Ask Scott Dreyer: (This question came from my son who is supposed to survey 100 people for his 12th grade civics class project. Several of his classmates have asked as well.)
Q: Who do you believe to be the 5 best and 5 worst US presidents, and why?
A: This is a great question and a great civics project! I have been thinking it over, and realize one's answers will tell as much if not more about the respondent, as about the presidents. That is, people with certain biases or worldviews will tend to like or dislike certain presidents. For example, just in my lifetime, polarizing presidents like Reagan or Obama are likely to be in the top or bottom list of five, depending on whom you ask. Anyway, I have been asked this several times lately, so here goes:
1. George Washington - The longer I live, the more I appreciate the difficulty of leadership and the importance of a strong foundation. Washington provided both. Considering he led a rag-tag, unfunded army against the world's superpower, Britain, and won, is amazing. He quietly presided over the writing of the US Constitution in Philadelphia, then was the first president for an upstart country trying to become one from 13 stubbornly-independent states. Most amazing to me, he was president for eight years, then quietly retired to go back to his farm home in Virginia. I do not know of ANYONE in WORLD history before that time to lead a country, then decide to retire and leave it all. That action set the precedent for the US to have limited presidential terms and avoid tyranny. As my friend and teacher-mentor Dave Flanagan liked to say, "Washington was a president and a precedent."
2. Abraham Lincoln - His humble beginnings are legendary; I have had the chance to see his birth site cabin in Kentucky and boyhood home in Indiana. The locations are remote in our lifetime, so in Lincoln's childhood, it was truly the frontier. His list of failures and setbacks is staggering, yet he endured and became the nation's chief executive just in time to see the nation falling apart. His predecessor, James Buchanan (see #2 worst below) left the White House claiming to be "the last president of the United States." As Lincoln came into DC, he had to travel by secret train, by night, so he would avoid angry crowds that might block his train in Baltimore, Maryland. From his new home in the White House, he could look across the Potomac River at night into Virginia and see the campfires of Rebel soldiers, his new enemies. His wife had mental issues and he had to deal with countless bad generals, but he endured it all and saw the war to preserve the Union through to Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, in 1865, the 150th anniversary of which we will commemorate in a few days. The fact that he was killed on a Good Friday helped seal him in the American pantheon as a kind of modern-day Christ-figure.
Want to improve your leadership skill toolbox from Lincoln's life? Read Lincoln on Leadership, a book I have required my history students to read.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) - I am conflicted about this one, because there is so much negative I see from FDR's legacy in America today: from the bloated, out-of-control federal government to the millions now dependent on the Welfare State for a hand-out because they can no longer care for themselves...many of these ills trace their origins back to Roosevelt's New Deal. I also despise how he tried to "pack the Court" by placing new judges on the Supreme Court so he could get all he wanted. Still, on balance, I have always respected him as being the man who led the US through the Great Depression AND World War II. Just one crisis that size would undo most people, but he endured and led the US and free world through them both.
I recently saw a program about FDR on the day after Pearl Harbor. While most in the White House were running around in panic mode, he was calm and balanced though the day. Wow. What a lesson of "being calm under fire." His personal stories of hardship also inspire. Years ago I took my family to see his home in Hyde Park, New York. The guide told us he came home as a young man from a trip tired, walked upstairs to go to bed, and never walked by himself unaided again. Polio had struck. How easy to give up. Instead, he learned to walk with braces and crutches, and forced himself to walk his long driveway to the road and back daily, for exercise. Heroic. I sometimes wonder, did his personal struggle against polio give him the internal grit to face the Depression and WW II with a smile on his face?
4. Thomas Jefferson - A true Renaissance Man, Jefferson is an American great, and a mystery. He left instructions for his gravestone to read:
Note: he did NOT mention being US president!
And as much as I respect and honor the US Constitution, I am glad he conveniently ignored the fact that he had no constitutional authority to buy land, but he did anyway, because he got the Louisiana Purchase for a bargain from France and doubled the size of the US. Imagine the USA if it stopped at the Mississippi River today?
5. James Knox Polk - If Polk seems unknown today, he was unknown in his day too. In fact, the term "dark horse" was first applied to him as a politician, when he became president in 1844. A "dark horse" is a person unknown or not expected to be successful.
Why did I place Polk in the top 5?
He made five campaign promises, and kept every one...including to serve only four years and retire. How rare is that?
Polk was perhaps one of our hardest-working presidents. Maybe it was because he was a "dark horse," but he worked with grim determination and almost never took a vacation. Sadly, Polk's work habits caught up with him, because he died from exhaustion just a few months after leaving office.
Limited to only the top 5, I had to leave off these others I like much, for different reasons. Presidents Truman, Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Ford.
5. Warren Harding - A scandal-ridden womanizer with no real accomplishments...what's left to say? It was claimed "his only qualification to be president is that he looked like one." His enduring legacy was a mistake: after the horrors of WW I, he promised to restore the US to "normalcy." Problem was, there was no such word, until he coined it. Now, it's a real word.
4. Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) - An egotistical, foul-mouthed politician, we can thank him for committing the US military into Vietnam AND the "War on Poverty" and "Great Society," As one wag quipped 40 years later: "the War on Poverty is over, and Poverty won." Untold treasure spent to defeat poverty, yet we still have poor people, plus millions now so enfeebled and dependent on government hand-outs. And as Johnson himself boasted and predicted, many of those dependent persons are now well-trained to vote for Johnson's party (Democrat) every election.
3. Richard M. Nixon - A true waste. There was so much about Nixon that was good: he put the US on the path to remove our combat forces from Vietnam, he calmed relations with the USSR and opened dialogue with China, he created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yes, the Watergate Scandal was his undoing. Originally a small-level crime that he was unaware of, he could have easily denounced it and had eight successful years. I see Nixon as living proof of Proverbs 28:13.
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
If he had "confessed" Republican involvement in the Watergate break in when it was small news, it would have remained small. But, he engaged in "stonewalling" and lied about it, thus the shame of Congressional hearings and finally resignation. Â The US was reeling from Vietnam and the tumultuous 1960's, and Nixon's resignation injured America further.
2. James Buchanan - To be fair, he was president at a terrible time: the late 1850's, as the US was unraveling and heading to Civil War. Still, he did almost nothing to help. (Ironically, Buchanan had one of the best resumes of any president, based on his earlier career, while he was replaced by a man with an incredible poor resume; Abraham Lincoln) (See #2 above).
1. Barack Hussein Obama - It may be too early to place President Obama on this list, but I believe he is doing great damage to our country. Whereas other presidents on the "worst" list were inept or dishonest, I see President Obama's danger as more fundamental. On October 30, 2008, speaking at a campaign rally he boasted:
"We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.
Think about that: what does "fundamentally" mean? It means "basic, foundation." Foundations are important! I began this blog post about how Washington set a strong foundation for our country (See #1 above). If someone wanted to change the foundation of your house, wouldn't you be concerned? But here Obama promised to change our nation's foundation, and how many people asked then, or now: What is wrong with the old foundation? What are you planning to replace it with? Thanks to a largely fawning media, that question is seldom asked even today. Below is one commentator's take on the Obama administration:
Other "poor: presidents our nation has had to survive: Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, U.S. Grant (great general, just a terrible president).
Thank you for reading my post. Who do YOU think are the 5 best and 5 worst US presidents, and why? Also, what sort of president are you looking for as we approach 2016?
A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.dreyercoaching.com/en/about/scott-dreyer