Tag Archives: politics

Executive experience makes a good president? Part 10

#33 – Harry S. Truman.  Truman gained the majority of his political experience as a U.S. Senator, representing his home state of Missouri.  When he left office, he had an abysmal approval rating (lower than Nixon’s right after the Watergate scandal broke).  His presidency contained a number of controversial moves and decisions: the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Korean War, the support of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, his dismissal of General MacArthur, and his weak response to Sen. McCarthy’s efforts to press the Communist panic button all give fodder to historians and make Truman’s presidency quite controversial.  However, despite these things, he is regularly ranked in the top ten of greatest presidents, and he made a number of significant contributions, including but not limited to expanding civil rights, expanding social welfare programs, his successful handling of the Soviet union post-WWII, and the successful transitioning of the U.S. from a time of war to a time of peace.  Therefore, I say… EE: no; Good: yes.

#34: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower was a four-star general and war hero during WWII.  After the war he served as president of Columbia University, and for a couple years before being elected president he was commander of the European NATO forces.  So, definitely executive experience.  Eisenhower’s presidency was mediocre at best.  While he presided over a peaceful time in America’s history, he left to his successor a raging Cold War and no test-ban treaty to end the testing of nuclear weapons.  While he did have a hand in finally ending the reign of persecution of Eugene McCarthy, he still sat idly by for years while McCarthy abused his power and conducted the most notorious witch hunt of the 20th century.  In matters of civil rights, it has been argued by Eisenhower’s main biographer, Stephen Ambrose, that Eisenhower wasn’t a ” …reluctant leader — he was no leader at all.”  In short, Ike’s presidency was largely characterized by his willingness to do nothing.  It kept us out of wars, to be sure, but it created and prolonged many more problems.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#35 — John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy’s political experience was in Congress, first as a Representative and then as a Senator from the state of Massachusetts.   Kennedy’s presidency has been the subject of mixed reviews… he made lots of aspirational speeches and promises, but his assassination deprived him of the time necessary to follow through.  Though his presidency was relatively short at just under three years, it contained a couple big failures, such as the Bay of Pigs, and a couple of pretty good successes, such as a test ban treaty and the formation of the Peace Corps.  Regardless, Kennedy is often ranked as a top-five president, most likely because of the strength of his leadership and charisma, and the inspirational nature of his words.  So, let’s say… EE: no; Good: yes.

Less than ten to go!  Oh I can nearly taste the finish.  Later!

Executive Experience = Good President? Part 9

You can click on “Executive Experience:  Is It Important?” to read the first eight parts to this series!!

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#29 – Warren G. Harding.  Harding’s political experience include state senator, lieutenant governor and US Senator, all for Ohio.  By trade he was a newspaper publisher.  By all accounts he was a dismal president.  Not only does he have to follow in the visionary footsteps of Woodrow Wilson, but as a man himself he was directionless, lacked a moral compass, and simply had no vision for his presidency.  He died while in office, after a week of some sort of weird ailment, and his wife refused to allow an autopsy.  Thus, theories abound.  But none of the theories can turn him into a decent president.  So… EE: no; Good: no.

#30 – Calvin Coolidge.  He was Harding’s VP and before that, governor of Massachusetts.  Generally speaking, it seems many of Coolidge’s policies as president helped bring on the Great Depression.  He favored big business and allowed monopolies to carry on unchecked; he refused to provide aid to the agricultural fields; he provided huge tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals.  He was wary of involvement in foreign arrangements and alliances, making the US economy more isolated.  Over his presidency, he let too many eggs get stored in too few baskets, and it came back to bite the country… hard.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#31 – Herbert Hoover.  Hoover was a mining engineer and eventually started his own mining company.  He was also a noted humanitarian before entering politics.  He entered the political fray by becoming Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge.  He is the first president so far who gets his sole “executive experience” from the business world.  Hoover for a long time had an incredibly horrible reputation regarding what was viewed as his completely inept handling of the Great Depression.  More recently, historians have recognized that in reality, there was little that he (or anyone else) could have done to stem the tide of the Depression or turn it around, and that our entry into WWII was the reason the economy lifted, and nothing done by Roosevelt.  Hoover also held steadfastly to some very noble beliefs during the Depression… though they weren’t of much benefit.  Where he is faulted nowadays is with not doing more to help ease the suffering and hardships that the Depression brought to throngs of people, resistant as he was to spending federal money to stimulate the economy or provide relief.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#32 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR garnered his executive experience through three years as the governor of New York.  Although his presidency is marred by a couple issues, such as the interment  of Japanese and German Americans during WWII and, more controversially, not taking decisive, earlier action to end the Holocaust atrocities, FDR’s presidency is generally seen as perhaps one of the best, ever.  His New Deal programs, handling of the Great Depression and WWII, and records four consecutive election wins demonstrate his success and veneration by the American people.  So… EE: yes; Good: yes.

I could keep going…. but ice cream calls.  Stay tuned!

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.

“Executive Experience” = Good President? Part 6

#17 — Andrew Johnson.  He served as a US Senator and also was governor of Tennessee for two terms.  Johnson might not be considered THE worst president ever, but he’s certainly up there.  The first president ever to be impeached, the reasons for impeachment are really quite minor in light of the monumental failure historians now see as Johnson’s presidency.  Johnson took a 180-degree different approach to Reconstruction than Lincoln had intended.  Where Lincoln wanted a moderate, conciliatory approach to reintegrating the southern states and wishes to ensure rights for the freed slaves,  Johnson took a much more hardline approach (though he later softened his stance), and he was a huge racist who had no intention to allow freed slaves any rights whatsoever.  Some think that had he taken a more progressive approach to the freed slaves, it might have ameliorated the race problem in our country.  Besides that far-reaching consequence of his political action (or inaction) even today, he also undermined the office of the President with his political ineptitude and allowed Congress to enjoy a more powerful role through precedents set while he was in office that they enjoyed for the next three decades.  So… EE: yes; good: no.

#18 — Ulysses S. Grant.  He was a major military player in the Civil War, orchestrating many of the successful Union battles.  In 1866, he was named general of the armies, the first person since George Washington to hold that rank.  Grant’s presidency was certainly characterized by many positives: his fight to help gain rights for African-Americans, including the passage of the 15th amendment, the positive direction of his Native American policy, and establishing the nation’s first national park stand out as highlights.  However, there’s a lot on the negative side: his administration was epically corrupt.  He continued Johnson’s “efforts” to diminish the power of the President for his two terms.  The numerous scandals and his own political lack of experience, despite being such a strong leader on the military front, rendered his administration pretty much impotent by the middle of his second term.  So… EE: yes; good: no.

(Also, a quick shout-out to my friends Amanda and Dave, who earlier tonight as I talked to her was having contractions 4-5 minutes apart and contemplating a trip to the hospital to give birth to their first baby!  Good luck you guys!!)

Does “executive experience” equate to Presidential success? Part 5

#14 — Franklin Pierce.  He reached the rank of brigadier general during the Mexican-American War but short of being an awesome leader, I don’t count that.  His only political position before the presidency was as a Senator representing NH, so that doesn’t count either as ‘executive’ experience.  Through a number of acts by his administration, Pierce managed to splinter the country and revive all the anger between the North and South.  This quote from Wikipedia says it pretty succinctly:  “Pierce lost all credibility he may have had in the North, and, as of 2008, was the only elected president (rather than a Vice President who succeeded to the position) to fail to be renominated by his party for a second term. Pierce is ranked among the least effective Presidents as well as an indecisive politician who was easily influenced. He was unable to command as President or to provide the required national leadership. Yet, he had the courage to stand by his convictions and buck the will of is own party, leading to his political exile.”  So… EE: no; good: no.

#15 — James Buchanan.  He was a senator, and Secretary of State, but by my definition no executive experience.  Buchanan has long gone down in history as the man who allowed the Civil War to happen and was perhaps the worst president ever, and it seems this is basically true.  But to be fair, I wanted to see if maybe he had any rousing successes during his presidency.  Here’s what I found:  He tried to start a war against Utah.  He directly influenced the majority vote in the Dred Scott Decision by lobbying judges, upholding the rights to own slaves.  His administration made efforts to try to take Cuba by force.  He presided over a financial panic and was accused of financial mismanagement.  His handling of the initial seceding of southern states with complete impotency.  He declared the secession unconstitutional, but also felt it was unconstitutional for the federal government and army to do anything about it, not even preparing the army for the impending war.  He was, in actuality, a skilled politician and a brilliant man, by many accounts, and at another time might have made a very good president.  But the political climate at the time required a forceful, strong, decisive leader willing to act quickly, and this was something Buchanan was not.  So… EE: no; good: no.

#16 — Abraham Lincoln.  He was a captain in the Illinois militia for awhile, and also ran a small store for awhile before becoming a lawyer and serving in the Illinois state senate for awhile, after which he served representing Illinois in Congress (as a Representative).  So, no executive experience.  (I could draw many parallels to Barack Obama right here, but I’ll take the high road and avoid that.  😉 )  Lincoln was president during what can safely be considered the most challenging and pivotal in our nation’s history.  And granted, he did a whole lot of stuff that at a time of peace would possibly be seen as tyrannical: declaring war without Congress, suspending the writ of habeus corpus, imprisoning thousands of Confederate soldiers without due process, spending millions of dollars without congressional approval, etc.  While many of the things he did as president could (and often are) considered unconstitutional, his point of view was that, what was the point of preserving the Constitution if by doing so, it is lost entirely?  And to his point, in doing so he preserved the nation, started the country on a path of a successful Reconstruction, and freed millions of slaves.  You may not agree with the means, but you have to appreciate the result.  So… EE: no.  Good: yes.

Does “executive experience” equate to a good president? Part 4

#11 — James K. Polk.  Polk was both Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee.  He was trained as a lawyer and also helped run his family’s successful plantation.  The Polk presidency is generally looked upon as a good one, but one of missed opportunities.  Under his administration, the United States added territory that would later make up most of our western states, including Washington, California, Oregon, etc.  Part of that territory was gained through the skillful directing of the Mexican-American War.  He was able to reduce tariffs and the economy prospered.  One source of contention is that he did little to stem the spread of slavery, and in fact grossly underestimated how his support of letting slavery expand into the newly acquired territories would fan the flames of emotion in the country.  He also attempted to purchase Cuba from Spain, but the offer (upwards of nearly $3 billion in today’s dollars) was rejected.  (Imagine the difference in the Cold War if that transaction had gone through?!?)  But overall he seems to have been productive, masterful at negotiations and he successfully achieved Manifest Destiny and secured our border with Mexico.  Perhaps he lacked some foresight, but it’s easier to see that now, in retrospect, than it probably was at the time.  So, I would say:  EE: yes; Good: yes.

#12 — Zachary Taylor.  Attained the rank of Major General in the Army and was a national war hero.  Having never held political office or even bothered with telling people his political leanings, it was pretty much a crap shoot when he won office to see what he would do.  It turns out he was pretty against the expansion of slavery, which incited the South.  But then he went and died of suspected cholera and never really got to see his policies through, as his veep, Millard Fillmore, took over and supported a somewhat different philosophy.  Had Taylor lived and won a re-election to see his policies through, it might have stemmed the spread of slavery and even, possibly, prevent the Civil War.  Besides that, though, he was fairly mediocre… scaled back on the pursuit of Manifest Destiny a great deal, made a treaty with Britain with unnecessarily large concessions, and no one in Congress took him seriously, so he couldn’t otherwise get much done.  All that aside, I’m simply inclined to just not count him, between being unable to determine if he was a really good president, being undecided whether to count his army career as “executive experience” and the shortness of his presidency.

#13 – Millard Fillmore.  He was a VP, a U.S. Senator, a state senator (in NY) and the NY State Comptroller.  Lots of political experience to be sure, but no executive experience.  He took over after Taylor’s death.  He supported the Compromise of 1850, which was a complex set of laws but to summarize, it made California a free state, allowed the possibility of Utah and New Mexico to enter the Union as slave states, and a couple other provisos that attempted to appease all sides but instead inflamed them all instead.  The Compromise did serve to probably delay what was now a nearly inevitable Civil War, so it can be credited for that.  Millard Fillmore also has a number of other accomplishments as part of his legacy – establishing trade with Japan, and presiding over a great number of foreign relations successes in his short tenure.  Common belief seems to be that his presidency was unremarkable, but given the tempestuousness of the times he found himself as President, it seems to me he did a pretty decent job.  He was not nominated to run for a second term more because the Whig party was in disarray more than for his popularity at the time.  So… I might be in the minority here, but…  EE: no; good: yes.

OK, I need to go to bed.  30 to go.  Yikes.