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Executive Experience = Good President? Part 8

Welcome to Part 8 of my ongoing series, does “executive experience” equate to a good president?  We’ve heard the GOP claim over and over that Sarah Palin has more executive experience than Obama or Biden and that makes her more qualified to be president than either of them.  They never mention that, according to their argument, that means she is also more qualified than McCain, but let’s not split hairs.  In my last post (and you can read all of them in the series by clicking on “Executive Experience: Is it Important?” above) I got up to the first term of Grover Cleveland, president #22.  Which means I’m about half done!  Yay!  I’ll bet dollars to donuts someone else has already gone through this exercise in full and good for them.  I don’t have the heart to Google and find out.  But I’m also finding it’s a very subjective exercise, so even if a hundred people have done it, I’d bet they’d have a hundred variations on a result, depending on how they define executive experience, or how they judge the different presidencies, or how good they feel a president has to be to be “good”, or how bad they have to be to be “bad”.  When all is said and done I hope to have brought just a tiny bit of value to the whole discussion-at-large.  Anyway…. let’s get on with it!

#23 — Benjamin Harrison.  Harrison reached the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War, and served in the U.S. Senate for six years, but by my definition no executive experience.  As an odd tidbit of trivia, Harrison was the last bearded president we’ve had.  Harrison’s presidency offers a dichotomy of success and failure.  He made a number of foreign relations successes during his presidency, setting in motion the U.S.’s backing of the Panama Canal, the annexation of Hawaii, setting up Samoa as a protectorate are among his foreign policy actions that did more in the late 18th century to push America toward its superpower status in the world.  On the other hand, he was, at best, a mediocre domestic policy president, pushing forth a number of decisions that helped bring along the depression of 1893, the worst in the nation’s history to that point.  He was seemingly completely unaware of the strife facing the poorest Americans.  Though, on the other hand, he did focus energy on resource conservation and the rights of African-Americans, more so than other presidents of the era.  I really could go either way here… was he good enough to be “good”?  The Miller Center of the University of Virginia certainly seems to think he did more good than bad, and since they are cited all over the Internet for president stuff, and have also been an invaluable reference for me as I’ve gone through this process, I will side with them.  So… EE: no; Good: yes.

#24 — Grover Cleveland, again.  I covered him already, and he’s not getting two votes.  Nyah nyah, Grover.

#25 — William McKinley.  McKinley served a long time in the US House of Representatives, and was also the governor of Ohio for a few years.  So he’s got that executive experience.  For a long time, McKinley was viewed as a mediocre president at best, manipulated to the will of his party and who were thought to be his handlers.  More modern historians seem to concur, however, that this was very far from the truth.  He was a savvy, decisive man who packed a whole lot of success into his presidency, before he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in my hometown, Buffalo, NY.  His most resounding success was the Spanish-American War.  He tried to avoid the war, but when entering into it became inevitable, he helped direct it with modern technology (telegraph and telephone, the first president to use these during wartime) and the U.S. won decisively against a European superpower in a quick 113 days.   So… EE: yes; Good: yes.

#26 — Theodore Roosevelt.  Among his many life pursuits (naturalist, historian, etc.) he also had a successful military career, and served two years as the governor of NY.  Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency is one of great accomplishment.  He singlehandedly revolutionized America’s stance and approach to foreign affairs, and was truly the first ‘modern’ president, turning the tide of power in government from the Senate to the Oval Office.  He introduced social programs and conservation efforts, embraced a belief in reining in big business, oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal, and negotiated a peace between Japan and Russia (earning him the Nobel Peace Prize) and then later a peace between France and Germany over a conflict regarding Morocco.  He may have helped avert a world war with these two actions.  He was a pretty cool dude, overall.  So… EE: yes; Good: yes.

#27 — William Taft.  The only experience on Taft’s resume that lends itself to “executive” experience is territorial governorship.  He was a governor of the Phillipines for a couple years after the U.S. acquired it as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War, and also served as a governor of Cuba for a couple months while it was under US control.  I guess I’ll give him credit for it.  So now onto his presidency.  It seems, for all intents and purposes, Taft’s presidency was pretty much characterized by its lack of anything substantial that was accomplished.  Part of the problem was Taft’s personality; he was a thoughtful, ponderous man who really relished weighing all sides of an argument (his life’s ambition was not the Presidency, but rather to be a Supreme Court justice, to which he was appointed after his presidency).  He was rarely decisive, took little initiative, and was not a strong leader in general.  On top of that, the man was a frigging glutton.  He would eat something like a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast, rendering him quite slothlike through the first part of the day.  Hard to take initiative when you can barely summon the energy to digest breakfast.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#28 — Woodrow Wilson.  He served as the president of Princeton University and the governor of New Jersey – either would get him credit for executive experience, in my book.  As far as his presidency, I’m doing a bunch of reading and really having a hard time nailing it down.  On one hand, his ideals and influence carry forward even today.  Wilson had a vision of world peace and security, where the U.S. would lead in being ambassadors of democracy and freedom to all nations of the world — sound like a recent justification for a very costly war?  But you can’t fault the dream behind it, it’s really quite noble.  He was certainly influential and historic for his ideas and philosophies.  But he was also idealistic, and functioned and based decisions on how he perceived the world should be, versus how it actually was.  A number of these decisions, if based more in the reality of a situation instead of his ideals for what it should be, probably could have kept the U.S. out of World War I.  And, for all his talk about justice and freedom, these ideals were not extended to African-Americans.  Wilson condoned and even encouraged segregation and race rioting reached a fever pitch during his administration.  (As president of Princeton, he discouraged African-Americans from applying; Princeton did not admit its first black students until the 40s.)  I’m still sort of stuck … do I give him a positive nod for his presidency because of the influence his ideals had on nearly every future president?  Or do I give him the big thumbs-down because of the things he did (like get us into WWI) and didn’t do (like, anything, to stop violence against black people).  I seriously cannot decide, so I will defer to the historical ranking of United States presidents on Wikipedia, which presents a tabulated collection of a bunch of different surveys of historians asking who were the greatest presidents.  Wilson regularly makes the top 10 on most surveys… so I will thus concede this point.  So… EE: yes; Good: yes.

OK, that gets me through the Progressive Era.  Up next, Great Depression!  Good times!

Executive Experience = Good President? Part 7

#19 – Rutherford B. Hayes.  Hayes had a distinguished military career and served as governor of Ohio before becoming president.  After the incompetence of Johnson and the corrupt nature of Grant’s administration, Hayes was a breath of fresh air for the country, being he was both a competent, savvy leader and very honest.  He brought respectability back to the White House and preserved the remaining presidential power… even regaining a bit of lost ground.  He was the last 19th century president who seemed truly interested in protecting voting rights for blacks.  If he can be faulted for one thing, it might be that he didn’t seek a second term.  He probably would have won and it would have given him more time to see his policies through, including protecting blacks’ rights, all which probably would have been a good thing for our nation.  Regardless, his presidency was pretty well-rounded and marked by a number of forward-thinking accomplishments.  So… EE: yes; Good: Yes.

#20 – James Garfield.  Historians think that if he’d been able  to complete his term, he might have done some good stuff,  carrying on in the tradition of Hayes, though probably not with Hayes’ stalwart integrity.  But he might have done some bad stuff too, as he seemed a bit foundering early in his term.  However, that and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee, since he was assassinated 4 months into his presidency.  His death did help to unite the country in mourning, so at least that can be said for him.  He will thus not be included in my study.

#21 – Chester A. Arthur.  Before becoming VP under Garfield, Arthur was collector of customs in NYC, which sounds sort of lame but in his time, it was a position of great prestige and power.  He was aligned with Roscoe Conkling, a US senator from New York and Republican party boss, who was all about spoils and kickbacks and favor-exchanging to increase his own political power.  Arthur benefited from Conkling’s way of doing business, and likely quadrupled his already lucrative salary through kickbacks, but it was never shown that he took bribes or did anything else more unseemly than the kickbacks.  Conkling was the subject of Hayes’ crackdown on corruption, and Arthur lost his position in the fallout.   Conkling and Arthur then conspired together to get Garfield the nomination for presidency, and Garfield repaid the favor by asking Arthur to be his VP.  When Garfield was assassinated, the Republican party felt they really had an ‘in’ with Arthur, but by all accounts Arthur rose to the position.  He led a fair, productive, and reforming presidency, to the surprise of everyone.  He made the effort to upgrade the White House to a building of style and elegance befitting the nation’s top office.  One of the crowning accomplishments of his administration was the complete reform of the civil servant employment process, requiring service exams for most positions, thus greatly reducing appointments through spoils and cronyism.  He was well-liked and respected among the public, though he didn’t pull great favor with his own party.  He did not receive the nomination to run for a second term partly because of this, and partly because he didn’t really do anything to lobby for the nomination for himself, as he’d been diagnosed with a fatal kidney disease.  He passed away less than two years after leaving office after his first term.  So… EE: no; Good: yes.

#22 — Grover Cleveland.  Cleveland provides an interesting problem here.  Given that he served two, non-consecutive terms, should he get two votes, or just one?  I’m inclined to go with just one, as a summary of his two separate terms.  Let’s see where this takes us!  Cleveland had a pretty rapid political ascent – he started his political career in Buffalo, first as Sheriff, then mayor, then onto the governorship of New York, before receiving the nomination for president.  He didn’t do a bad job as president, but he didn’t do an exceedingly good job either.  He was a man of limited education, and as such often saw issues in very black and white terms, and fixated on certain smaller issues without regard to the bigger picture or historical precedent.  He was certainly less tolerant than other presidents of the time, doing virtually nothing of note to help minority races, and he was against women’s suffrage.  He did manage over his two terms to bring authority back to the presidency with his use of executive privilege and the veto.  But overall, historians view his service as mediocre at best.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.