Rating the Presidents

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With
the passing of President Reagan, historians, scholars and journalists
have again taken to rating our presidents.

Invariably,
greatness is ascribed to only three: Washington, Lincoln and FDR.
Which reveals as much about American historians, scholars and journalists
as it does about American presidents.

Certainly,
Washington is our greatest president, the father of our country
and the captain who set our course. But Lincoln is great only if
one believes that preventing South Carolina, Georgia and the Gulf
states from peacefully seceding justified the suspension of the
Constitution, a dictatorship, 600,000 dead and a resort to a total
war that ravaged the South for generations.

As
for FDR, he was the greatest politician of the 20th century. But
why call a president great whose government was honeycombed with
spies and traitors, and whose war diplomacy lead to the loss of
10 Christian countries of Eastern Europe to a Muscovite despot whose
terrorist regime was the greatest enemy of human freedom in modern
history?

FDR
restored the nation’s confidence in his first term and won a 46-state
landslide to a second. But by 1937, the Depression was back and
we were rescued only by the vast expenditures of World War II into
which, even admirers now admit, FDR lied his country. The man talked
peace as he plotted war.

None
of the historians, scholars or journalists rate Reagan a great president.
Yet his leadership led to the peaceful liberation of a hundred million
children and grandchildren of the people FDR sold down the river
at Teheran and Yalta, as well as of the 300 million people of the
Soviet Union.

And
why are Wilson and Truman always listed among the "near great"
presidents?

While
our entry into World War I ensured Allied victory, Wilson brought
home from Versailles a vindictive peace that betrayed his principles,
his 14 Points and his solemn word to the German government when
it agreed to an armistice. That treaty tore Germany apart and led
directly to Hitler and a horrific war of revenge 20 years later.
Moreover, Wilson’s stubborn refusal to accept any compromise language
to protect U.S. sovereignty led to Senate rejection of both his
treaty and the League of Nations. Why, then, is this obdurate man
"near great"?

As
for Truman, he dropped two atom bombs on defenseless cities, sent
back 2 million Russian dissidents and POWs to his "Uncle Joe,"
death and the Gulag, offered to send the USS Missouri to Russia
to bring Stalin over to give him equal time to answer Churchill’s
"Iron Curtain" speech, lost China to communism, fired
Gen. MacArthur for demanding victory in Korea, presided over a corrupt
administration, left us mired down in a "no-win war" and
left office with 23 percent approval.

What
is near great about that? Why is Eisenhower, who ended the Korean
War in six months, restored America’s military might and presided
over eight years of secure peace not the greater man?

Now
consider one of the men whom all the raters judge a "failure"
and among our worst presidents, Warren G. Harding.

Harding
served five months less than JFK, before dying in office in 1923.
Yet his diplomatic and economic triumphs were of the first order.
He negotiated the greatest disarmament treaty of the century, the
Washington Naval Agreement, which gave the United States superiority
in battleships and left us and Great Britain with capital-ship strength
more than three times as great as Japan’s. Even Tokyo conceded a
U.S. diplomatic victory.

With
Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Harding cut Wilson’s wartime income
tax rates, which had gone as high as 63 percent, to 25 percent,
ended the stagflation of the Wilson presidency and set off the greatest
boom of the century, the Roaring Twenties. When Harding took his
oath, unemployment was at 12 percent. When he died, 29 months later,
it was at 3 percent. This is a failure?

If
it is because of Harding’s White House dalliance with Nan Britton,
why does not JFK’s White House dalliance with Judith Exner make
him a failure? And if Teapot Dome, which broke after Harding’s death
– and in which he was not involved – makes him a failure,
why does not the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment
make Clinton a failure? Of the seven Democratic presidents in the
20th century, only Truman and Carter did not have lady friends in
the White House.

Harding’s
vice president, Calvin Coolidge, succeeded him, won one of the great
landslides in U.S. history and was, as Jude Wanniski writes, an
inspiration for Ronald Reagan, who considered Silent Cal a role
model and put his portrait up in the Cabinet Room as a mark of respect.

Harding,
Coolidge, Eisenhower and Reagan were men who kept us out of war
and presided over times of peace, security and often of soaring
prosperity. Yet, the 20th century presidents who took us into war
and who lost the fruits of war – Wilson, FDR, Truman –
are "great" or "near great." These ratings tell
us less about presidents than they do about historians, scholars
and journalists.

June
17, 2004

Patrick
J. Buchanan was twice a candidate for the Republican presidential
nomination and the Reform Party's candidate in 2000. He is also
a founder and editor of the new magazine, The
American Conservative
. Now a commentator and columnist, he
served three presidents in the White House, was a founding panelist
of three national television shows, and is the author of seven books.
See his MSNBC site.

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