Folks, We Have a Winner

Do U.S. Presidents go into office looking to leave a particular legacy, or do their legacies stem more from their efforts, acts, and performance on-the-job?

George Washington, for example, was famously reticent about accepting his role as the new country’s first chief executive. And yet, he is known to generations of schoolchildren as “The Father of Our Country” – not only because he happened to be the 1st President and not primarily for the things he did in office – but more, I would argue, for his efforts, acts, and performance in helping the fledgling nation transition from neglected and abused colonies of a global superpower into a land of promise and opportunity, and a beacon of freedom to all.

Of the 45 men who have held the office of President of the United States of America, only a handful are recalled (by people who are not serious history buffs or presidential scholars) for having left a definable legacy indelibly intertwined with their fulfillment of duty.

The most obvious after Washington (full disclosure: I am no serious history buff or presidential scholar), are: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

We are backloaded in the past half century, which could be reflective of  my own myopia and/or the quickening pace of historical developments.

OK, a disclaimer: this is not a scientific exercise. To echo Lena Dunham (among others), I’m just spitballing here.

Where’s Bill Clinton? Yes, he presided over the nation’s longest post-WWII economic expansion. He brought to our attention the person who was almost, really, truly the first woman elected President. He was responsible, too, for seriously negative reformations to our welfare and criminal justice systems. For years, I’ve said he’s “the best Republican President the country ever had.” But he’ll mainly be recalled as the President who finally, fully removed the veil of deference and respectability from the office, which we’ll discuss more in a bit. Perhaps, he should be included in my list. You make the call.

Jefferson makes the list because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document that got this party started.

Lincoln, well, the guy grew up in the wilds of southern Indiana, scratching out schoolwork with coal nubs on the back of a shovel by candlelight. He also kept the United States united during the friggin’ Civil War. So, yeah, he makes the list. And Mt. Rushmore, too.

Teddy Roosevelt, goddamn. The “Rough Rider.” If there’s an iconic American, I nominate him. Complex motherfucker with a big heart. Presided over some ruthless military mayhem. But he founded the National Park System and understood corporations demand a judicial framework attuned to the requisites of anti-trust oversight. Made it to the mountain, too, for good reason.

Woodrow Wilson has his detractors but he set the stage for the progressive development of the nation throughout the balance of the 20th century and brought the United States out of isolation, prepping it for its international star turn in the new millennium.

A number of Presidents from what I like to call the “middle period” could vie for having left the most negative legacy.

Reaching all the way back, Andrew Jackson was just a mean, ruthless sonofabitch, you know? Andrew Johnson was corrupt and inept, leading many to say he was the worst President ever. U.S. Grant, the war hero post-Civil War General President, was kind of America’s original posterboy military leader but his lingering reputation casts him as a drunk.

Herbert Hoover is forever recalled (fairly or not) as the President on whose watch befell the Great Depression. That seminal period shaped the attitudes of millions of Americans, whose fears and disappointments formed the basis for the country’s political makeup well into the following century.

For almost all of the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th, the United States developed in relative isolation, which gave its largely Christian white founders time to subdue and exterminate the continent’s indigenous population, while building the formidable industrial and economic capacity that responded to the global contagion of fascism and Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

FDR. What can you say?

Crust from the top of the top, a scion of one of the country’s most well-known families, who understood that whole “united we stand” thing. Winner of four presidential elections, he is the only President to have served more than two terms. He oversaw recovery from the Great Depression, guided the nation through the 2nd Great War, and tended the incubation of a government whose goal was fulfilling for its citizens the Declaration of Independence’s promise of unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. A strong candidate for the best of the best.

Post-war, things get mucky.

Harry Truman, who acceded to the presidency with Roosevelt’s death in 1945, was, in this writer’s view, a patsy. He didn’t do much, really, other than green-light the use of atomic weapons. But he’s most-known for having that memorable personal motto: “the buck stops here.” The phrase was engraved on a plaque that sat on his desk in the Oval Office and it defines the resolve with which he sought, however imperfectly, to maintain FDR’s legacy.

John F. Kennedy, of course, was the first truly modern President. Young, sexy, full of life and optimism about the promise of the American Idea. He challenged people to leave the earth and go to the moon. Complex and with his many faults, to be sure, he was a figurehead for growth and prosperity and looking to the future. Fifty years after the fact of his assassination, the American public remains fascinated by his life and death, with more than a few people believing the fate of the entire nation took a turn for the worse on November 22, 1963.

LBJ may be the most difficult person to place in this list. He only became President in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. Absent the nation’s reeling from that event, he might never have attained the office on his own. He did shepherd through difficult times some of the country’s most important and enduring civil rights legislation but he also set a precedent for placing our military in the losing role of “global cop,” a burden from which it suffers to this day.

It’s almost too easy to brand Richard Nixon the worst of the worst. The only President to have resigned office, he was an evil, vindictive bastard. But he presided over the creation of important legislation protecting the environment and he opened diplomatic channels ensuring American influence and participation in the rising phenomenon of globalization.

Ultimately though, Nixon will be forever known for having uttered his signature line, “I am not a crook.” His legacy is one of having destroyed the nation’s respect for the person in the Oval office and stained the sanctity of the office of president itself, which, perversely, may come to save the Republic one day.

We are getting too close now to recent history to make definitive calls on what may or may not be the historical legacy of a particular President.

Be that as it may, I do not hesitate to say Ronald Reagan embodied all of the worst instincts and aspects of the American Idea. An anti-intellectual, with little regard for observable facts or scientific inquiry, he championed policies to undo national security measures that protected Americans for generations, was responsible for shifting wealth to the richest Americans, popularized “privatization” as a government policy, and kindled a division among the citizens of the nation from which we continue to reel, some thirty years down the road.

Which brings us to George W. Bush. He stewarded the nation into its worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and embroiled its sons and daughters into senseless, un-winnable wars we continue fighting, sixteen years and more than $5 trillion dollars later. Until recently, my assessment (along with that of others) was that, while perhaps not the worst person to ever hold the office, our 43rd President was the worst we’d had to survive.

Some may ask why I didn’t list Barack Obama above. Surely the country’s first non-white President is due a legacy mention, whether the effects of his administration be good or bad. Thing is, I never felt the happenstance of Mr. Obama’s race was notable beyond, of course, the fact that his presidency was notable because of his race.

He inherited a total shitshow, courtesy of his predecessor, and given an oppositional Congress for six of his eight years in office, he did an admirable job. He always comported himself with intelligence and compassion and class. He managed to sign into legislation something aspiring to a national healthcare policy. But in the long scheme, I do not believe he did much other than keep his finger in the dyke. For which, I am sure, a part of the nation is truly grateful.

The current President, #45, campaigned on slogans claiming he’d “drain the swamp” and make the country “Great Again.” He said during campaign speeches the nation suffers from problems he alone can fix. His hubris and delusion are, if you will, unpresidented.

He and his campaign were under FBI investigation for possible treason and other criminal acts before he took office, an inquiry continued by a special prosecutor not long after he’d taken his hand off the Bible.

His National Security Adviser resigned under a cloud of suspicion and perjury less than a month into the gig. In ten months, he’s fired the acting Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and his own Director of Communications. In all, more than 30 people have fled his ship, including members of his Cabinet, entire Advisory Committees, his Chief of Staff, and the White House press secretary.

Last week saw some notable developments, as the special prosecutor indicted the President’s former campaign manager on a dozen counts, including conspiracy to launder money and being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal. A second campaign aide was similarly indicted and the special prosecutor unsealed the guilty plea of a third, who confessed to perjury.

And last week, too, this President gave us the defining quote of his administration, a tag-line by which, for good or ill, he will henceforth be forever known: “I am the only one that matters.” Funnily enough, it’s true.

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