I like making lists. It's fun. It also forces a lot of critical thinking and soul-searching. Why rank Thing A over Thing B? How does one judge greatness–by quality or personal connection? Can I explain my choices as more than the product of instinct?
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the presidents. I've done some pretty deep research on some of them for work. And, given the 24-hour news cycle shit-show of the past few months, just where certain presidents would fall on an all-time list has become an ongoing exercise. Why not formalize it here?
A few notes before we begin…
- Presidencies are viewed through accomplishments, not just ideals. Some leeway may be given to those whose careers were cut short mid-term.
Obviously, I'm not an expert on all 44 administrations, but I am taking the time to dig deeper on those I don't know well.
- I place a strong value on human rights. I do not seek to remove people entirely from their times, but this is a list compiled in 2017, so current thinking does impact the reputations of those long dead.
- Degree of difficulty means something. Presiding over a war is more impressive than presiding over civil service reform.
1. Abraham Lincoln
This is an obvious choice for several reasons. First, Lincoln held the Union together, preserving the nation through the Civil War. Second, the Emancipation Proclamation was a significant moral pivot for the United States, as was the passage of the 13th Amendment. One of our country's finest orators. Bonus points for being funny.
2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The New Deal created the American safety net. FDR's lend-lease program helped keep the British afloat until we entered World War II. Could have surpassed Lincoln if not for the Japanese internment camps and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court.
3. George Washington
Our first president established the norms for our Executive Branch–the most important of which is the willingness to give up power. Plus: avoiding foreign entanglements!
4. John F. Kennedy
The Cuban Missile Crisis could have ended the world, but JFK had the sack to tell his generals "no." He got the Senate to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty. At the time of his assassination, he was working on ending the Cold War, opening relations with Cuba, pulling out of Vietnam, and passing the Civil Rights Act. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster, but mostly his predecessor's fault.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
He fought the corporations, oversaw the building of the Panama Canal, and invited Booker T. Washington to dinner. Bully!
6. Harry S. Truman
Major points for integrating the military in 1948. He developed our modern national security system. The Marshall Plan and the United Nations helped prevent a recurrence of World War. I'm still iffy on Hiroshima, which may or may not have been necessary.
7. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Built the highway system and started the manned space program. Sent the military to help Little Rock integrate, although he didn't want to. Bonus points for giving us Earl Warren.
8. Thomas Jefferson
The Louisiana Purchase was an amazing deal, although if Adams had done it, TJ would have been pissed.
9. Barack Obama
He passed a (somewhat flawed) healthcare bill no one had been able to get through for 60 years. Opened relations with Cuba, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. Cool-headed, good comic timing.
10. Ulysses S. Grant
Much is said about the corruption of his advisors, and that's fair. But his record on civil rights is excellent, better than anyone else until Truman 70 years later.
11. Benjamin Harrison
Signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Supported African-American voting rights. Six states joined the country during his one term. An economic depression ended his political career.
12. Lyndon B. Johnson
If you can ignore Vietnam, he's one of the greatest presidents. Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act… But you can't ignore Vietnam, one of the worst foreign policy mistakes ever made. It resulted in 58,000 dead Americans and 2,000,000 dead Vietnamese.
13. Woodrow Wilson
Recognized the need for international cooperation after World War I. He campaigned so hard for the League of Nations that he stroked out. His idealism is undercut by his vile racial views.
14. Richard Nixon
He created the Environmental Protection Agency, but also the War on Drugs. He opened China but bombed Cambodia. He was a master politician who resorted to unnecessary and illegal "ratfucking." The subject of Oliver Stone's best film, but also many terrible impressions.
15. Jimmy Carter
He was right to sign the Panama Canal Treaty and his emphasis on human rights was laudable. America should have heeded his advice on energy policy. The Iran hostage crisis doesn't help his case, though.
16. James Madison
Yes, the British burned the White House while he was president. He won the war, though.
17. James K. Polk
I like him less than most people do. He started a war to steal land from Mexico. Just because he won doesn't make it okay. But I'm glad we have Oregon.
18. James Monroe
The Monroe Doctrine says the US won't allow foreign intervention in the Americas. Meanwhile, he was trying to establish colonies in Africa. Bonus points for being "one of our least religious presidents."
19. George H. W. Bush
Unlike his son, he knew better than to destabilize the Middle East. Not a high bar to clear, though.
20. Andrew Jackson
He fought against nullification and notorious dickbag John C. Calhoun. He also killed a lot of Native Americans.
21. Bill Clinton
His heart was in the right place; his penis was not.
22. Ronald Reagan
I'll give him this: he offered the Soviets a deal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Iran-Contra, though…
23. Gerold Ford
Seemed like a nice guy, but he cared more about Nixon than New York City.
24. Calvin Coolidge
He was known for being quiet. This is likely because he had little to brag about.
25. John Quincy Adams
He never really wanted to be a public servant, yet somehow is less offensive than half his peers.
26. William Howard Taft
Great mustache! He tried to continue Teddy Roosevelt's work, but he wasn't very good at it.
27. Martin Van Buren
His lasting legacy is the term "OK," which comes from his nickname, Old Kinderhook.
28. John Tyler
Yeah, like he's higher on your list.
29. John Adams
Not awful–but the Alien and Sedition Acts were.
30. Chester A. Arthur
Really into civil service reform.
31. Rutherford B. Hayes
Whatever else he tried to do, ending Reconstruction was terrible for this country.
32. Grover Cleveland
Undid much of the good work Benjamin Harrison got done.
33. Zachary Taylor
Liked the national bank, but favored states' rights. Weird.
34. James Garfield
His best decision was not appointing Charles Guiteau to be ambassador to France.
35. William Henry Harrison
Wear a fucking coat, dude.
36. William McKinley
He won a war, but nobody remembers him.
37. George W. Bush
Iraq, Katrina, recession. But sure, have a beer with him. (Or don't, actually. He's in recovery.)
38. Warren Harding
Cash rules everything around me
Get the money
Dollar dollar bills, y'all
39. Millard Fillmore
The Fugitive Slave Act let slave-catchers capture free Blacks and claim them as "escaped" property. Who cares if he started trade with China?
40. Franklin Pierce
So bad that even his party was like, "Nah, let's not re-elect him."
41. Herbert Hoover
Babe Ruth got paid more, and deserved it.
42. Donald J. Trump
He could get better–it's only been seven months. My guess is he will only get worse.
43. Andrew Johnson
"Drunken racist" is terrible combination.
44. James Buchanan
South Carolina seceded, Jim. Maybe, I don't know, try to maintain the Union?
Note: Donald Trump is our 45th president, but Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms, leaving us with only 44 rankings.