This is a silly holiday. It began as a perfectly reasonable homage to Washington, fell prey to the legend of Lincoln, and was ultimately co-opted by all presidents into the meaningless day of general observance that today’s cult of the presidency demands. How can we honor the lot of America’s 44 presidents as a lumpen whole when they are so dramatically different individually, ideologically, temperamentally, as well as in motive and achievement? I find it rather embarrassing that we honor on the same day the likes of James Madison and Teddy Roosevelt. Yet on this day when our media engage in frivolous navel-gazing and obsess over the stature and ranking of past chief executives, why bother beating one’s head against the wall and insisting it’s all a charade, when one can just join the party? Herewith are my top five best and worst presidents.
1. Woodrow Wilson
A virulent white supremacist progressive who entered office on a platform that basically said the entire premise of the nation’s founding was immoral and unjust. Gave us the income tax, the Federal Reserve and the precursor to the United Nations. He also revived the monarchical practice of delivering a State of the Union in speech form to all of Congress, ending a century long tradition of written SOTU, a practice begun by the fierce opponent of regal pomp, Thomas Jefferson. Wilson was also an ardent warmonger who knew that war was the easiest way to reassert state power over a free citizenry.
2. Lyndon Johnson
A virulent racist progressive who became an icon of the left only by accident. LBJ was so pained by the constant insults and dismissive characterizations about his hick Texan drawl and demeanor that after Kennedy’s assassination he made it his mission to prove to the progressives in his party that he was as unabashedly leftist as it gets. Thus: Medicare and Medicaid. His motivation for the Civil Rights Act was entirely cynical, as Johnson was on record saying he would “have those [racial epithet]’s voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.” He also gave us a little something called “Vietnam.”
3. Franklin Roosevelt
As awful a domestic policy president as there is, FDR avoids the top two only by virtue of his personal decency and impressive (emotional and physical) resolve during the war. But let us not allow history to continue its improper veneration of the man simply because he presided over defeat of the Axis powers. The New Deal remains the most constitutionally offensive political action ever undertaken by this republic of ostensibly enumerated powers. Upon entering office in 1933, Roosevelt immediately persuaded Congress to “delegate” him virtually all power, so that this would-be dictator could freely institute his statist designs and central plans without obstacle. In a time when liberal democracy was prominently viewed worldwide as the quaint relic of a “decadent” West, FDR was applauded from London to Paris to Berlin to Rome to Moscow as wisely adhering to the martial and nationalist collectivism that seemed the inevitable a priori successor to a failed individualist capitalism. New Deal programs could have credibly been viewed as a piece with National Socialist or Fascist reforms, and in fact most of them were. In addition to being a rank demagogue, FDR was also an anti-semite and a racist, and unafraid to throw his own citizens in internment camps due to their ethnic origins. Among the greater disgraces in American pop-history is that he is considered even a good president, let alone among the best.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
Also a white supremacist who passionately subscribed to the cause celebre of the Progressive Movement: eugenics. The “bold reformers” of this era conducted a different manner of racism than that of the visceral, emotional, traditional brand of southerners still grappling with Reconstruction. Progressives were “scientific racists” who used biology and evolution to conclude, as HL Mencken did, in the inferiority of “the stock of the American Negro.” Roosevelt also earns a place in the top five simply for facilitating the election of Woodrow Wilson, by running as a third party candidate for the Bull Moose Party in 1912.
5. Barack Obama
Still got a couple more years to inch his way up this list. The Affordable Care Act alone, not to mention the manner in which it was forced on a skeptical population, is enough to rocket one into the top five. But it’s the arrogance and the hubris combined with staggering incompetence and indifference – on everything from IRS targeting of political enemies to the blithe launching of military operations in Libya to the extrajudicial use of the NSA and drone killing to the criminal ignorance of economics and the petty placing of politics forever before policy – that provides Obama with such an excellent chance at ending his presidency even higher on the list of America’s Worst Presidents.
1. George Washington
King George III of Great Britain said of the victorious general poised to become king that he was “placed in a light the most distinguished of any man living,” and was “the greatest character of the age.” And upon being told that Washington would relinquish power and return to his farm rather than become king, George III said, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Indeed.
2. Calvin Coolidge
Silent Cal is enjoying something of a renaissance in historical acclaim, though still nowhere near the absurdly reverential heights reserved for the likes of Washington or Lincoln. But Coolidge remains the only president of the 20th century to have left office with a smaller budget than he was met with upon entering. Coolidge vetoed anything with a whiff of progressivism that came to his desk and valued the notion that the private economy bolstered by individualist pursuits and low taxes were the recipe for economic vitality. As a result, his was the only decade to have such an apt modifier.
3. Thomas Jefferson / James Madison (tie)
I confess I place our third and fourth presidents here less for their exploits as actual presidents and more for their contributions to the construction of our republic that preceded their terms in office. In fact, their presidencies are clouded by a couple of unfortunate examples of enumerated government advocates embarking on decidedly unenumerated executive actions: the Louisiana Purchase and the establishment of the Second National Bank. Still, for being the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution respectively, and for enshrining forever the highest conception yet of a representative republic based on the primacy of the individual over the state, Jefferson and Madison have to be on the list.
4. Warren Harding
Everyone knows Harding for just two things, his running on a platform of a “return to normalcy” and the Teapot-Dome scandal. That we hear so much about the second is because he succeeded so thoroughly in pursuit of the first. Harding paved the way for Coolidge’s glorious reign by attempting to undo as much of Wilson’s apocalyptic damage to the Constitution and to decency (Harding released 22 political prisoners jailed by Wilson, including the famous socialist Eugene Debs) as possible and by favoring a much more limited government. After the chaos and disruption of the Progressive Era, a return to normalcy was badly needed, and Harding can only be deemed a historic success on that account. Most of all, like Coolidge, a president who combats activist, expansionary “progress” by insisting on limited government is a president that should be held in the highest of esteem.
5. Ronald Reagan
Despite the common misconception that Reagan made good on his promise that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” the federal government still grew under Reagan, primarily due to his aggressive military build-up against the Soviets. Even on the domestic front, the best Reagan was able to accomplish was a “freeze” on the growth of federal outlays, still a monumental achievement in our modern era of incessantly ballooning budget “baselines” and quests for “revenue-neutral” blah blah blah. And his massive marginal tax rate cut, from 70% to 28% over the duration of his two terms, served to usher in an enormous economic boom that did not truly end until the financial crisis of 2008. Reagan’s economic policies were not perfect (if you’re going to deregulate the asset side for banks, you must deregulate the liability side as well), but they put to bed for a long while the ignorance of the Keynesians who believed that economic growth and prosperity comes from government expenditures and “investments.” Reagan’s genius was in conveying a sunny optimism about the potential of American enterprise, and by creating the conditions that allowed individuals to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit and unleash the type of American economic dynamism that had been thought dormant or dead by the leftwing intelligentsia of the 60’s and 70’s.
So why don’t we just declare Presidents Day a pointless holiday with about as much relevance as Camelot, and be done with it? After all, ’tis a silly place.