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.