I know I’m weird for spending some of my day meditating on the merits of the men who have served our country as chief executive.
Presidents Day is a holiday we observe but do not really celebrate.
Everyone who has the day off is grateful, and we find a way to use the time, but there is really no established protocol for celebrating the commanders in chief.
A dense thicket of rituals surround Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The one-day holidays are another story.
When I taught high school, kids always knew when a three day weekend was coming, but I could often stump most of the class by asking why we had that Monday off from school.
Some of those holidays are hard to miss. Parades and patriotic decor honor the heroes of our armed forces on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Columbus Day processions in some places with high concentrations of Italian heritage.
The Fourth of July features fireworks, though no speeches, anymore, because oratory is dead and unwelcome substance would spoil a sunny day and detract from partying, people watching and pyrotechnics.
Around Martin Luther King Day, the media generally offer at least a few perfunctory reminders of the great civil rights leader.
But on Presidents Day, we get little more than Lincoln and Washington-themed furniture sales.
(We are even more clueless on Labor Day, due to our culture’s growing ambivalence toward work, together with the continuing decline of trade unions. But that’s a topic for another time.)
I don’t watch much TV, but the only holiday-related stories I’ve seen on Internet news feeds this weekend have been puff pieces on presidential trivia. Those vacuous stories got justly and promptly buried by the usual celebrity gossip, plus an unusual amount of actual news due to the death of Justice Scalia and the current contentious campaign for the country’s highest office.
Of course, if media outlets offered more substantive content on Presidents Day, then it probably got buried, too.
In my view, our lack of interest in the occasion — and our general refusal to celebrate it — stems from two sources:
- Our astonishing ignorance of history means that we don’t know what to celebrate about presidents in the distant past.
- Increasing political polarization and alienation from public life makes it controversial to celebrate anything about leaders in living memory.
This partly explains our tendency to stick to Washington and Lincoln on this holiday. For most of us, they are little more than cartoon characters from dimly-remembered grade school history: the Father of Our Country and the Great Emancipator, both blissfully uncontroversial because we know nearly nothing about them.
Of course, the other reason for emphasizing Washington and Lincoln is that Presidents Day represents a merger of what used to be two February holidays, one commemorating the birth of each man. Technically, Lincoln got scratched to make room for the MLK holiday. The official name of the federal holiday remains Washington’s Birthday, but I appreciate the thought behind making it a general-purpose Presidents Day, an opportunity to remember the greatest leaders of our history — especially if we seize the chance to push beyond trivia and contemplate their real achievements and legacies.
That would require considering reasonable criteria for presidential greatness — a discussion that might help us form more reasonable expectations for the performance of our current leaders.
In 2011, Gallup asked Americans to name the greatest commander in chief. Here they are:
- Ronald Reagan (19%)
- Abraham Lincoln (14%)
- Bill Clinton (13%)
- John Kennedy (11%)
- George Washington (10%)
- Franklin Roosevelt (8%)
- Barack Obama (5%)
- Theodore Roosevelt (3%)
- Harry Truman (3%)
- George W. Bush (2%)
- Jimmy Carter (1%)
- Dwight Eisenhower (1%)
- George H. W. Bush (1%)
By astonishing coincidence, 10 of the 13 greatest chief executives served within living memory. I suppose it is possible that we live in a Golden Age of presidential greatness, but the public’s increasing disenchantment with politics would seem to belie that notion.
It is probably safer to conclude that most respondents, knowing little history, either went with a safe bet (Washington or Lincoln), or else just named a recent leader they like.
The first criterion for judging presidential greatness should be efficacy in office. Did the leader achieve his goals? By this criterion, Reagan was indeed an effective commander in chief. He never had a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, but he proved adept at cutting deals and advancing his agenda.
Bill Clinton and JFK, on the other hand, proved ineffective in their first three years in office. Even though both started with Democratic majorities in Congress, Kennedy couldn’t get his tax cut or civil rights proposals approved, and Clinton failed to get Hillarycare passed. JFK’s term got cut short, but the Comeback Kid had time to redeem himself with a strong economic recovery, some moderate reforms and second-term budget surpluses. Both made grievous errors: Kennedy botched the Bay of Pigs and nearly ended human existence during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Clinton became embroiled in scandal. Neither president can be called great.
A second consideration should be lasting influence: Were the chief executive’s achievements merely ephemeral, or did they extend beyond his term?
Here again, Reagan looks successful: the low-tax, low-regulation, deficit-fueled economic regime that he introduced has persisted with only minor tinkering ever since.
Other presidents with secure long-term reputations include Lincoln (saved the Union, ended slavery), Wilson (Federal Reserve, internationalist foreign policy), FDR (Social Security), Truman (Cold War strategy) and LBJ (civil rights, Great Society).
It is difficult to assess the greatness of current or very recent leaders, for the obvious reason that we cannot see the future.
Thus, it is premature, for example, to acclaim either Bush the Younger or Obama as great presidents. We can say that Bush won some (tax cuts, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind) and lost some (War on Terror, the economy, immigration reform). We can observe that Obama achieved his top priorities (economic recovery, expanded health insurance, winding down wars in the Middle East), but struggled to do much else, or to maintain his popularity and that of his party in the face of fierce opposition.
Next, we need to consider the righteousness of the president’s actions, which is a matter of ideological perspective.
For example, if you are a conservative who likes small government and low taxes, then you would probably regard Jefferson, Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan as great chief executives.
If, on the other hand, you appreciate leaders who use the power of the government to advance social justice here and abroad, then you would prefer Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman and LBJ.
Our present priorities color our evaluations of past presidents. Andrew Jackson, for example, achieved most of his goals, including forcing the Cherokee onto the Trail of Tears — a crime against humanity with lasting negative impacts, making many question whether his face still belongs on the $20 bill.
Finally, I would argue that presidents must conquer a major crisis to achieve true greatness.
George Washington, for example, inherited a bankrupt and deeply indebted government and a country filled with spoiled people who hated paying taxes. As the greatest hero of the Revolutionary War and a man who declined an opportunity to make himself King of America, he alone had the gravitas to get rowdy Patriots to pay taxes to support a strong central government under the new US Constitution.
Abraham Lincoln, obviously, won the Civil War, saved the Union and freed the slaves.
FDR conquered the Great Depression and defeated the Axis during World War II.
Here, Reagan falls short of greatness, in my opinion. While he inherited a bad economy and a challenging foreign policy situation from Carter, neither constituted the kinds of existential crises conquered by Washington, Lincoln, or FDR.