Another group of experts and academics, this time chosen by the Federalist Society and heralded by the Wall Street Journal, is deigning to tell us who the best and worst presidents are. This new list is supposed to be the conservative alternative to the liberal lists (begun in 1948 by A. Schlesinger and continually updated) because it downgrades Clinton and Kennedy and upgrades Reagan. Upon hearing this glorious news, all right-thinking people are supposed to shout Hurrah!
Count me out. Every one of these lists is predictably statist, so that top billing always goes to the warmongers and welfare statists (e.g., the two Roosevelts, Lincoln, Truman, Polk, Wilson) and the bottom of the pile is inhabited by people who had doubts about federal power (A. Johnson, Pierce, Harding, Buchanan). As usual, my favorite president, William Henry Harrison, is disqualified for the same reason I like him: he died shortly after being inaugurated.
As with most of these lists, the survey of more than a hundred experts is supposed to tease out some higher truth, so that we can all know the place in history of these birds and so future presidents can imitate their actions in hopes of topping the list.
The most evil consequence of these lists is that they convey to current presidents that they had better start a war or preside over some domestic mayhem to earn their place in the scheme of things.
Beware, all presidents and would-be presidents: You get no points for keeping the peace and enforcing the Constitution, much less for letting the American people go about their business unimpeded.
Notice that none of these lists explains what precisely a president is supposed to do to become great. If, for example, a list said, “a great president is one who brings about the most deaths of innocents, annexes the most territory, dramatically increases debt and spending, inflates ’till the cows come home, and otherwise ignores the Constitution because of a crisis he might have prevented or even brought on deliberately,” at least that list would have the virtue of honesty.
But, no, we are just supposed to accept the idea that these rarified presidency experts have our values in mind when they tell us that George Washington was fabulous when he cracked skulls to get people to pay the whiskey tax, or when Lincoln put down anti-draft protests and jailed newspaper editors, or when FDR confiscated gold and established peace-time central planning. We are supposed to proceed as if there is no controversy about the idea that a really great president acts like a third-world strongman when “events” call upon him to do so.
But what about that quality we call leadership? Surely we can all agree on what that means. In the private sector, that is to say, in real life, leadership means eliciting widespread support for your skills in organizing or providing technical, intellectual, or moral guidance.
I’m thinking here of the leaders of the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Boy Scouts, and religion. A great leader can be, for example, a teacher who inspires students to love great literature, a software entrepreneur who improves the way we live our lives, an economist who helps us understand the world in a new way.
All truly great leaders have in common the trait that their followers are volunteers. They rise to the top because they persuade people of their idea, their product, their method, their plan.
But what are presidents? We can’t choose to have one or not to have one. And once elected, we can’t choose to follow or not. His supposed leadership skills amount to nothing other than the fact that he controls a bunch of federal agencies and is “commander in chief” of the biggest arsenal.
Sure, he was elected, but after the electoral meltdown of 2000, we are no longer naive enough to believe that this fact alone demonstrates that the people’s will is being carried out.
The presidency as we know it is an anachronism, a relic of the bloody period between the end of the constitutional republic in 1860 and the beginning of the post-fuhrer epoch we can hope is now upon us.
The only good ranking of past presidents is one that pays extreme attention to the idea present in the early years of America — that this land of the free needed no king, or anything remotely like a king. We’ll govern ourselves, thank you very much.
Make freedom the top consideration, and I dare say these lists would run in reverse order.