American History Idol

Gallup has a poll out asking Americans to pick their greatest president from five choices: George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. (H/T) Now, there are fair arguments to be had in ranking these five. Washington’s greatness in establishing and embodying the office (I’ve been reading Akhil Amar’s book about the Constitution’s history and he argues – I’m sure he’s not the only one – that Article II was basically written with Washington in mind all the way down to the title of “President”) and in self-limiting his term, or Lincoln’s valiant effort to hold the nation together? Reagan, who got more things right and fewer disastrously wrong than FDR, or FDR, who faced graver challenges and had a more sweeping effect on the nation and the office? Was JFK a good president, or an ultimately inconsequential one who served less than a single term and left most of his work unfinished?
Sadly, the results don’t match up with serious answers to those questions. Lincoln ranks #1 overall, which is fine, but Washington is dead last. Among Republicans, Reagan is #1 (even as a big Reagan admirer, I find it a stretch to rate him over Lincoln and Washington), and far more ridiculously, among Democrats, Kennedy ranks first, with 35% of the vote.
Seriously….JFK? I mean, any thinking person who actually believes in what the Democrats profess to stand for has to prefer FDR to JFK. (Note that FDR and Reagan do best among people old enough to remember theier presidencies. Not so for JFK. Meanwhile, I don’t know if we should be optimistic that the youngest voters are the only ones with the sense to give some real support to Washington). Kennedy was glamorous, and he’s been lionized by a cult of personality ever since (I guarantee you there’s an enormous correlation between people who think JFK was our greatest president and people who are big Obama fans), but his actual accomplishments are thin – and not only that, but his actual platform would have him branded a neoconservative today, what with his call for tax cuts, aggressive building of nuclear weapons, confrontation with the Soviet Union, and escalation of the war in Vietnam (Kennedy was still publicly backing the war as late as his prepared remarks in Dallas the day of his death, Oliver Stone to the contrary), and use of the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders. You can certainly find some strains of liberalism in Kennedy, but not really any more than in George W. Bush – the actual policy differences between Kennedy and Bush are pretty minimal. Yet his legacy has almost nothing to do with what Kennedy did or what he stood for.

14 thoughts on “American History Idol”

  1. The cult of JFK is amazing and enmduring. I was brought up Irish Catholic and you were sort of indoctrinated with that in parochial scholl in the 60’s and 70’s. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started realizing he was mediocre at best. I know the guy was killed but he had been in office already for almost 3 years
    Here is a couple of questions I have for JFK cult members based only on his accomplishments alone-his 3 predecessors were Roosevelt, Truman and Ike and LBJ and Nixon came immediately after him. Where does he rate out of that group of 6? I say no better than 5th and maybe even 6th. Out of the last 6 dem presidents-Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy LBJ, Carter and Clinton where does he rate? I say 5th, with Carter being last.
    The notion that he was even in the top 15 or 20 presidents would be a stretch.

  2. You want serious answers…from a poll? The results say more about the teaching of history in the classroom than anything. Simply pitiful…

  3. Dems I would put above Kennedy-off the top of my head and in no particular order-Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ, Clinton, Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Clinton.
    Republicans I would put above him in no particular order-Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, Ike, Reagan and Bush 41. Maybe Nixon Too soon to rate Bush 43.
    Throw in Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. I am probably missing a few more.

  4. I’ve always found the Kennedy idolatry strange as well. Granted the country was different when he was President but he was probably more conservative than GW Bush. Of course I can understand why people still glorify his Presidency but in doing so we have to suffer with his no-talent relatives.

  5. dch, I would take John F. Kennedy over Wilson or LBJ any day of the week, no question. I don’t necessarily think Kennedy was a bad president – he had his ups and downs – he just wasn’t a very important one.

  6. I would argue that JFK has been the best dem POTUS in my lifetime. He cut taxes big time, and I do not know of any lasting damage that he did to the Republic via onerous regulations or wealth transfer programs.

  7. Well, at least it was JFK and not Clinton, though at least Clinton served two full terms. Even conceding that he wasn’t all that bad, what exactly did JFK accomplish of consequence in his two years and ten months in office? He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis reasonably well, but where was his signature achievement? Unreal.
    One thing you realize when you start ranking presidents is that there really were not that many great ones. Once you get past Lincoln and Washington, every one of them has major drawbacks. I’d put Reagan, FDR (with qualms), Ike, Truman, Jackson, and Jefferson among the great, with a few more pretty good ones, then a whole lotta mediocrity.

  8. I agree with you Crank and others-politically Kennedy was preferable to most of the people I listed-I am just basing my opinion on historical impact and accomplishments good or “bad”. That’s why I add Nixon and LBJ.

  9. I always thought that W’s presidency most closely paralleled JFK’s. The critics of both considered them lightweights and mere extensions of their powerful families. Both were elected in closely contested elections (with their opponents claiming that they were cheated out of the presidency). Both were strong on national security (if not brazenly so), strong on tax cuts, but didn’t mind spending domestically (e.g., for both, on healthcare and space exploration).
    Also, I’ve always resented the arguments that put Lincoln and FDR in the top three of Presidents. These two most aggressively expanded the power of the executive to the point of abuse, and could have done the most damage to the republic.
    I was always a big fan of James Polk, who promised to achieve four objectives, achieved them, and stepped down after his first term.

  10. I agree with the general consensus here – Kennedy was a pretty good, slightly above average President, but there just isn’t any reasonable grounds for even including him in a top five poll, let alone ranking him first. I’d certainly drop him from the list in favor of Theordore Roosevelt, who shared JFK’s muscular centrist approach to politics, but held the job for twice as long and had greater acheivements.

  11. I’m not in the cult of JFK but he was certainly a better POTUS than LBJ or Wilson. And while he didn’t accomplish “much”, he also didn’t screw up much. That alone might actually put him in the top 10 or 15.
    Another thing he did that hasn’t been mentioned is appoint Justice White, an underrated SCOTUS justice.
    Cannon, Lincoln did push the powers of the executive, probably far beyond what the Constitution contemplated, but if he hadn’t, there might no longer be a republic.

  12. Until JFK came along, Catholics were as far from the presidency as African Americans were until Obama came along. It helped that he was not a typical urban ethnic machine product like Al Smith in the same way that Obama was not a grievance-mongerer like Jesse Jackson. For Catholics at the time JFK was a big deal. Unfortunately, JFK was a political coward when it came to showing leadership on civil rights.
    On foreign policy, JFK was a mixed bag. He allowed the misbegotten Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward and then shamefully abandoned the invaders. However, JFK redeemed himself in his handling of the USSR’s attempt to install missiles in Cuba. One shudders to think what other post-FDR Democrats would have done. Truman would have done the same as JFK and the Bay of Pigs would not have happened on his watch. Who knows what LBJ would have done, and Carter and Clinton would not have cared at best. At worst, Carter or Clinton would have “negotiated” a face-saving treaty that allowed the USSR to keep its missiles in Cuba. It is early days and he is full of pleasant surprises, but I fear that Obama may be more like Carter or Clinton and less like JFK or Truman when it comes to foreign policy.
    I agree, though, that JFK does not belong in a list of the top five. In fact, Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are an untouchable top three because they literally saved this country from death. Indeed, Washington is one of the greatest people in human history. How many generals who led their country’s war for independence refused to be dictator or president for life despite popular demand?

  13. JFK? Reagan? Seriously?
    JFK was President for 25 minutes. Reagan belongs in a top 5 of worst Presidents of the US (Clinton and Bush 43 belong there too). Reagan was the beginning of the end for the United States of America. He turned the country from a creditor nation to debtor nation in just 8 short years, started the de-regulation of businesses march which has led us to the brink of economic catastrophe, and sat on his hands for the early years of the AIDs crisis because it affected gays and the poor, etc.

  14. I judge presidential greatness on whether they accomplished something of great significance or sucessfully handled a moment of great peril (sometimes the same thing).
    Generally, I’m not fan of Kennedy, but I put him in the great category because he successfully handled a situation in the Cuban Missle Crisis where nuclear war was possible (even if he was at fault for stumbling into that situation).
    So, the great ones:
    Washington (birth of a nation)
    Jefferson (great expansion of country)
    Polk (great expansion of country)
    Lincoln (saved the union and freed the slaves, although at a horrible cost)
    FDR (won WWII)
    Kennedy (avoided nuclear war)
    Reagan (won the cold war)
    Bush I (stopped Hussein from taking over middle east)
    Bush II (to be determined whether he has accomplished something great in Iraq)
    Near Greats
    Jackson, Truman, Eisenhower, TDR, Johnson

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