You’ve probably forgotten that Quinnipiac poll from early July that found that “Americans” think Barack Obama is the worst President we’ve had since World War II and if you have I’m sorry for reminding you of it. It’s not worth remembering. The poll was quickly dismissed for what it was, a grab for headlines, and most of the serious attention it got was devoted to showing it how worthless it was. There’s no point in my rehashing that. I just want to highlight something.
The poll didn’t find that Americans think President Obama’s the worst. It found that 33 percent of Quinnipiac’s sample of Americans think that. A more accurate reading of the poll is that one-third of Americans think it. Two-thirds think it’s one of eleven of other Presidents, with most of them splitting their picks between George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. So Quinnipiac could have said that “Americans” think that the worst President was one of two Republicans.
Boiled down, though, what the poll shows is that a lot of Republicans really don’t like the guy in the White House. What a surprise.
The flip side of the poll, who’s the best President, found that a little over a third (35 percent) of Americans rank Ronald Reagan as the best while another third (33 percent) think it was either Bill Clinton or John Kennedy, from which I conclude that Democrats can be as sentimental, ahistorical, and partisan in their judgments as Republicans.
The reason I’m bringing it up is that the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation seems like a good time to consider where he actually ranks on a serious worst Presidents list and on a best Presidents list.
This is a question for the historians who aren’t, by training, anyway inclined, to let sentiment or how well they liked a President if they were around when he was in office or in their imaginations based on what other historians have told them about his personality and character determine their judgments. It’s also a question they tend to treat as trivial or at least beside the point, which is to assess a presidency on its own merits and judge a President on his or (I hope soon) her accomplishments in and of themselves and not in comparison to past Presidents. And those accomplishments include not just how well they did what they had to do or how much of what they promised to do they managed to do (factoring in the circumstances under which they had to do those things), but also how much if at all they changed the direction of the country and what they left us with and that includes things like judges, deficits and surpluses, treaties, regulations, civic and public improvements (restructured bureaucracies and rebuilt and newly built bridges, dams, roads, and canals), and new or improved national programs and policies.
Once upon a time it also included expansions in land mass, but George W. Bush is the only President who’s actually tried that in generations. In later times it means maintenance and augmentation of influence abroad.
I don’t have the time or, frankly, the knowledge to assess even one let alone all twelve Presidents we’ve had since 1945 on all of those points. But let’s look at a quick highlighting of the important things a few of them left us.
So far Obama has left us with a national health insurance system that will eventually allow everyone to see the doctor when they need to. He may be going to leave us with a vital green energy industry. He’s well on the way to doing so.
I can’t think of anything nearly as grand that Bill Clinton left. (But see Tom Watson’s comment.)
Ditto for George Herbert Walker Bush.
Reagan left us with an economy geared toward making the rich richer and a new national motto: Every man for himself.
Jimmy Carter left us Camp David but he also left us sullen and sad and open to Dutch Reagan’s snake oil sales pitch.
“Big Government got you down? Sapping your vital entrepreneurial spirits? Try Doc Friedman’s Trickle Down Elixer!”
Ford left us an unimprisoned Richard Nixon.
Kennedy left us the space program and, arguably, the foundations for the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.
Eisenhower left us the interstate highway system, the Warren Court, and, again arguably, a federal role and stake in the Civil Rights movement.
I don’t think Truman can be judged apart from his role as the executor of FDR’s will. His great accomplishment was to continue Roosevelt’s many accomplishments.
You probably noticed right off the bat I left George W. Bush off the list. That was for effect. This effect:
Bush left us nothing but messes to clean up.
On that grounds he’s earned the rank of worst President since Andrew Johnson.
But Johnson and Nixon I didn’t leave off. I just saved them for later, and it’s now later.
Those two left us with the most. The most good. And the most bad.
Johnson left us the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, and the War on Poverty, which despite what Paul Ryan would like us to believe did the nation a great deal of good, until Nixon, then Reagan sabotaged it. It’s not that Johnson failed to build a Great Society. It’s that the latter two were successful in reducing it to ruins.
But Johnson also left us with Vietnam and a society fractured along a dozen lines and at odds with itself every which way.
Nixon left us with open doors to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Very big deals.
But he also left us with Vietnam and “Peace With Honor”, new and resurrected South American dictatorships, a broken faith in government, politics, politicians, and law enforcement, a crippling lack of faith in ourselves, more divisions, and an over forty year ascendency of the politics of resentment.
In trying to balance all that out, historians may just throw up their hands and rank Johnson and Nixon among both the best and the worst of all the Presidents as well as the best and the worst (after G.W. Bush) of the Presidents since World War II!
Like I said, I don’t think historians are really interested in that sort of simplistic ranking. I do think Johnson and Nixon will be the two who absorb the most attention. They’ll be the subjects of the most books, the most discussion, the most arguments because of what they left and because of what they were, a pair of monsters.
Monsters in the neutral sense of the word.
Reagan will attract interest for how he represented and shaped the spirit of his times and because he was the last captain on deck when the Soviet Union surrendered. Carter will be a chapter in Reagan’s biographies. Clinton will make for some interesting reading that will mainly focus on the impeachment crisis and then as a major character in his wife’s biographies. Kennedy’s will always be a favorite story because it’s a tragedy and because of the What Might Have Been-ness of it all. His more permanent place in history and legend will be as the ghost of the Hero Prince haunting the Presidencies and psyches of Kings Lyndon and Richard.
But I think those Presidents’ interest to historians will fade over time.
Nixon and Johnson we will always have with us.
Historians will not be able to get enough of them or say enough about them, and Nixon a bit more than Johnson, I think.
I don’t remember well enough to say what it was like in the summer of 1974, but whenever I’ve looked back on Nixon’s resignation my sense is that for all the talk of how the system had worked nobody really took any satisfaction in that or even believed it. And while many people were gleeful to see the man humiliated and disgraced, most people just felt relieved that it was over and disgusted that it had ever happened. There wasn’t a shared sense of triumph of good over evil. More like a let down that came close to a feeling of defeat. We’d let this happen? How? Why? We were glad to get rid of him but we had to ask ourselves, How did we ever get him to begin with?
And that’s the question I think will obsess historians forever.
For among all the things Nixon left us, one of the most important is the problem of Richard Nixon.
One of the historians currently at work sorting this all out has a new book out. Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is available in hardcover and for kindle from Amazon.
And if you haven’t already read Rick’s previous two books in the series, you should fix that in a hurry. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America are both available in paperback and for kindle.