PICTURE INDEX: PRESIDENTS LYNDON JOHNSON, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, RONALD REAGAN, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, JOHN ADAMS AND THOMAS JEFFERSON.
What makes a great President? It's pretty subjective criteria. Historians have put together lists for years to decide who is "great", "near great", or "fair". Presidents do worry about their legacy and are not ashamed to comment about it in public. Bill Clinton frets that his Presidency lacked a major crisis so therefore he could not show his true leadership qualities, Richard Nixon essentially rehabilitated himself after the Watergate scandal (and for both Clinton and Nixon the Monica and Waterfate affairs will always be mentioed) while others like Harry Truman decided to let the chips fall where they may in terms of their place in history. Well, for what it's worth, on this President's Day, here's my list of the most impactful Presidents in this nation's history. They are not in any order of importance so I'll start with the most recent and finish up with the most historic in terms of time.
RONALD REAGAN: A great deal of debate on this one given Reagan's affection for high deficits but you have to give him this. He came into office with three goals, reduce government, rekindle the American spirit and fight the Communist threat. While there are some who say that perhaps he reduced the wrong things in government like welfare and job training, there is no doubt Reagan inspired the American people when he spoke on any subject. People say John Kennedy was the first TV President, Ronald Reagan was the first "message" manager of the media. Whether it be a Space craft disaster or admitting his role in the Contra Affair, people wanted to believe him. His stubborn behavior against the Soviets was first seen as the rantings of an old cold warrior but Reagan knew and believed the Communist system of government would collapse under its own weight. Many say he got too much credit for the end of Communism, maybe, maybe not, the fact is Reagan stood steadfast in his belief that capitalism would prevail and events beared him out.
LYNDON JOHNSON: How does one pick a President as "near great" when he had a debacle like Vietnam on his record? The answer: Carefully. Fully acknowledging that Johnson escalated the war, it should be remembered that he inherited the conflict as well as the Kennedy people who stood by their beliefs that this was the right thing to do. As early as 1966, Johnson intimated that the war might be a mistake but fully bought into the "domino" theory. Johnson did however realize the nation had to get out of the conflict, took himself out of the Presidential race of 1968 and did his best to try and negotiate a peace before the end of his term. That was, of course an abject failure. What was a success was Johnson's willingness to pass all Civil Rights legislation that was stalled in Congress under John Kennedy and his attempts to expand on the Roosevelt agenda of trying to rid the country of poverty with his "Great Society" programs. Johnson felt that government was available to meet the needs of the American people.
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: He was elected President in November 1932, to the first of four terms. By March there were 13,000,000 unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first "hundred days," he proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt's New Deal program. They feared his experiments, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
Roosevelt was Commander In Chief when war in Europe broke out and was the driving forece in defending the nation on two coasts when Japan attacked U.S. interests in the Pacific. As the war wound down, he was one of the driving forces in the formation of the U.N. The key factor in Roosevelt as a President was that he was willing to try any new solution to fix a problem.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Lincoln came from simple heritage but made himself into a self styled populist launching an unlikely political career.
In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.
As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.
Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.
The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds.... "
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace without problems died.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson came within three votes of election. Through a flaw in the Constitution, he became Vice President, although an opponent of President Adams. In 1800 the defect caused a more serious problem. Republican electors, attempting to name both a President and a Vice President from their own party, cast a tie vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives settled the tie. Hamilton, disliking both Jefferson and Burr, nevertheless urged Jefferson's election.
When Jefferson assumed the Presidency, the crisis in France had passed. He slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey so unpopular in the West, yet reduced the national debt by a third. He also sent a naval squadron to fight the Barbary pirates, who were harassing American commerce in the Mediterranean. Further, although the Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when he had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803. Jefferson's major legacy, besides being the founder of one of the first political parties in the country was also that as author of the Declaration. Jefferson did not mention his tenure as President on his gravestone.
JOHN ADAMS: During the Revolutionary War he served in France and Holland in diplomatic roles, and helped negotiate the treaty of peace. From 1785 to 1788 he was minister to the Court of St. James's, returning to be elected Vice President under George Washington.
When Adams became President, the war between the French and British was causing great difficulties for the United States on the high seas and intense partisanship among contending factions within the Nation.
His administration focused on France, where the Directory, the ruling group, had refused to receive the American envoy and had suspended commercial relations.
Adams sent three commissioners to France, but in the spring of 1798 word arrived that the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and the Directory had refused to negotiate with them unless they would first pay a substantial bribe. Adams reported the insult to Congress, and the Senate printed the correspondence, in which the Frenchmen were referred to only as "X, Y, and Z."
The Nation broke out into what Jefferson called "the X. Y. Z. fever," increased in intensity by Adams's exhortations. The populace cheered itself hoarse wherever the President appeared. Never had the Federalists been so popular.
Congress appropriated money to complete three new frigates and to build additional ships, and authorized the raising of a provisional army. It also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, intended to frighten foreign agents out of the country and to stifle the attacks of Republican editors.
President Adams did not call for a declaration of war, but hostilities began at sea. At first, American shipping was almost defenseless against French privateers, but by 1800 armed merchantmen and U.S. warships were clearing the sea-lanes.
Despite several brilliant naval victories, war fever subsided. Word came to Adams that France also had no stomach for war and would receive an envoy with respect. Long negotiations ended the quasi war.
Sending a peace mission to France brought the full fury of the Hamiltonians against Adams. In the campaign of 1800 the Republicans were united and effective, the Federalists badly divided. Nevertheless, Adams polled only a few less electoral votes than Jefferson, who became President.
On November 1, 1800, just before the election, Adams arrived in the new Capital City to take up his residence in the White House. On his second evening in its damp, unfinished rooms, he wrote his wife, "Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."
Adams always felt like he was in Thomas Jefferson's shadow. It was after all Adams who urder Jefferson to write the famous declaration against England. His diplomatic skillls with foreign countries were contrasted with his boorish behavior in the realm of domestic politics. He was a true contradition in terms of Presidential leadership but his tough decision in his crucial terms as President kept the young nation from going under and paved the way for others to strengthen the base of the country financially and geographically.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT: A true friend of the working man, Roosevelt led the country kicking and screaming into reforms that dealt with basics like clean food, and fair labor laws for adults and children.
JOHN TYLER: When William Henry Harrison died after only one month in office, it was Tyler who stuck by the written rule of succession in the Constitution when others were looking at an expedient variation. Tyler's decision paved the way for unencumbered Presidential succession.
HARRY TRUMAN: A common man thrust into the Presidency, Truman made decisions and never looked back. He was the last President to just have a high school education and was kept in the dark about many of the major workings of the Roosevelt administration. Despite that, he did well by following his heart, conscience and the history of world governments.