I’m reading a short book translated and edited by Phillip Freeman: How to Grow Old, Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life. How ancient? It was written by Cicero in 45 BC. He was in his early 60’s at the time, so I don’t know how accurate that “second half of life” thing was. Anyway, this passage caught my eye:
Yet I suspect that you are troubled by the same political events of our day that are causing me such anxiety.
I think it was Mark Twain that said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” This rhymes for me.
I found some more recent rhymes in Presidential Anecdotes, by Paul F. Boller, Jr. The revised edition that I read was published in 1996, so it only goes through Bill Clinton, but there are some interesting nuggets to help give perspective on our current political situation.
I’m struck with the notion that we’ve had more bad presidents than good ones. Here’s my read:
· Washington – great.
· Adams #1 – overshadowed by Washington.
· Jefferson – good.
· Madison – “…not a great President, but one of America’s great statesmen.” (p.45)
· Monroe – respectable, but not a lot happened on his watch.
· Adams #2 – probably a better as a post-president than a president.
· Jackson – popular but rough.
· Van Buren – a waffler.
· Harrison #1 – dead after one month.
· Tyler -- anti-federalist veto-er.
· Polk – effective but not popular.
· Taylor – good soldier, bad president. Died two years into office from effects from heat when laying the cornerstone for the Washington Monument on 7/4/1850.
· Fillmore – well…his wife installed the White Houses’ first bathtub.
· Pierce – northern man who supported the institution of slavery. Helped to bring about the civil war.
· Buchanan – last on the watch before the civil war.
· Lincoln – great but not exactly seen that way in his day.
· Johnson – “Andrew Johnson’s presidency was a failure” (p. 147). Enough said.
· Grant – great man bad president.
· Hayes – ineffective.
· Garfield – assassinated early in term.
· Arthur – good, but not popular. Not re-elected.
· Cleveland – an honest man! (page 179)
· Harrison #2 – didn’t get along with Congress.
· McKinley – Kind. Killed in office.
· Roosevelt, TR – Bigger than life.
· Taft – Bigger than Roosevelt (around the middle, anyway). Fair to middling as to accomplishments.
· Wilson – Racist but good president.
· Harding – Nice man, bad president.
· Coolidge – in the helm at the run-up to the great depression. Slept eleven hours a day – nine or ten hours at night and a two-hour to four-hour nap.
· Hoover – good pre-president and post-president but not effective in his term (which was 1929 – 1933 for crying out loud!).
· Roosevelt, FD – one the greatest.
· Truman – decisive. His stock is now high but it wasn’t in his time.
· Eisenhower – a great general and probably a more effective president than he was given credit for.
· Kennedy – too short a term.
· Johnson – crude but effective. Brought down by Viet Nam.
· Nixon – sheesh!
· Ford – nice man. Kind of palette cleanser.
· Carter – a great ex-president.
· Regan – celebrated, but ran up the debt. Time will tell.
· Bush #1 – good public servant and better than Bush #2.
· Clinton – you know.
Read the book yourself and see what you think, but I look at the list and see only a handful of leaders who made a difference and in most cases, they served in extraordinary times. The rest of the time, it seems like the country muddled through with or in spite of whomever was at the helm.
In most cases the executive branch has not been that influential. Here’s a quote (page 264) from historian Henry Adams to Franklin Roosevelt when Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy:
“Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen occupants of the White House across the square come and go, and nothing you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long!”
Kind of re-assuring.
Things are different now than they ever have been with instant access to news and non-news, changes to executive powers and the like. When I was first out of college, wise friend told me that politics follows a pendulum. A swing to the far right or left, always comes back center.
Here’s hoping that for the good of future generations, we can swing back to some kind of balance that takes civilization forward in the coming years and decades. It may take the next generation to do that, though. Stay tuned.