest of all the hawks in the Cuban Missile Crisis while Kennedy stood up to his hawkish advisors and worked out a deal. I really do think that Kennedy would have reconsidered Vietnam well before it got as bad as it did under Johnson.

            • Brett

              Kennedy was already stuck with increasing escalation and the instability from the Diem coup when he was slain, while at the same time North Vietnam was escalating. Sooner or later, the North was going to try a Tet Offensive-style operation into the South too. I’m not sure where he’d find a point that he could stop and reconsider involvement.

          • BubbaDave

            And yet Vietnam stands alone as a disaster because instead of getting out we escalated beyond any reasonable measure.

            At the time of Vietnam, we had never lost a war in the 20th century. We were a superpower, and they were a Third World country. It was ridiculous on the face of it to imagine that we might lose.

            The reason that we didn’t escalate after Vietnam wasn’t because every other President was wiser than LBJ — it was because Vietnam had made it clear that the US could be outlasted.

            • calling all toasters

              Yes, well then there’s no way we would commit a half million troops. Needing that many would be simply absurd!

        • genedebien

          That one ultimately goes back to Truman. If Truman had done the smart thing and not backed France in their quixotic attempt to re-conquer Vietnam, then there wouldn’t be a pattern of increasing intervention

          Of course, in Truman’s view, had he not backed France in Vietnam, there was a real chance France could not have provided the economic and military support needed to bolster Western Europe. There was also a strong concern that, without support for France’s dreams or a recaptured empire, the government would fall to the communists, and France itself would go the way of Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

          I’m not sure I agree with Truman about the impact of his policies and the risks of France becoming communist, yet I can’t completely discount his analysis. But I don’t think you can blame near-sighted choices Truman made in the late 40s (focusing on what he saw as immediate problems in Europe) for the horrible decisions Johnson made in ’64 and ’65 in Southeast Asia.

          • Manny Kant

            The presence of Soviet troops in Hungary and the immediate vicinity of Czechoslovakia surely ought to count for something when considering the possibility of a full scale communist takeover of France.

            • Hogan

              And Austria.

  • joe from Lowell

    I give Adams more credit for establishing the peaceful transfer of power than Washington. Washington handed off power to a political ally after not running. Adams handed it off to the head of the opposition party, who had become his top political rival, and defeated him in the election.

    Also, Thomas Jefferson left the country in the same fundamental shape that he found it? That is very literally not the case.

    And finally, the “very worst” presidency of James Buchanan is even sadder when you consider that Lincoln offered the Vice Presidency to ferocious anti-slaver Ben Butler, and he turned it down to stay with his troops.

    • Hogan

      Also, Thomas Jefferson left the country in the same fundamental shape that he found it? That is very literally not the case.

      I just finished Henry Adams’s history of the Jefferson administration, and oh wow. Self-embargoed, on the verge of disunion, and operationally at war with two superpowers at a moment when the US was bringing cherry bombs to an artillery duel because we don’t need no stinkin frigates.

      • joe from Lowell

        I was thinking more of the Louisiana Purchage (quite literally not the same shape, get it?) and the Homestead Act.

        Whatever you want to say about the Jefferson administration, it wasn’t an inconsequential period of care taking.

        • Hogan

          Oh gotcha.

          (Homestead Act? That was Lincoln. You’re probably thinking of the Northwest Ordinance, but that was before his presidency.)

          • joe from Lowell

            I was thinking of the Land Ordinance of 1785, and how the Louisiana Purchase allowed it to be put into action, establishing the system of square-plot homesteading that was later modified by the Homestead Act.

            And somehow managed to conflate that into the title “Homestead Act.”

        • dn

          Louisiana also set an important constitutional precedent, did it not?

    • joe from Lowell

      Wait a sec, I confused Buchanan and Johnson. I always do that.

      • Colin Day

        Maybe he offered the post to Butler to get him away from the army, as Butler was not one of this nation’s most brilliant generals.

        • joe from Lowell

          With all of the Civil War generals who threw away thousands, even tens of thousands, of troops in hopeless actions, it’s always struck me as odd that one who never did that gets singled out as a bad general.

          But between the 20th-century control of Civil War narrative by Confederate sympathizers, and the 19th-century control by Lincoln cabinet members who considered Butler to be a threat, it’s not too surprising that he’d have a low reputation, despite all he accomplished.

  • Bruce Vail

    These kind of lists are fun.

    Am I the only one who see a connection between G.H.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the the Al Queda/ISIS problem that is so prominent today? Yglesias rates him too high.

    I’ll also be contrarian and insist that that we dispense with the trite Top Three format. Lincoln presided over a bloody and destructive civil war that he ought to have ended in 1861. His other virtues can’t make up for that.

    Maybe there should be another category “Very Good, but Blood Soaked” where we could put Lincoln, LBJ & Wilson.

    • BubbaDave

      …I’m hesitant to ask, but how exactly was Lincoln supposed to end the Civil War in 1861? Capitulation?

      Frankly, I’d like to have seen it even more blood-soaked, with Confederate generals tried for treason and hanged if (when) convicted and Confederate officers tried for treason, with their punishments commuted to forfeiture of all assets. (I waffle back and forth on allowing Confederate enlisted troops to plea-bargain their way down to merely being prohibited from voting for 20 years.)

      • Hogan

        Maybe he should have sent Grant and Sherman to Manassas instead of McDowell and Patterson.

        • rea

          He did send Sherman to Manassas–it didn’t help.

      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, capitulation of a sort. It may be true that total war was unavoidable in any event, but I would have supported a negotiated settlement allowing the CSA to leave the US in peace.

        Unlike many others here, I see nothing mystical about the “Union” that needed to be preserved at any cost.

        • joe from Lowell

          The Union wasn’t going to allow the expansion of slavery, while its dismemberment would have allowed that.

          That doesn’t strike me as terribly mystical.

          • Bruce Vail

            Well, yes, that is why I say total war may have been unavoidable in any event.

            Preservation of the Union was offered then and now as the ultimate (Northern) justification for the war. That justification does not seem powerful enough to me. Indeed, I think the USA would have a much brighter future if the Old South seceded again, and we just let them go.

            • joe from Lowell

              You misunderstand; the refusal of the Union to countenance the expansion of slavery going forward is a very strong argument for the benefits of preserving the Union.

        • Brett

          So you prefer that the US throw black slaves under the bus rather than get involved in a civil war? Fuck that. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has said over at The Atlantic, it’s basically saying that abolition and black freedom should have waited longer until it was more convenient for southern white people to do so.

          • Bruce Vail

            I don’t ‘prefer’ to inflict pain on anyone. I just opine that the goal of Preservation of the Union isn’t a compelling reason for war, then or now.

            • calling all toasters

              It is if the Union is the only thing protecting human rights.

              Like the man said:
              “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

              “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

              “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

              • Manny Kant

                Garrison viewed the Constitution (and, thus, the Union) as an agreement to become complicit in horrible violations of civil rights. It’s hard to say he was wrong.

                • dn

                  True enough (obligatory link), but was telling the oppressed of the South “fuck you, I got mine” the answer to that dilemma?

            • so-in-so

              Even ignoring the position that the suffering and death by millions of black slaves was of lesser importance than the suffering and death of a smaller number of white people, this fails to consider that the separation would not have resolved many of the issues leading to the war. There would then have been two national contenders for the western territories so we might get “bloody Kansas” repeated for each potential state. Also, the possibility of the Confederacy expanding into an Empire based on human slavery throughout the Caribbean and South America. Plus the issue of run-away slaves and their capture and return would have remained a source of conflict with the Confederacy probably launching raids to collect “their property” if the Northern states didn’t cooperate.

              The foolishness of the South is that there was little or nothing Lincoln could have done to end slavery; it probably would have lasted generations longer had they not seceded. Were they more afraid (as always) that the abolitionists would cause a Haiti type revolt?

        • marijane

          The American republic was, in 1863, a dangerously isolated democratic flower in a garden full of aristocratic weeds, and if the Civil War succeeded in sundering the United States into two separate pieces, it would be the final confirmation that democracies were unstable and unworkable pipe dreams. “The central idea pervading this struggle,” Lincoln said in 1861, “is the necessity … of proving that popular government is not an absurdity,” for “if we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

          That “proving” was what Gettysburg – and its roll of dead – provided. In November, when Lincoln came to dedicate a national cemetery for over 3,500 of the battle’s Union dead, it seemed to him that the willingness to lay down life in such numbers simply to preserve a democracy was all the evidence needed to illustrate democracy’s transcendent value. In their sacrifice, “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here” had shown that democracy was something more than opportunities for self-interest and self-aggrandizement, something that spoke to the fundamental nature of human beings itself, something that arched like a rainbow in the political sky.

          http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/what-gettysburg-proved/

          Democracy is mystical!

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  • tsam

    Question:

    Why did that dirtbag that writes the Mallard Fillmore toilet humor pick Fillmore? Was there something he did to make dumb wingnuts idolize him? I don’t believe I’ve heard any others talk about him in any glowing terms.

    • Manny Kant

      He wanted to draw a duck and Millard and Mallard are only one letter different?

      • tsam

        Well that’s just dumb. I don’t approve. I may have to write him a sternly worded letter.

  • tsam

    On record, I have to say that I hate these rankings. Way too subjective when trying to compare a body of work against another, and the office in the 20th and 21st centuries isn’t hardly anything like the office in 1800.

  • Scott P.

    Can I speak in favor of Teddy Roosevelt? He’s easily top 5. He’s got a lot to his credit. Five accomplishments, in particular, any one of which is more impressive than any accomplishment of anyone outside the top 12 or so:

    * Food and Drug Administration/Meat Inspection Act
    * National Parks
    * Portsmouth Treaty/Nobel Peace Prize
    * Panama Canal
    * Trust Busting

    He had some notable weaknesses, such as the Brownsville Affair, but even there on balance his worst mistakes were less egregious than the worst mistakes of other presidents.

    • Hogan

      * Panama Canal

      “Mister President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”

      • tsam

        LOL–taint.

        • Hogan

          You know who said that?

          Philander Knox.

          That had all the eight-graders yukking it up in 1903.

          • tsam

            A good unintentional joke knows no boundaries of time.

    • joe from Lowell

      Oh, didn’t you know, Scott?

      All the kool kids snort and laugh about Nobel Peace Prizes if the recipient isn’t a Gandhian pacifist.

      • Manny Kant

        Well, I mean, somebody would have mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

  • John F

    Oh, and by the way, Carter was a terrible President, easily the worst Democratic one of my lifetime. Terrible politician (really don’t know how he got elected, except it was Watergate..) The 1976 Dem Primaries were just bizarre, the Dem version of a clown car show… Carter won because his campaign team was seemingly the only ones who looked at the “rules” and figured out how the new primary system worked… unfortunately that type of acumen didn’t carry over into his administration.

    Aside from the Israeli/Egyptian peace deal (And the bill which allowed the revival of the craft brewing businesses) his administration was either inept at something- or simply did the wrong thing.

    His administration had no idea about how to deal with stagflation- well they had ideas, but they were bad ones- Carter and his admin basically triggered a V shaped recession- in effing 1980 when he was running for re-election.
    He was spasmodic in deregulation- he deregulated the airlines (which may not have been a good thing) – but he took waaay too long to lift domestic oil controls.
    Foreign Policy, oye vey… I won’t get into how he mishandled Iran before and during the Hostage Crisis or the stupidity of the Olympics boycott… but how about East Timor (Carter has despite his ego, sort of admitted that he screwed the pooch on East Timor/Indonesia- but he blames it on not being “thoroughly briefed” on what was going on at the time)

    For a Dem he was bad on labor as well.

    The Mariel Boatlift- Bill Clinton’s memoirs have a great passage on this- after the Mariel Boat Lift commenced, Castro was a bit peeved that so many Cubans were taking the opportunity to leave (As the Soviets had been when so many East Germans had left before the Berlin Wall was built), but Castro was a slick operator- he literally opened up some prisons, let the common criminals out to emigrate… well when that got out many folks in the US were not happy, so Carter set up temporary camps to house Cubans while we figured out what to do with them- but no one wanted one of these camps anywhere near them (NIMBY)- Clinton claims he told Carter to put these camps in states/counties that were gonna vote against Clinton anyway- Clinton said no, I can’t do that – and then stuck a camp or two in [previously] pro-Clinton counties in Arkansas- one of which later had a “break-out” of some internees… Carter acted as though he was above such “retail” politics. Clinton says he was baffled by Carter, that Carter was seemingly incapable of even grasping such concerns.

    Then came the strangest part, the 1980 Primaries, Carter was a dead man walking, an incumbent who was going to lose his party’s primaries… Kennedy had a clear lead in the polls before the primary voting began… just as the Hostage Crisis began- and suddenly due to the Rally Round the Flag effect- Carter’s support surged (he went from down 60:40 to up 60:40 literally overnight)- he won the early wave of States building a commanding lead until his inept handling of the Iran situation was too difficult to ignore, and the rally effect dissipated- a different sequence of events, different timing and he loses the 1980 nomination

    Without Carter there would have been no President Reagan, people forget how far out there a majority of American thought Reagan was at the time – he ONLY won because he ran against an incumbent seen as dangerously incompetent

    • joe from Lowell

      He did, however, make some ineffective efforts to advance solar power, in addition to his very effective efforts to promote the construction of coal-fired power plants. Thus making him the greatest environmental President of all time. Or so I’m told.

      • calling all toasters

        He wore a sweater on TV!

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