What Makes a Great President Great?
by Michael S. Rozeff
Recently by Michael S. Rozeff: 'I’d Rather Fight Them Over There Than Here'
George W. Bush only ranks 34th in the recent surveys of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Since there are but 40-43 of these magnificents in total, Dubya is way down there. Why?
What is greatness in a U.S. President, hereafter simply called a President? There is no scientific definition, although the more scholarly polls have criteria of greatness. These need not detain us. The polls themselves tell us what Americans think makes a great President, and it is against the implicit criterion that we observe in the data that we discover that Dubya’s low standing is an anomaly.
The data on the greats that I use are from Wikipedia. The right hand column has aggregate rankings over all the polls. Guess who is number 1? Abraham Lincoln.
Thomas DiLorenzo published books debunking Lincoln in 2003 and 2006 (see here and here). These have had no perceptible influence on the polling results, not yet. I shall explain why they have had no influence.
The key fact about Lincoln is that he presided over the country during a terrible war. Wartime Presidents are regarded by Americans as the greatest Presidents. That is what we discover when we examine the polls. Time and again, Americans revere wartime Presidents. That’s the essence of my theory. To Americans, a great President is heavily associated with war.
It doesn’t affect his greatness that Lincoln started the war, which, if you think about it, should detract from his greatness. Wilson got the country into World War I and he ranks number 6. Franklin Roosevelt got the country into World War II and he ranks number 2. Their high rankings are also associated with the fact that they presided over the country during large-scale wars.
Harry S. Truman is number 7. He ran the government at the tail end of World War II. He dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He committed America to the Korean War. He fits the theory.
Dwight Eisenhower is tied for number 8 with Andrew Jackson. Both were generals. Jackson was known for his exploits in the War of 1812. In addition, he fought against the Creeks and Seminoles in Florida. It was he who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and ethnically cleansed the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw, resulting in numerous deaths along the Trail of Tears.
Ike was famous for his World War II efforts. Ike presided over the Cold War, and so did Truman. Ike also sent troops to Lebanon in 1958. But even without recounting every military exploit of these Presidents, the point is clear. They are Presidents heavily associated with war.
Thus, so far, we have 6 out of the top 10 Presidents being directly associated with large wars: Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower.
James K. Polk is number 10 in these polls. He’s lesser known. From Wikipedia, we learn that Polk
"is noted for his foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain over the issue of which country owned the Oregon Country, then backed away and split the ownership of the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest."
So Polk was also a major wartime President. That makes 7 out of the top 10.
In 5th place is Theodore Roosevelt. This Roosevelt played a major role in making the Spanish-American War what it was. Wikipedia’s entry tells us
"President William McKinley appointed a delighted Roosevelt to the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. Because of the inactivity of Secretary of the Navy John D. Long at the time, this gave Roosevelt control over the department. When, ten days after a battleship was blown up in Havana, Cuba, the Secretary left for an afternoon for a massage and Roosevelt became Acting Secretary for four hours, Roosevelt told the Navy worldwide to prepare for war, ordered ammunition and supplies, brought in experts, and went to Congress asking for authority to recruit as many sailors as he wanted, thus moving the nation toward war. Roosevelt was instrumental in preparing the Navy for the Spanish-American War and was an enthusiastic proponent of testing the U.S. military in battle, at one point stating 'I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.'"
Subsequently, Roosevelt resigned and formed volunteers that fought in Cuba. He and his Rough Riders became famous for taking San Juan Hill. As President, we find that
"Roosevelt was the force behind the completion of the Panama Canal; he sent out the Great White Fleet to display American power; and he negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize."
Theodore Roosevelt’s high standing once again confirms the hypothesis that wartime Presidents achieve the highest standing among the greats, or that what Americans think of as a great President is a man who associates himself with war. Teddy’s Nobel Peace Price is hardly remembered as compared with "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Americans like big sticks, those who carry them, and those who use them.
We’ve got 8 out of 10, which is not bad for a one-factor theory.
Occupying slots 3 and 4 are Washington and Jefferson. Now Washington is another general and famous for his activity in the Revolutionary War, so that he too fits the theory. Washington, of course, put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
That leaves Tom Jefferson as being the sole exception. How did he manage to get into the top ten? The Declaration of Independence is surely the big reason with the Louisiana Purchase a close second. Next to war, Americans like to expand and when they cannot expand with their laws, they like to have influence by other means, connections, and systems. But for the record, it should be noted that Jefferson played a part in getting the War of 1812 going:
"Jefferson always distrusted Britain as a threat to American security; he rejected a renewal of the Jay Treaty that his ambassadors had negotiated in 1806 with Britain and promoted aggressive action, such as the embargo laws, that contributed to the already escalating tensions with Britain and France leading to war with Britain in 1812 after he left office."
So there we have it. Nine out of the top ten greatest Presidents either presided over major wars or were associated intimately with them. The tenth one contributed to bringing about a major war. No other single factor except war comes to mind that can explain the top 10 rankings.
There are some generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor who rank very poorly. Taylor was in office only 16 months. Grant’s low standing is usually attributed to an association with corruption. That explanation may be valid because Richard Nixon is in 32nd place.
Lyndon Johnson presided over the Vietnam War and he ranks number 14. This actually tends to confirm the hypothesis. One might have thought that the war’s unpopularity would doom LBJ to a very low standing, but it does not. That’s because the factor that’s important is simply presiding over the war, i.e., helping to cause it, drafting soldiers, making loud noises about enemies, criticizing the war’s critics, waving the flag, showing strength, making speeches before soldiers, citing statistics on how many of the enemy have been killed, hiring and firing generals, associating oneself with victories, and declaring that the war is being won in the name of freedom and the American way.
This brings us to the big anomaly: George W. Bush. He started two specific wars and launched an all-encompassing War on Terror. Why is he #34 in the rankings? Will his standing improve as time passes? Does confirmation of the hypothesis take time?
Sticking to war-related factors as explaining the rankings, I suspect that Bush’s standing is low because his propaganda campaign on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) turned out to be a dud or myth. This is not to say that the myths upon which the earlier wars were founded were not also myths. They were, but those myths were not made widely known at the time or thereafter. People believed in the myths of the earlier wars and they still believe them. The history books have perpetuated them. In Bush’s case, the communications network is more efficient. But the fact of most importance is that Bush gambled. He placed a big bet on WMD. The justification of the war turned on their existence. Had they been found, then he could have withstood the fact that the war went so badly thereafter. They were not found, and so he languishes. He made an unnecessary war. Another factor is that he promised a quick victory. He promised "shock and awe". The victory never occurred. Things also went very badly in Afghanistan. Instead of getting bin Laden, he went after the Taliban government. Then he let bin Laden escape.
Give Americans a good war myth (reason or reasons for a war) and preside over that war with the appropriate embroidery and trappings. These historically have contributed to a President’s high standing or greatness in history as measured by various polls.
Americans respect the presidency way, way too much. They believe Presidents. They believe Presidents who act as if wars are thrust upon the nation. They can’t or don’t believe that Presidents take the nation into wars purposely for reasons that have nothing to do with national security. Americans believe Presidents who act as if the wars they enter are necessary. They don’t see these wars as unnecessary. Americans trust Presidents. Then when the President presides over the nation through a war, they feel that he is doing something good for the American people because that war was necessary.
There is no alternative but to show that Presidents cannot be trusted. Government cannot be trusted. This essential knowledge is not deeply engrained in the American consciousness. Americans must be shown that they have been fighting unnecessary wars for most of their history. George W. Bush’s wars are not exceptions to the rule. They are the rule.
April 23, 2011
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York. He is the author of the free e-book Essays on American Empire: Liberty vs. Domination and the free e-book The U.S. Constitution and Money: Corruption and Decline.
Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.