If you ask someone for his favorite president, odds are he’ll tell you Lincoln or FDR. These are reasonable answer of course. But American history is interesting and complicated, and we should make an effort to look beyond the obvious.
Donald Trump named Rosa Parks. Chris Christie answered Abigail Adams, and Rand Paul said Susan B. Anthony. Scott Walker provided perhaps the most interesting and memorable choice: Red Cross founder Clara Barton. No one mentioned Judith Resnik, one of the astronauts who died aboard the Challenger or Pearl S. Buck, the first woman from the United States to become a Nobel laureate in literature.
It is not that these other women are any more deserving of the distinction. Rather, what is interesting is the tendency to always return to those people typically celebrated and to recite the often-heard reasons why such a person is idealized.
The crisis is not so much that creativity is lacking when evaluating history. The issue, we think, is rather the tendency to defer automatically to the same knee-jerk evaluations of history. We have been conditioned to label some historical actors as infallible and others as entirely blunder-ridden without sufficiently questioning or engaging with the complexities of these historical actors.
Historians tend to play a parlor game in which they rank the American presidents from best to worst. Washington and Lincoln tend to rank highest, while Harding and Buchanan fall at the bottom of most lists. Most of the rankings feature Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower within the top ten, and their relatively high rankings by historians are generally in line with public sentiment. Listening today to politicians and coffee clutch observers of politics alike, one would not be surprised to hear the names Roosevelt and Eisenhower spoken of it in the highest regard, held-up as measure markers for those currently involved in the political world. The deference to the generalized exaltation of these presidents is just one example of a phenomenon that surfaces in many evaluations of history.
As sensitive as we are to the frequently recited truth that there is little nobility to be had in pointing out “how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” it is perhaps nevertheless important, for argument’s sake, to observe a few glaring flaws of these two example presidents that perhaps ought to be considered whenever the hagiography begins.
Franklin Roosevelt is justly lauded for his well-intentioned efforts to do something about the staggering loss of jobs and economic failures that accompanied the onset of the Great Depression. He deserves equal if not greater praise for effectively leading the United States throughout most of the Second World War and presiding over the military successes that would result in victory less than a month after his death.
However, we must bear in mind the more alarming aspects of his desire to exercise nearly unilateral control of the government and the constitutional concerns his actions raised.
He attempted to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court with appointers loyal to him so as to dilute the votes of those justices that took issue with the perhaps unconstitutional expansion of federal authority. Even more concerning perhaps was his decision to break the unwritten rule of a president serving only two terms, a tradition unbroken between George Washington and 1940. The concern about Roosevelt’s refusal to relinquish power was criticized even by Harry Truman, a man so loyal to Roosevelt that he had threatened to throw Joseph Kennedy through a window for criticizing the president. Truman worried:
“There is no indispensable man in a democracy…When a republic comes to a point where a man is indispensable, then we have a Caesar.”
Dwight Eisenhower left office with a relatively high approval rating of 59%, and in the time since his presidency ended, he continues to be regarded highly by historians and public opinion alike. Road signs bear the name “Eisenhower Interstate System.” He is associated with the beginning of American efforts to launch a robust space program, and he successfully maintained American security during much of the tumultuous first decade of the Cold War. However, historical evaluations of his career, particular that which took place prior to his assuming the presidency, often neglect to account for the controversial bombing campaigns near the end of the Second World War, which resulted in staggering civilian death tolls. Criticism of the Truman Administration’s use of atomic weapons against Japan are brought forward with some frequency; however, similar critiques are not often applied to bombing campaigns in Europe at targets such as Dresden and Hamburg. For example, the death toll at Dresden following the air attacks by the United States and Great Britain, which, of course, took place while Eisenhower was Supreme Allied commander, resulted in 25,000 fatalities, many of which were civilians.
The purpose of this exercise is not to engage in the character assassination of the so-called great men of history or to assume the role of the iconoclast simply for the pleasure of besmirching those many hold dear.
Rather, just in the past as we have written of the nobler aspects often neglected when considering the life and presidency of Richard Nixon, we want to recommend historical actors be evaluated more completely than habitually and lazily identifying some as “good” and other as “bad.” The story tends to be a bit more complicated.
These were living people with flaws and imperfections, not monolithic figures whose every action was inevitable, as might be now presented in the increasingly agenda-driven study of history, a discipline that sometimes displays a troubling lack of skepticism of popular or fashionable narratives. The lives and deeds of these actors are complicated with many motives and competing interests. At other times, conditions outside of their control may have served to restrict their noblest aims or impeded the realization of their most sinister plans. But most of all, when they faced decisions, they encountered them as we all do: marked by the uncertainty of how best to proceed.
Let us keep all of this in mind when considering those who lived before us, their unique contributions, and how, in the great majority of cases, these figures, were, like all of us, at some points lacking and other times admirable.