Monday was Presidents Day and, as usual , there were articles about whom we consider our best Presidents. Predictably , Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were at the top of the list for most of those who responded but, after those two , there were as many different opinions as there were responses. That isn’t surprising because most of us , me included, know very little about obscure Presidents like Chester Arthur , Millard Fillmore or John Tyler. We are very familiar with icons like Washington , Lincoln and FDR and with 20th century presidents ,but even there ,our political leanings color our choices . When George W. Bush left office , most Americans ranked him as one of the very worst Presidents we’ve ever had ; however , 1% of the respondents ranked him as the best president we’ve had , up there with Lincoln and Washington ! Another drawback of trying to rank the Presidents is that they belonged to different eras and faced vastly different political realities. It’s even more meaningless than trying to rank the best basketball players of all time .
On the other hand , rating the Presidents is a much more sensible exercise . Rather than trying to compare them to each other, it is more realistic to assess their performance and give them a letter grade , much as we do for students at the end of a school year. Of course , even this pre-supposes a familiarity and a deep study with the achievements and shortcomings of each of them . It is not something that anyone of us can undertake . Luckily , there is a recent book by Kenneth C. Davis which does just that . Davis is the author of a series of previous best sellers , the Don’t Know Much About series , the latest title of which is Don’t Know Much About The American Presidents .
It is a very interesting book , written in an easy , almost conversational style . There is one chapter on each of our Presidents and a chapter typically consists of a brief biography , milestones , Fast Facts , quotes ( ” Presidential Voices”), an assessment of the White House years and a Final Judgment ( a Letter Grade).The following is a summary of the grades that Davis awards our Presidents .
A+ : George Washington , Abraham Lincoln , Theodore Roosevelt , Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan
A : Thomas Jefferson , Andrew Jackson, James Polk,Woodrow Wilson , Harry S. Truman , Dwight Eisenhower
B : John Adams , James Madison , James Monroe, Grover Cleveland , William McKinley **, John F. Kennedy** , Lyndon Baines Johnson , Bill Clinton
C : John Quincy Adams , Martin Van Buren , John Tyler, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester Arthur , Benjamin Henry Harrison , William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge , Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford , George W. H. Bush
D : Ulysses S. Grant, Richard Nixon , Jimmy Carter
F : Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson , Warren Harding , George W.Bush
I : William Henry Harrison * , Zachary Taylor *, James Garfield **, Barack Obama
Legend : * Died in office ; ** Assassinated during his term of office.
Before I read each chapter , I assigned a letter grade to the President in question based on what I knew about him , which in some cases wasn’t much . As expected , I didn’t fare very well with the lesser known 19th century Presidents . however , I was surprised and , not a little happy , that my grades for the better known Presidents coincided almost exactly with those of the author’s.My thoughts :
1. My one major disagreement was about Ronald Reagan , whom I felt deserved a B , not an A. I fully agree that Reagan was the right man in the right place because when he came to the White House , America was at a low ebb. Americans’ confidence and self-image had been seriously battered by the hostage taking of American diplomats in Iran . Reagan made us feel good about ourselves again by projecting an image of power and decisiveness so sadly lacking in his predecessor , Jimmy Carter. He also was instrumental in bringing an end to the Cold War , though I give the greater credit to his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. True, he reined in domestic spending but his tax cuts were slanted heavily towards the rich and , in spite of all the rhetoric about the deficit , it actually ballooned during his years in power. Ironic , when you consider how, during his run for the presidency , he attacked Carter for being unable to rein in the deficit. He was an excellent communicator but , I feel , his rhetoric his and image overshadowed. his actual accomplishments .
2. I wish the author had split up the B and C grades into B+ , B, B- , C+ , C and C – because I think the compartments are too broad at present.
3. I would have given JFK an I , instead of a B, because he did not spend a full term in the White House before he was so tragically assassinated. Barack Obama , now having completed one term , I’d assign him a B.
4. I was happy to see Dwight Eisenhower rated A. Like his predecessor , Harry Truman , he was under rated for the longest time and it is only recently that we have come to appreciate him . One of the things I didn’t know about him is that he played a large part in the development of our highway system . He was much more complex and activist than had been thought during his term of office and immediately after.
5. We , as a nation , are extraordinarily fortunate to have had such a large number of great Presidents , many of whom appeared on the scene at exactly the right time . George Washington at the birth of the nation , Abraham Lincoln when the nation was deeply split , FDR who led us out of the Great Depression , Harry Truman who had he difficult decisions to make about the A-bomb ….and the list goes on.
6. Over the years , I have met a surprising number of people who like to read about our Presidents and ,gradually, I have come to understand why . Reading this book has strengthened my desire to read more about our Presidents . I don’t have the stamina to read Robert Caro’s monumental tomes on LBJ , excellent though they may be . I want to know more but not that much .I know a fair bit about Washington , Lincoln , Truman and the modern Presidents who were in the White House during my lifetime . I think I’ll start by reading about Eisenhower and then go back in time to fill in the blanks in what I know of Theodore Roosevelt. It should be fascinating and enjoyable .