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12 of the Most Inhumane American Presidents

Let's judge presidents by the most nonpartisan and reliable standard: who did the most harm and/or good to the greatest number of people?

US president Richard Nixon (L) shakes hands with Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, in September 1973 in Washington.


For all the gravity with which the presidency is written about, assessments of presidents are often at least partly based on fluff more suitable for Hollywood than Washington. Among the criteria that presidential rankings use are leadership, accomplishments, political skill, and character. Every one of those criteria but accomplishments are extremely vague to the point where no two people could agree on a definition. All of these qualities except character are pointedly amoral. Technically, Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop of the Third Reich was quite adept at political skill. For such amoral use of skill, he was rightly hanged at Nuremberg.

Other criteria used over the years include handling of the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments, intelligence, imagination, family, education, and experience. For all except the economy and foreign policy, these are qualities more suited to middle management at a corporation than president. One looks in vain for heroic qualities, or even moral ones or basic decency.

For the president is not a CEO. Except for managing subordinates, the business field has some of the worst guidelines one could choose for political office. One’s ability to turn a profit for one’s self or a company has nothing to do with running a country. The two better models would be, one, running a charity. Does a president possess the abilities to run an organization designed to rescue people from disaster, poverty, disease, crime, or war?

The other model one could use should be either unions or civil rights organizations. I can already imagine many conservatives blanching at the thought. But what both outfits share are their ability to work to unite masses of people in a cause, fairer treatment for people of a class, profession, or ethnic group. It is no coincidence that in Europe and Latin America, union organizers are far more often elected than in America, where the US tends to elect businessmen and lawyers. The practices come from and result in a far more unequal society. In fact, civil rights organizers are among the few American congressmen with a history of consistently putting popular concerns above elite ones.

The first ranking of presidents by historians was done in 1948 by the venerable Arthur Schlesinger. Later surveys came from his son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., also quite the figure. Both men’s personas, methods, and writing styles reflect much of the profession’s foibles. Both are or were nominally liberal, but the most middling cautious form of liberalism possible. Ideologically, both were or are just barely to the left of center, and in terms of approach are conservative as in very cautious.

Most rankings of presidents by historians have not gotten much better. The Chicago Tribune, Sienna College, C-Span, the Wall Street Journal, the Federalist Society, Newsweek, and History News Network have all done surveys of presidential historians with fairly consistent results. At the top are the names one would expect, Washington, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts. At the second tier one finds in almost all surveys Truman, Eisenhower, Wilson, and Reagan, usually followed by Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

The two dramatic exceptions to these results, not surprisingly, are the Wall Street Journal and Federalist Society. As one would expect from institutions speaking for financial elites or their disciples, they gave higher ratings to Reagan and even GW Bush. Their most ludicrous result was GW Bush rated as the sixth greatest president of all time.

Public opinion surveys are not far different from historians. The reasoning, though, is likely different. Washington will always be near the top of the rankings, despite most Americans being unable to tell you anything he did as president beyond being the first one. Public opinions of presidents are largely recognition tests, the most famous ones plus the most recent.

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