What Makes a Great President Great?
Michael S. Rozeff
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.
published books debunking Lincoln in 2003 and 2006 (see 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.
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.
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
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.
place is Theodore Roosevelt. This Roosevelt played a major role
in making the Spanish-American War what it was. Wikipedia’s
entry tells us
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.'"
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
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
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.
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
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
part in getting the War of 1812 going:
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
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