Monday, November 10, 2008

"My question is about the budget, sir..."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Eight: The...Oh, My God!...These Guys Actually Seem to Know What They're Doing!

See also:
part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven

(In my best "TV anchor from Arrested Development voice: "I blew it!")

Alright, so I fucked up. I've been trying to justify placing Reagan ahead of both Clinton and Bush 41 and, despite numerous attempts at rationalizing it (you can't overstate the importance of ending the Cold War; he restored America's faith in America; relying on past presidential polls, which always place RR ahead of WJC and B41), I keep coming up with counter-arguments (yeah but, he was so reckless in the early 80s and, in many ways, made the Russia Problem so much worse--the fact that Communism fell should really be attributed to internal stuctural problems anyway; re: faith? Really? Did he? Despite his popularity on January 20, 1989, Reagan, arguably, did more than anyone since Nixon to divide the country; if I'm just going to follow past rankings, what's the point in even doing this?), plus people (Jesse, Shuk, Fernando) have all made good points (Jesse's comment consists entirely of him saying "REALLY??") in railing against the rankings. So, in true Joe Quimby fashion, I've had a change of heart and I'm dropping RR to 20th, just behind Clinton and I'm retroactively designating Reagan and Clinton as "average" instead of "still pretty lousy" (when this is all done, I'm going to compile all ten posts into one uber-list which no one will ever read. That one will have the entries in the correct order. But, for the time being, I'm simply going to note the changes in the running count and leave the original posts intact).

So far (revised):

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
(...and did you know that, of all hundreds of thousands of more accomplished people in American history, it was Warren Harding who--rather improbably--coined the term "Founding Father"? Apparently, he did. At the 1916 RNC. Wow.)
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce
38. George W. Bush
37. Andrew Johnson
36. Millard Fillmore

35. John Tyler
34. James A. Garfield
33. Zachary Taylor
32. Ulysses S. Grant
31. Richard Nixon
30. Herbert Hoover
29. Benjamin Harrison
28. Jimmy Carter
27. Chester A. Arthur
26. Rutherford B. Hayes
25. Gerald Ford
24. Martin Van Buren
23. Calvin Coolidge
22. John Quincy Adams
21. William Howard Taft
20. Ronald Reagan
19. Bill Clinton

18. George Bush
17. William McKinley
16. Grover Cleveland
15. John Adams


Onto the next five...

14. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 - 1961)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Just a massive vote-getter, really, racking up 899 electoral votes out of a possible 1,161 in his two national races. Admittedly, he did have the benefit of running against Adlai Stevenson twice (a man I greatly admire but who was no politician). (2) created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, in exchange for a written declaration assuring him that every single mile of highway in America be named after him for the rest of time. (3) Ended the Korean War in July 1953. In a Gallup poll later that month, 46% of Americans responded "there was a war going on in Korea?" (4) Appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Low Points:
(1) You know, you can call it "brinksmanship" to try and class it up, but I'm always going to think of it as "we're going to behave as if we're batshit crazy in the hopes that you're too terrified to ever even think of bombing us. New Look, Schmew Look. All I'll say is that they borrowed a page out of Hitler's playbook (look it up), which is never a good thing.

(2) Responsible for the Eisenhower Doctrine (U.S. asserting its right to aid any country threatened by Communist affression or subversion--basically, all the stuff in The Good Shepherd that made you squeamish...sex scenes between Jolie and Damo excluded) and the Domino Theory (all countries, even small ones, need to be protected from Communism, lest one fall and start a chain reaction). And, yeah, you could spin this as a good thing (keeping America safe, etc.) but I've always found (and, admittedly, it's easy enough for me to say this in 2008 when the war is over and we all realize that the Communist threat was always far scarier in the average American's imagination than it actually was, but indulge me...) that these policies needlessly intensified Cold War tensions. Also, this:

(3) From his Farewell Address in 1961:
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."
I'm sorry. Are you referring to the complex that you played a massive role in creating, that you oversaw, and that you built up? OK, just checking. Never quite understood why he's viewed as a prophet, when really the speech amounted to "you know that thing I've been doing for the past eight years? We may want to look into not doing it anymore. Later!" (4) was totally a pussy w/r/t McCarthyism.

Fun Facts: (1) (and I swear to God this is true) did not dress himself when he was President.

(2) Wanted desperately to be a baseball player, but was actually a much better footballer. Played for Army when he went there, and famously played against the Jim Thorpe-led Carlisle Indian School squad in a 1912 showdown (as chronicled in the recommended The Real All-Americans by Sally Jenkins).

(3) finished 11th on Gallup's 1999 list of Widely Admired People, just behind Churchill and one spot ahead of Jackie O. Ike finished two spots ahead of Gahndi, btw, which is an issue in its own right, but, just for the moment...Gandhi finished one spot lower than Jackie O? Really?? Mohandas Gandhi? Did she participate in a hunger strike that I'm not aware of? I mean, that's two spots higher than Mandela.

(4) Had seven heart attacks (one in the White House, six after), but survived them all.

(5) Had a putting green installed in the backyard of the White House. Sweeeet. Also: was something like a ten to fifteen-handicap. Not bad. And had a hole-in-one in 1968 at the age of 78.

(6) When working for the Army, he smoked four packs a day. Isn't that 100 cigarettes? I'll be honest, I don't even know how you find time to smoke 100 cigarettes a day if that's the only thing you're doing, let alone if you're the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. (He quit--cold turkey--in 1949.)


In Writing: I slogged through both volumes of Stephen Ambrose's Ike bio (note that Eisenhower made a point of requesting Ambrose's services, something that always raises an eyebrow with me). Volume 1 (basically: the pre-Presidency years) was entertaining enough (particularly because he worked under--and later served as a foil to--legendary prick General Douglas MacArthur...and because the stuff on the "Draft Eisenhower" campaign--remember, both parties wanted Ike to run in '53--is fascinating), but volume 2 was a big, dull dud, with Ambrose, perhaps concerned that there wasn't enough to talk about during Eisenhower's eight years in the Oval Office, opting for virtually a day-by-day account of Ike's presidency. In summation: mild thumbs up for volume one, thumbs way down for volume two.

In Popular Culture: (1) the Eisenhower Tree [dusts off hands triumphantly];

...oh, (2) and was played by Magnum P.I. in a TV movie.

Test of Time: I've got Ike ranked considerably lower than most (he was ranked 12th in a 1990 Siena survey, but, since then, he hasn't finished outside the top ten in any of the last six major polls), largely because I feel strongly that he put America on a dangerous path...a fact that's often ignored since people were so fond of Eisenhower personally.

13. John F. Kennedy (1961 - 1963): sorry, Jesse. Part Nine should be out later this week--you can check back then.

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) (begrudgingly) the Cuban Missile Crisis--to the extent that the world didn't actually end, JFK deserves some credit. (More on this in a sec.)

(2) Inaugural address: timeless.

(3) This:

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard..."

and:

"Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. Thank you."

(For my money, this is even better than the inaugural. Full text here.)

(4) Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the founding of the Peace Corps.

Low Points: (1) Can we talk about all the possible ways the Cuban Missile Crisis could've gone wrong? I'm still not sure if publicly accusing the Soviets was the best course of action (without that speech, arguably, this time period is remembered differently, if at all)...or the that the "quarantine" was, pretty clearly, a blockade, and thus an act of war. (Hmmm...that's only two points...I could swear I had more). Let me say that, by and large, I do think he did a good job managing the crisis, just so long as we recognize that, handled differently (read: more privately), there mightn't have been a crisis at all.

(2) I'm also calling bullshit on JFK being some sort of civil rights trailblazer. What I find ironic is that he actually made a speech saying, in effect, "look, we need stop being all talk and no action," yet was himself all talk on the matter. Note how timid (or, worse: unwilling) he was in dealing with stubborn Southern Governors, his hemming and hawing before finally (a dozen days later)sending in the National Guard when James Meredith was barred entry into the University of Mississippi in '62 (in fairness, he reacted far more swiftly when the same thing happened at the University of Alabama the next year), and generally dragging his feet (largely, it's been presumed, because it was politically expedient for him to do so) for 2+ years before (sort of) swinging into action in the summer of '63. (And we won't even get into how he, foolishly, voted for a gutted form of the 1957 Civil Rights Act when he was in the Senate). A good source on all of this is Harvard Sitkoff's The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954 - 1992.

(3) Getting the ball rolling on Vietnam. This includes authorizing what amounted to be a hit on then President Diem. And while it's ever so convenient for his close pals (notably: Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) to insist that he was, like, totally going to pull the U.S. out of Vietnam just as soon as he got re-elected, I, for one, am not biting (for one thing: let's not forget that LBJ made a similar claim in the lead-up to '64).

(4) Bay of Pigs.

Fun Facts:
(1) Was actually a terrific golfer (an 8-handicap or lower, I believe), but kept it under wraps, since he didn't want to be perceived as a leisure President (Eisenhower, his predecessor, played daily while in office).

(2) Seriously, what is up with that Presidential portrait (the centre square on the Hollywood Squares-inspired tableau above--largely because the photo pile option I usually go with kept putting the Kennedy pic at the bottom of the pile)? Did everyone involved drop acid five minutes before Kennedy sat down?

(3) Here's what the usually reliable DeGregorio has to say about JFK's voluminous extramarrital affairs (at 550):

After the assassination there arose a spare of allegations that President Kennedy routinely cheated on his wife. Women claiming to have been intimate with Kennedy include stripper Blaze Starr, painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, who died mysteriously in 1964, and Judith Campbell Exner, lover to reputed Mafia boss Sam Giancana. It also has been charged that he had an affair with actress Marilyn Monroe.

And that's it, as if history stopped altogether in 1964. The fuck? I'll admit that dropping something to the effect of "andohbytheway, he and RFK totally double-team Marilyn in the White House pool" is a little too forward, but doesn't strike you as a tad timid on DeGregorio's part? 63 words? For Kennedy?? I mean, this is a man who dedicated three-quarters of a page to the alleged conquests of notorious lothario (please note the sarcasm) Dwight Eisenhower (Kay Sommersby...his personal driver during the war). Come on.

I don't really have the time or the inclination to provide an exhaustive list of his conquests (OK, I probably do, but I won't), but by way of proving my point, here are there references to "Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, sex life of" in the index of Dallek's An Unfinished Life:

45-49, 60, 78-79, 151-153, 175, 194-95, 249, 281-82, 375-76, 475-80, 579-80, 700, 706-7.

And, of those pages, here are the ones where Jackie Kennedy is referenced:

375

(and I'll wager--my copy is in London so I can't say for sure--that one or both of those entries focuses primarily on the extent of Jackie's knowledge of his bird-dogging).

(4) Only President to predecease both his parents.

In Writing:
Unfortunately, no one writes about JFK. Moving on...

Fine. I went through a real JFK phase from the age of 10 to 14, so I've read dozens of books on the Kennedys. If you want a book wherein Kennedy is portrayed as a glorious angel who has miraculously fallen to earth, you can go with Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days (though it does read like hagiography, it's worth reading if you want to know more about the day to day activities in the Kennedy White House). Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (you remember the book, it was the one where they found out she cribbed passages from another author's book on the Kennedys and she had to resign from the Pulitizer committee. It was all very embarrassing, which is too bad, since DKG--who appeared in Ken Burns' Baseball--is all kinds of awesome.) Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life (2003) provides loads of insight into the private JFK.

In Popular Culture: Jesus...there must be a hundred Simpsons' references to Kennedy (including every sighting of Quimby's wife). I'll go with my favorite three. The first one is when Lisa befriends two college girls ("Little Girl in the Big Ten") and JFK visits her in a dream. Unfortunately, SNCC doesn't have a capsule for this ep, and I can't find the quotes or clips anywhere, but I vividly recall Lisa saying "just like when you wrote Profiles in Courage, right?" And Kennedy says "uh, yes, wrote." And then, at the end, Lisa says, "I'll see you in heaven, President Kennedy!" And Kennedy says "uh, yes, heaven." Did I imagine this? Can anyone back me up?

The second one is a random moment from "Homer Phobia":

Marge: [gasps] Oh, Homer, look! Look, a TV Guide owned by Jackie O.
John: Oh, you should see the crossword puzzle. She thought that Mindy lived with "Mark."
Homer: Give her a break! Her husband was killed!

Which is ten times funnier when you watch it, because Homer is so indignant.

And #3 (from "$pringfield") always elicits a really evil laugh:

Homer: Uh, let's see: eighteen, twenty-seven, thirty-five...Dealer busts! Looks like you all win again.
Texan: Yee-haw! Homer, I want you to have my lucky hat. I wore it the day Kennedy was shot, and it always brings me good luck.
Homer: Why thanks, Senator!

Beyond this, I don't think there's any point in listing other things. You want Kennedy in popular culture? Stumble around aimlessly for 30 seconds and you're bound to find something.

Test of Time:
I really should just have a macro for "boy...tough one" at this stage. Two things to consider about Kennedy here: (1) the more that comes out about him (and Dallek, in particular, provides loads of insight here), the more obvious it is that it's remarkable he lived even as long as he did (Addison's). I suppose this improves his reputation, since he accomplished a fair bit under adverse circumstances. (2) Obama's ascension is going to (or, rather: has already) inspire(d) a shit-load of comparisons to John, Jackie, and Camelot (basically: the last time in American politics it felt like a new era was being ushered in). Now, this can break one of two ways: on the one hand, it might cause people to continue to view JFK through rose-colored glasses. On the other, it might inspire people (younger people, I imagine) to take a closer look at what I like to call "the real Kennedy"--the one that was far more ineffectual, timid, underhanded, and vacillating than all of would like to remember.

12. James K. Polk (1845 - 1849):
sorry, RT.
As somewhat of a pre-emptive strike: he's higher than Kennedy because, next to Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR, Polk is probably the most responsible for shaping the way America looks today. Since that will, no doubt, satisfy absolutely no one, let's go to the breakdown...

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) while I'm hesitant to put any sort of war as a high point, I think the Mexican-American War (and the subsequent acquisition of Texas at the Rio Grande, most of present day California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona...which certainly helps explain Polk's nickname--Senor Bastard--in Mexico) definitely belongs here.

(2) A believer in free trade (I know! And in the 19th century! Imagine that...), he signed a law (The Walker Tariff) that significantly lowered tariff rates.

(3) Negotiated the Oregon Treaty, which gave the U.S. Washington and Oregon and firmly established the 49th parallel as the northern border.

Low Points: Sigh...he owned slaves (20 of them) and was opposed to the Wilmot Proviso (a bill proposed in 1846 that would've forbidden slavery in any of the states acquired from Mexico).

Fun Facts:
(1) has probably the best final words of any President ("I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.") Unfortunately, his wife's name was actually Karen. So it goes. (Kidding.)

(2) The first "dark horse" candidate to rise to the presidency. Polk came to the 1844 DNC as Governor of Tennessee and was hoping to be made the VP nominee. Instead, with the support of fellow Tennesseean Andrew Jackson, he bested Martin Van Buren (whom, if I'm not mistaken, ran for President all 25 times in the 19th century) on the 9th ballot.

(3) Interestingly, offered to buy Cuba for $100 million in 1848 (roughly $27 billion today). Spain turned him down.

(4) Along with Madison and Buchanan (who never married), one of the three Presidents that didn't have kids (I think--I'm not 100% positive on this one).

(5) Had no hobbies. Seriously. None. Unless you count memorizing Robert's Rules of Order. (No? OK.) If you're curious why a man who lived for politics voluntarily opted not to run for re-election, the answer is...I don't actually have the answer. Seems strange, doesn't it? It's kind of a shame, too, since he--if only by virtue of the fact that he wasn't staggeringly incompetent--would surely have faired much better than Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan in handling the impending crisis (and perhaps that's the answer...he saw what was coming down the pipe and got the fuck out of Dodge--I dunno).

(6) The only Speaker of the House (and I think it's safe to say that this will never happen again) to become President.

(7) As mentioned in an earlier post, Polk has the shortest post-Presidency period on record: 103 days. In his will, he ordered that his slaves be manumitted (fancy for "freed") upon his wife's death, at which point his wife decided to live for another forty-two years out of spite (the slaves, residing in Tennessee, where nevertheless freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865).

(8) Along with "Franklin Pierce," maybe the only good porn name among all the Presidents.

In Writing: Polk might be my next read. Haven't been able to find a good, full-length bio, though Paul H. Bergeron's The Presidency of James K. Polk (1987) is supposed to be good for the POTUS stuff.

In Popular Culture: (1) Al Bundy's high school alma mater (where he famously scored four touchdowns in one game) was none other than...(James K.) Polk High. Hell, I wasn't even much of a fan of the show, and I remember that.

Test of Time:
Polk has always been ranked in the top third, but, in recent years, he's slowly crept into the top ten, largely because he set an agenda and stuck to it--something that is increasingly rare in this day and age. (Note to future presidents who may read this: this only applies to good agendas, but cf 2001 - 2009.) For that reason, I imagine he'll continue to trend up a bit, possibly even passing the next two guys I'm about to look at (who people remember fondly despite the fact that, as Presidents, they didn't, objectively speaking, do a whole hell of a lot). On that note...

Time for another head to head, since this one is also too close to call. This time we've got James Madison (in red, president #4) vs. James Monroe (in blue, president #5). That's right, it's "The Battle of the Jameses." To be honest, I don't find either of these guys to be too compelling, but I'm going to soldier and begrudgingly acknowledge their importance.

High Points/Accomplishments: War of 1812 (I guess). He loses a few points for a signing a treaty (Ghent, 1814) restoring things to...exactly the way things were before.

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) Missouri Compromise (I guess...only to the extent that it prevented Civil War). (2) The Monroe Doctrine (coloquially: "you fuck with us, we'll fuck with you right back"). (3) President during the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" (really? Did you poll the slaves on that one?) which seems fairly perverse when the average life expectancy was south of 40.

Slight Edge:
Monroe

Low Points:
not a whole lot, actually. (1) Passed something called the Non-Intercourse Act (which permitted U.S. trade with everyone except for France and Great Britain) in 1809-10. Lame. (2) Also opposed to federal funds for internal improvements, since he thought it exceeded Congress's constitutional authority. Dude, you basically wrote the constitution. It says what you say it says. (In his defense, he did recommend a constitutional amendment here.)

Low Points:
(1) the flip side of the Mizzou Compromise is that it was, both in retrospect and at the time, a band-aid on a gaping chest wound.
(2) President during the Panic of 1819 (largely due to shoddy bank practices and rampant land speculation--good thing that's no longer a problem, right guys?). Hey, here's a tip: maybe if you stopped calling them "panic"s, things wouldn't spiral out of control...

Edge:
Madison

Fun Facts:
(1) shortest President in history (5'4", and, yes, it was wrong of you to even think about making an FDR joke here). He also weighed just a shade over 100 (!) pounds, so, basically, America was ruled by a small child for eight years.

(2) Perennial NCAA tourney 14-seed James Madison University is--clearly--named after him. Famous alums include--actually, no, there are really just the three--former Redskin receiver Gary Clark, former Cowboy (and purported lunatic) Charles Haley, and Barbara Hall (creator of TV's Joan of Arcadia).

(3) Madison, Wisconsin--only one of the coolest towns in the U.S.--is named after him. Nice.

(4) The last Founding Father to die (in 1836) Asked for comment, Elbridge Gerry said "rats. I really needed that."

Fun Facts: (1) Monrovia, The capital of Liberia, is named after James Monroe. That's right, Madison, not just a state capital, a national capital. Suck it.

(2) On the off chance that there was a university named after him, I wikipediaed "James Monroe University." Turns out there is (or rather was) one. Unfortunately, it was actually one of the fake schools used by St. Regis University, a now-defunct diploma mill featured in a CNN expose in 2005. Ouch. On the off chance anyone from the Monroe family ever comes across this: you should've heeded Jon Hamm's advice and been more careful attaching your name to any product/institution.

(3) His VP, Daniel D. Tompkins (who, as Governor of New York during the War of 1812, was--insanely--responsible for defending his state, put his own assets up as collateral to get money, and went broke in the process) was a raging alcoholic (the preceding story, one presumes, having something to do with it) and presided over the Senate while drunk several times.

(4) Because his wife was sick, he lived in the White House for three weeks after his successor (JQA) was inaugurated, which I find amusing (not the part about Mrs. Monroe being sick).

Edge:
Tough one, since national > state, but then the fake school thing is pretty embarrassing. Slight edge to Monroe (they named a whole doctrine after him, people!).

In Writing: Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (1971). Supposed to be great; haven't read it.

In Writing: Harry Ammon's James Monroe, The Quest for National Identity (1971). Again, haven't read it.

Edge: Push.

In Popular Culture: (1) Madison County, Iowa is named after him. And, fair or not, it's this county that was the inspiration for the insufferable The Bridges of Madison County. Can we just go ahead and give this category to Monroe, already? (2) Voiced by Rob Lowe in the documentary series Founding Brothers. (3) Voiced by Randy Travis--huh? The country singer?--in the mini-series Founding Fathers.

In Popular Culture:
Judge Reinhold went to James Monroe high in Fredericksburg, VA. Wow...now that's a stretch.

Edge: wow, how pathetic is Monroe's Q rating that I'm giving this to Madison
despite his link to TBoMC?

Test of Time:
at the bottom of (virtually) everybody's Top 10.

Test of Time:
at the bottom of (virtually) everybody's Top 10.

Edge: Push.

Verdict: You know what? I still don't know. I think I'll go with Monroe ahead of Madison because his impact (particularly on the foreign policy front) is more lasting.

11. James Madison (1809 - 1817)

10. James Madison (1817 - 1825)

Next: #9 - #5

4 comments:

Question Mark said...

Pierce and Polk are the only good porn names?! Uh, did you forget about the two guys named Bush?

Fernando said...

Good look on the shout out, made my day lol. Nice perspective on the Military Industrial Complex.

Hal Incandenza said...

Shuk: I did consider "George Bush" (2x) as one of the names, but, really, we're talking about names for guys...and George Bush doesn't really make sense in that context. If it's a girl and it's a George Eliot-type situation, then, ok, we can talk.

Wait...we were talking about Presidents, right?

Fernando: no problem. You were bang with your analysis, since my "spirited" defense of Reagan was really anything but.

As for the Eisenhower thing: I suspect my take isn't all that novel. Still, when your Secretary of Defense (Charlie Wilson) says stuff like "What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa," you kind of have to call bullshit on a President that, years later, warns against stuff like that.

Eagerly awaiting Jesse's
incredibly bitter rebuttal...

Jesse said...

I don't see how "The Cuban Missile Crisis could've gone wrong" is a negative. It shows that it was an incredibly difficult challenge, in that it had pitfalls.

What are you saying he should've done? Rolled over?