Friday, February 19, 2010

Value of a Boring President

Last year I posted a pretty controversial rebuttal to what many believe to be our greatest presidents. As I teach US History again this semester, I can't help but revisit what makes a president great:
Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman are regularly put at the top of lists of America's greatest presidents. This is true when both historians and the American public at large are polled. Yet these are presidents who did everything they could to expand the power of their offices, to extend the sphere of influence of the federal government and to bully through policies that met inconvenient hurdles otherwise known as checks and balances.

Woodrow Wilson ran for president on a peace platform, then dragged us through the bloody trench carnage of World War I. Oh, and he imprisoned thousands of critics and war protesters in the process. Teddy Roosevelt once lamented that he didn't have a war during his administration to make him great, and compared the stakes of his third-party run for the White House to the rapture and second coming of Jesus Christ.

Franklin Roosevelt broke the tradition set by George Washington of serving just two terms. When the Supreme Court rebuffed his attempts to pass unconstitutional legislation, he tried to expand the number of justices on the Court to ensure a friendly majority. Harry Truman was the first president to pull America into a protracted war without first consulting Congress. He then sought to nationalize private companies to ensure that war was properly outfitted.

These are odd men to call heroes.

Inexplicably, the presidents who knew and understood their constitutional limits, who respected those limits and who generally took a more laissez-faire approach to government get short shrift—even derision—from historians.

Men like Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland merely exhibited what Healy calls "stolid, boring competence." Historians loathe them, Healy writes, because they had the audacity to "content themselves simply with presiding over peace and prosperity" and not seek to remake the world in their own image. The nerve of them.
Let me clarify that I'm not declaring Harding great and Lincoln evil. I'm just longing for a public that is satisfied with a unambitious president.


  1. These complaints are legitimate, but it is the overshadowing accomplishments of these men (in FDR's case, leading a successful military campaign against arguably the most evil regime the world has ever seen) that makes them great.

  2. p.s. I think you'd like this:


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.