The ranking of Presidents between 11 and 20 is much more difficult to rank. Some of those Presidents are difficult to access because of the prism of history being too fogged up due to close proximity of time between their Presidency and now.
Let us first talk about the Presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His presidency was all too brief but in those 1000 days of service to our country times were turbulent and his leadership was called upon in several key areas.
President Kennedy was his own profile in courage in that from the early days of his administration, the issue of civil rights for African-Americans was a priority. He worked closely with Martin Luther King and the other Civil Rights leaders in the effort to desegregate America. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964, was his idea and he and his brother worked particularly hard to organize support in Congress.
But it was his efforts to desegregate schools such as the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama that got my attention. I lived in New Orleans and the effort to desegregate schools in New Orleans brought forth all kinds of emotions from those who would deny children their right to an equal education. Who can forget Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway blocking the path of black students who wished to attend the university? Wallace said, segregation now, segregation forever!
The successful culmination of the Civil Rights era in large part was due to the leadership and courage of John F. Kennedy.
President Kennedy started the Space program when we were competing for leadership in space with the Russians. He started the best form of foreign policy to represent America by starting the Peace Corps.
President Kennedy became a world leader and a person who stood up to Russia and bravely and successfully prevented the introduction of nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Most Americans probably do not remember how President Kennedy inspired a generation to serve others rather themselves by exalting the value of public service. He sought the best and the brightest to do for their country what their country had gifted them upon their birth. When you compare how he inspired government service to the view of our citizens to serving in government today, there is a stark and dark difference.
At the time of his tragic death his popularity was around 80%, a number we will unlikely ever see again.
President Lyndon Johnson is probably the most difficult President to assess and place on a list of a rating of Presidents. Yes, his Presidency was consequential and he was a strong leader. Many major legislative measures were passed during his Presidency, all to his credit. We would not have Medicare without President Johnson’s efforts. His knowledge of Congress and each Senator helped to pass what President Kennedy had started. History will always find the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as major pieces of legislation which helped to further the liberties and freedoms of all Americans regardless of race. His strength furthered the evolution of equality as stated so beautifully in our Declaration of Independence.
But he was the most conflicted of men, his character was flawed and complex. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Caro’s multi volume set on the life of Lyndon Johnson Caro’s book, “The Path to Power,” are quite revealing and help us define the man who was so difficult to understand. Is the end result worth the means that are used to attain them is a question that comes to mind? He was such a powerful person, physically imposing with a larger than life personality. His bottom line in his efforts seemed to be whether or not the person or persons receiving a gift or benefit of government service were grateful to Lyndon B. Johnson. We have probably never seen such a personality as president and in a way his attitude reflected the American dream.
The major issue with assessing President Johnson’s Presidency is you guessed it, VIETNAM. Even today 47 years after he left office, many have such a gut reaction to a war that was the most controversial, divisive and unpopular war America has ever been involved in. How do we judge where he ranks among the Presidents, in spite of all of his good works, when really 60,000 men died fighting in Vietnam when you count the missing? How do you judge a man when he lied to our faces each and every day he went on television to tell us we were winning the war?
When you have major pluses but such a big negative it is really virtually impossible to conjure up a number for a ranking. Let each person study the man, LBJ and make your own conclusions. History will continue to study who probably was the most complex and conflicted of all our Presidents.
Two other Presidents are worth discussion in our assessments. I believe that two Presidents are the most overrated. President Ronald Reagan and President William Jefferson Clinton are my picks to be downgraded over history as being the most overrated. Both Reagan and Clinton were great communicators. They literally could sell ice to the Eskimos but were they strong enough as Presidents to merit making the list of top 20 Presidents? Were positive bills passed or other actions taken that merit their high praise currently?
I know I am going to make my Republican and Democratic friends unhappy, but I call them as I see them. First let us look at the Presidency of the hero of today’s Republicans Ronald Reagan. Yes, he popularized the notion that government is bad. He talked the talk about how less government is necessary, but did he walk the walk of reducing the size of government or did he just increase the debt like many other President’s.
During his Presidency he did make Americans feel better about themselves after the disastrous Presidency of Jimmy Carter. He did make the Cold War hotter and he did help bankrupt the Soviet Union while nearly bankrupting America. He helped break a union. But more importantly while he did help increase the GDP, the unemployment rate hovered above 7.5%. In spite of his popularity his proposals for a Constitutional Amendment for balancing a budget never went anywhere. So what did President Reagan accomplish to merit his lofty status at this point in history?
President William Jefferson Clinton again begs the question what did he accomplish? Yes, political junkies. President Clinton presided over huge economic growth. Clinton did see many millions of jobs added to the economy. But how do we balance that with his removal of Glass-Steagal? How do we rate Clinton on the list of rated Presidents with his passage of NAFTA and GATT? How do we rank him when his own personal moral code was woefully lacking? Yes, sex should never be a part of evaluating a President unless it effects his job. Bill Clinton got caught up in a lie, when all he needed to do was to simply say it is none of your business.
President Clinton should be given a lot of credit for balancing a budget and leaving his successor a surplus and a pay as you go system which promised to reduce the long term debt substantially over time. During his days as President we did well as a people but he left us with huge potential problems regarding good jobs going overseas. Most importantly he got rid of a key protection that we the people had from the FDR days that prevented the greed of deposit bankers from getting involved in commercial banking. The bill’s demise led to the Great Recession.
We should not let the charisma of both President’s cloud our historical view. For the reasons thus stated, both Reagan and Clinton belong in the top 20 but both are ripe for finding the label of being overrated in the future.