Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"You don't care? You really want a turd sandwich as your school mascot?! On your football helmets?! A turd?!"

Ranking the Presidents, Part Seven: The Average

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

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
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. Bill Clinton
19. George Bush

Special election edition! For the record, in no way should South Park episode ("Douche vs. Turd") that the post title is taken from be construed as a comment on the candidates this year (well...not both of them, at least).

18. Ronald Reagan (1981 - 1989): OK, so now I'm in the unenviable position of explain why I person that I absolutely despise (Reagan)--a President that, along with JFK and George Washington, is among the three most overrated Chief Executives in history--was a better President than the two men that followed him. To be honest, I don't really want to do this, but I'll give it a shot.

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) "Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall."); (2) Made America feel "good" about itself after the perpetual bummer that was the Carter Admin. (3) The Challenger Speech; (4) I always thought this was funny (notable, too, is the part where Brian Williams insinuates that the heckler was promptly executed by Secret Service). (5) This was pretty hilarious, too (I think he thought he was kidding...)

Low Points: My biggest beef with Reagan--and this seems like as good a place as any to delve into it--is that he has this reputation as kind-hearted individual that is totally detached from reality. I can't count the number of times that the expression "he'd give you the shirt off his back" has been used in connection with RR (a proposition that--for all I know--may be true but totally discounts the fact that that's literally all he'd give you ever, regardless of how poor/hungry/living without a roof you were).

(Parenthetically--literally!--a perfect example of this is this tiny entry of LGBT Rights within RR's Wikipedia entry:
Reagan is reported to have been personally tolerant of homosexuality. In a Time magazine interview, Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, recalled that when she was a little girl watching a film with actor Rock Hudson, her father talked about the actor's gay orientation in a "clear, smooth, non-judgmental way". One of Reagan's high level advisors since the 1970s, Martin Anderson, stated that Reagan seemed comfortable working around gay people in Hollywood and that he believed gay people should tolerated. Yet, despite his personal tolerance, he generally opposed LGBT legislation. [Kyle here: to the point where he refused to mention AIDS publicly by name for the entirety of his first term in office, and, even after the death of his good friend Rock Hudson from complications with AIDS in 1985, he didn't support any active measures to curtail its spread.]
Oh, cool. So you were privately supportive, but, despite being, you know, the fucking leader of the free world, you did absolutely nothing to enact real change? That's incredibly helpful!)

This is a guy who, in four public opinion polls conducted in the last 10 ten years--C-SPAN (1999, 1st!), ABC News (2000, 5th), just behind no opinion), Washington College (2005, 2nd), Gallup (2007, 2nd)--has never finished outside the top five (and, when I was at the Smithonsian, was comfortably ahead of FDR in the interactive "greatest President" exhibit--a revelation that almost made me throw up), despite the fact that, as near as I can tell, the thing that qualifies him as "great" appears to be that he made Americans feel good about themselves, which, while not insignificant, isn't exactly enough.

I've said this dozens of times (to anyone that will listen--usually Jesse), but the fact that people on both sides of the aisle seem to be falling all over themselves to name any hospital, highway, airport, school, street, plane, award, medal, museum, stamp, aircraft carrier, and ship after Reagan, while LBJ (no saint either--but ten times the President) languishes in (comparative) obscurity drives me absolutely crazy.

(1) "Reaganonomics" (something that pushed social stratification to heights never previously seen--though damned if you'd see that mentioned anywhere in RR's extensive Wikipedia entry); (2) Named Antonin Scalia--one of the five biggest douchers of the last 100 years--to the Supreme Court; (3) SDI (which I guess gets about 3% less crazy every year, seeing as the Cold War has ended and all, but, rest assured, was needlessly reckless in 1983; (4) Iran-Contra; (5) Gutting Medicaid, Food Stamps, Environmental, and Federal Education Programs...but other than that, you know, he was cool...

Fun Facts: (1) Somewhat weirdly--and virtually unheard of today--Reagan challenged sitting President (and fellow party member) Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries, pursuing it all the way to the RNC, where he narrowly lost (1,187 to 1,070) on the first ballot. This is the last convention for either side that opened without a clear nominee already locked in (RR having won--a what must have been discouraging to Ford--10 states in the lead-up).

(2) Rejected presidential portrait ideas included Reagan rolling around in a pile of money cut from vital social programs, Reagan not holding an elevator door for a teenage girl contemplating an abortion, and Reagan beating a homeless man to death with a golden cane.

(3) Only President ever to be divorced (and, by way of a quick endorsement, I'm praying this will still be true in 2012).

(4) In fairness, being nicknamed "The Teflon President" is kinda bad-ass.

In Writing:
I'll recommend Dutch (sight unread) just because it's so crazy.

In Popular Culture:
(1) Alex P. Keaton's hero on Family Ties (allow me to very quickly renew my objection to this fabulous show not being in syndication anywhere on non-satellite TV in Canada--very disappointing).

(2) Apparently, any "mistakes were made" reference (Burns in "Monty Can't Buy Me Love"--aka the Lock Ness episode; Bart in "Bart, the Mother"--aka the one where he accidentally shoots the bird) on The Simpsons is a shout-out to the Iran-Contra affair. I didn't even know that.

(3) His last movie (he made over 60), The Killers, is the only one where he played a villain. (Bonus factoid: it was during filming of The Killers, that Reagan's co-star, Angie Dickinson, learned that JFK--her alleged lover--had been assassinated).

Test of Time:
Groan. I honestly don't know. I pray: worse. But my gut tells me: better.

17. William McKinley (1899 - 1901)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) annexed Hawaii; (2) The Open Door Policy (though, I'll admit, I still don't really understand what it's all about); (3) won two elections without ever having to leave his front porch (google it if ye doubt the claim).

Low Points:
(1) Pretty much got duped into entering a war, with Hearst's "yellow press" and jumping to conclusions with the U.S.S. Maine (when it exploded--killing the entire 350-person crew--everyone assumed that Spain had blown it up. Only in 1950 did the Navy confess that it was sunk by a "faulty boiler.") People tend to cut McKinley some slack for this, since the Spanish-American War was, comparatively, "easy" (and wildly profitable), but this still strikes me as wildly irresponsible. (I'm also remembering a story about McKinley's malleability, though the source escapes me, that, like with Csar Nicholas of Russia, the best way to ensure that McKinley would do what you wanted was to be the last person to meet with him on any given issue).

(2) Again: being assassinated. This actually happened at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo (earning it the nickname "World's Worst World's Fair." This mantle was later passed to Expo '74 in Spokane, but just because it was really boring). Continuing with a long tradition of seemingly incompetent medical treatment for Presidents that had fallen ill/been shot, doctors were originally optimistic that McKinley would survive, as he seemed to be rallying nearly a week after being shot. Unfortunately, he died from gangrene, leading Joseph Lister to blurt out: "oh, for fuck's sake! Doesn't anyone read The Lancet? Tell you what, I'll send you a goddamned copy!"

Fun Facts: (1) McKinley's assassin (Leon Czolgosz) actually pled guilty to murder, but under a bizarre NY law, his plea was switched to not guilty. He was then forced to stand trial, whereupon he refused the services of an attorney (not wanting to embarrass himself in front of his anarchist friends, one presumes).

(2) As Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, Teddy Roosevelt said: "McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair." Upon becoming McKinley's VP, Roosevelt remarked:
"hey, buddy, sorry about that whole "chocolate eclair" crack. In my defense, I'm kind of a dick. Say...that's a really nice chair. [Sits] Oh, yeah. Hey, can I have this if something happens to you? Cool."
(3) Only clean-shaven President between Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson (that's 44 years, btw).

In Writing: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. It's not a full-fledged bio, but rather a book that looks at the events/venues/people surrounding the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. A must-read. As for a McKinley bio, let's go with Margaret Leech's In The Days of McKinley (1959), which I nearly bought several different times at a local used book store.

In Popular Culture:
(1) On the $500 bill (if you were a U.S. mint fanatic...or a heroin dealer, you would already know this). (2) His assassin (Czolgosz) appeared as an escaped soul in a S1 episode of Reaper. (3) From the casino episode ("$pringfield"):

Smithers: Sir, bad news from accounting: the economy's hit us pretty hard.
Burns: Heh, tough times, huh? I've lived through twelve recessions, eight panics, and five years of McKinleynomics. I'll survive this.
Smithers: Even so, sir, we could stand to lay off a few employees.
Burns: [enthusiastic] Oh, very well! [points at some monitors] Lay off him, him, him, him [sees Homer wearing Kissinger's glasses] Hmm...better keep the egghead. He just might come in handy.

Test of Time: Appears to be holding in the mid-t0-low teens in polls over the last 25 years. No reason to think that won't continue.

16. Grover Cleveland (1885 - 1889, 1893 - 1897)

High Points/Accomplishments:
Double presidency! If nothing else: degree of difficulty bonus! And, um, he...uh, passed the (largely toothless) Interstate Commerce Act and also lowered the protective tariff (again with this? Christ!).

Low Points: Ms. Crabapple describes Cleveland's second term as "even more uneventful" than his first, and that's about right. There was the Panic of 1893 (caused by a poor crop harvest, a slumping European economy, and dwindling U.S. gold res--zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz) and the Pullman Strike of 1894 (which Cleveland promptly broke by dispatching federal troops to Illinois) and...that's about it. Boring!

Fun Facts:
(1) Was nearly thirty years younger than his wife (49 to her 21 when they got married--the only President, incidentally, to get married in the White House itself). Wait! It gets even ickier: he first met his future wife...when she was born. (Oh, my! And I used to give my dad a rough time for being in the fifth grade when mom was in kindergarden...)

(2) Involved (in 1884) in one of the least honorable campaigns in history, with rumours swirling throughout. Cleveland supporters chanted "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! Continental liar from the state of Maine!" while Blaine backers fired back with "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!" which was dig at GC fathering a child out of wedlock. (As Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out on The Daily Show last night, they really should bring back campaign jingles). Just in case you thought politics was sad now...

(3) Deemed "Our Gayest President" by America: The Book, explaining (at p. 38):
"When Cleveland returned to the White House at the height of the "Gay Nineties," it was after defeating Benjamin Harrison in a debate with shrieks of "Oh, listen to her!"
In Writing: Try An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H.P. Jeffers (2002).

In Popular Culture:
(1) Spanked Grandpa Simpson on two non-consecutive occasions. (2) On the $1,000 bill (though it hasn't been printed since 1945). (2) inspiration for Grover on Sesame Street....probably. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong!

Test of Time: Same fate as McKinley, it would appear. Competent, but never in danger of cracking the Top Ten. Disadvantaged slightly, it would seem, by being President during an exceedingly tedious period in American history (seriously, these guys got wood debating the merits of "free and unlimited coinage of silver.")

15. John Adams (1797 - 1801)

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) The XYZ Affair, in which Adams released a document from French officials (their names replaced by the letters X, Y, and Z) seeking a $250,000 bribe from America in exchange for normalizing relations between the two countries. While it may seem, in retrospect, like kind of dickish move, given that Adams wanted to avoid war with France at all costs and this letter all but assured that Federalists and Republicans alike wanted to smash the nascent French Republic into a billion tiny pieces, in the long run this worked out, as Adams weathered the pro-war tide, and, in 1800, reached a neutrality agreement with them.

(2) Appointed John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (with apologies to Earl Warren: the very best in the nation's history).

Low Points: (1) Responsible for the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798... as series of four laws which are probably best viewed as a colonial age PATRIOT Act (and did you know that the USA PATRIOT Act is actually an acronym? Stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." Yup, even the USA part--to my knowledge, already an acronym-- is given a new spin. I just learned this. Anyway, I digress...). The Sedition Act (which, mercifully, lapsed in 1800) threatened anyone who wrote, published (or uttered!) anything malicious or scandalous with imprisonment, which isn't something, in the ordinary course of things, you want a Founding Father is sniffing distance of. (That's right, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Deal with it. That's how they rolled in the 1790s...)

(2) The Midnight Appointments. On the night before leaving office, a hugely bitter Adams, appointed a slew of Federalist judges to the bench in an effort to curb the Republican tendencies of President-Elect Jefferson. Then, like a little bitch, he fled D.C. before dawn, successfully avoiding TJ's inaugural address (another first). Jefferson cancelled many of these appointments, but the bigger issue, I think (and you'll note that I have absolutely zero in the way of facts to back this up), is that Adams's last second appointments helped usher in the era of last second pardons for obviously guilty cronies/rampant vandalism of the White House/removal of all Qs from the computers and/or primitive typing machines. In other words: the last minute excesses of outgoing admins can be traced to this. (This is especially interesting because people often refer to this changeover, somewhat ironically, as "The Rebellion of 1800," in that, for the first time, one party replaced another, yet the results were bloodless. To which I say: bloodless, yes. Petty grudge-less? Not so much.)

Fun Facts: (1) First sitting President to lose an election;

(2) From DeGregorio (p. 19):

"There are few people in this world with whom I can converse," Adams once admitted. "I can treat all with decency and civilty, and converse with them, when it is necessary, on points of business. But I am never happy in their company." This confession sums up the paradox of Adams's personality; he genuinely loved and had deep compassion for humanity but never learned to deal with individual human beings. To his immediate family, he was a warm, generously loving man; to outsiders, he appeared cold, aloof conceited.

Oh...one of those guys.

(3) As anyone who watched The West Wing will remember, Adams died on July 4th, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson. It gets even more interesting, as the two were the only signatories of the Declaration of Independence to become President. Also, they died fifty years to the day that they signed the DoI. Also, Adams's famous last words ("Jefferson lives [...dude owes me like $500!]") are actually incorrect, as Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.

(4) From America: The Book (p. 16):

"Jefferson, you're on the two. Hamilton? You get the ten. I'm calling dibs on the one. That's all me, baby. What's that, Adams? You wanted the one? All right, that's it: you don't get to be on anything. That's right, I'm taking back the quarter. Anyone else want to complain? I didn't think so."

George Washington, 1789

In Writing: David McCullough's John Adams (2001) is very good, though pales in comparison to his work on Truman.

In Popular Culture: (1) played, of course, by Paul Giamatti in the critically-acclaimed HBO mini-series John Adams. Nice. Cooler still, Abigail is played by YAYDP-favorite Laura Linney (squeeee).

(2) How awesome is this T-shirt? Conservatively, how many shirts do you think they've sold? 12? 10?

Test of Time:
Again, his presidential legacy has a lot do with the man he followed (GW) and the one he preceded (TJ). In both cases, Adams suffers considerably by comparison. Being the only POTUS of the first five not to serve two terms also hurts his cause. My verdict: great man, but only an adequate President.

(Yes we can. Yes we can.)

Next: #14 - #11


Fernando said...

Hey great post...but, u seem to begrudgingly put reagan at 18. The post reads like a really bad president with him making major errors in policy and only highlights are symbolic gestures/speeches and making America feel good.

Where you said Clinton didn't do much in his second term, u seem to say Reagan didn't do anything at all, outside of the symbolic gestures. All the policies you highlight are under the low points (iran-contra, reaganomics, social policy restraint). Comparing that entry with ur bush I entry, it reads like Bush is well ahead of Reagan. but he isnt?

Just wondering why that is?

Anonymous said...

On a similar vein to above, an interesting article that makes the case for why Reagan wasn't necessarily so bad (for conservatives) (compared to Bush).