It is said that the times make a president and there’s anecdotal proof. Good times have yielded mediocrities while some of our gravest crises have summoned giants. The early 21st century has given us both, some lightweights and one who might rank with the second tier of greats. My thesis follows.
Abraham Lincoln stepped onto the world stage like someone from Greek mythology or ordered up from central casting. “Send us a president. A real president. Someone with intelligence and a logical demeanor, and, please, tell him he’ll need to check his ego at the door.”
And voila, an excessively tall, self-educated lawyer raised on the frontier seemingly came out of nowhere leapfrogging better known aristocrats. The public broke for Lincoln and he made his way to Washington knowing if he survived (there were death threats) he’d have to deal with saving a Union that was coming apart at the seams.
Somehow we got Lincoln, a politician from the new Republican party which was nailing down the coffin lid on the Whig party. He had minimal experience for what was ahead of him. He’d served a bit in the Illinois house and a term in the US House of Representatives and was defeated in a senate race by Stephen Douglas. He was well read but in a time of book scarcity, that meant less than it might today. Lincoln’s law library consisted of two books.
Lincoln intrigues us even today because he was a tall oak among shrubs of so much presidential mediocrity. Immediately before him, James Buchanan is almost universally considered the worst president in American history for his bumbling administration that led up to the Civil War.
Unfortunately, Buchanan is far from alone. Scholars rate many of his 19th century predecessors on the list of the worst presidents in history. Truth be told what came after Lincoln was not much better which only makes Lincoln seem more remarkable. Buchanan was preceded by Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor, all midgets by comparison to Lincoln. William Henry Harrison also preceded Lincoln, but he’s usually given a free pass because he died only 31 days into his term leaving us with the unremarkable John Tyler, the first vice president ever to assume the office of president.
Lincoln’s story is rare but not unique. The top vote getters in the presidential greatness derby include George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as Lincoln. Each, like Lincoln took charge in desperate times. FDR’s story is well known, the country was in a depression and four years of the Hoover administration did nothing to improve the lot of the average person. Roosevelt instituted a New Deal in which he pledged “bold, persistent experimentation” to recover the nation from a completely novel downturn. FDR applied his learnings from the Depression to fight the Second World War in a bravura performance that may never be topped if only because he was elected to four terms and the Constitution now limits presidents to two.
Washington may be less known for his presidential greatness than his skill in war but this only makes him even more remarkable. After the Revolution in which Washington’s force of will nearly alone brought victory and the birth of the nation, Washington retired to his plantation to live out a peaceful retirement. The states adopted the Articles of Confederation and that was that, except it wasn’t.
The articles were too weak to allow for things like taxation to support an army or to pay off the Revolutionary War debt and after a few years under the Articles, the wheels appeared to be falling off the wagon. Alexander Hamilton saw the great experiment unraveling and carefully set the wheels in motion for a constitutional convention. Washington was elected president of the confab overseeing the Constitution’s birthn and was eventually elected first president by acclamation.
Washington set up the precedents of the presidency carefully making room for Congress and the Supreme Court and avoiding over reach as much as possible to avoid even the appearance of authoritarian rule. Washington even set the precedent of two presidential terms and the peaceful handover of power to his successor.
Bad times seem to bring out the best in presidential leadership just as good times seem to give us caretakers barely interested in governing and party doesn’t seem to matter.
The Cold War ended with the fall of Russian communism in 1989 leaving the US as the sole superpower on the planet. Bill Clinton, the next president, had some bright spots, a big brain and a thirst for getting things done but the combination of personal peccadillos matched with an unserious Republican party led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, yielded an ineffective presidency.
Clinton did balance the budget though, a holy grail for many in Washington, but his surplus was squandered by the more unserious George W. Bush who spent most of his first year in office on his Texas ranch. Then 9/11 happened and Bush gave free rein to his minions who started two needless wars, some say under false pretenses that sill echo today. W. Bush squandered the Clinton budget legacy and his last year was punctuated by a financial crash that his successor Barak Obama spent a great deal of time fixing.
On balance, the period of nearly 30 years including last 20 years of the 20th and the first 8 of the 21st century resemble the Roaring 20’s another good times era administered by mediocrities and ending in the 1929 crash. More proof for the hypothesis that good times give us bad leaders and bad times can give us good ones.
But there’s nothing foreordained in this analysis. Donald Trump’s America resembles the Hoover administration’s 1930s — there’s civil unrest, an economic collapse and, a new twist, a pandemic that the unserious in power are doing nothing to combat.
The signs and signals suggest that the next president could be the serious person we need but there are no guarantees. Would a Biden presidency give the country what it needs to right the ship? Or would Biden become another William Henry Harrison, a victim of Coronavirus perhaps? In that circumstance could Kamala Harris rise to the occasion emulating Theodore Roosevelt after McKinley’s untimely assassination? Or would she become more of a John Tyler? Would Trump be granted another term? What will the country look like in four years in each scenario?
History shows us that who we pick as our presidents really does matter and gives the lie to the idea that they’re all the same.