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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!

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 Presidential success? Part 1

I’m really, really curious.  I want to look at the presidencies of the United States — ALL OF THEM — and see if “executive experience” really makes a great president.  After all, it’s really being talked about right now.  The Democratic ticket has no executive experience.  Sarah Palin has way more executive experience.  Blahbity blah blah blah.

But does it matter?  Do you need that sort of experience to go down in history as a good president?  And if you have that sort of experience, does it help solidify your place in history as a good president?

This should be fun.  I love this sort of thing, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about our past commanders-in-chief.  Maybe you will, too!  I’m way too lazy to cite stuff, so you’ll just have to trust me that I’m not making anything up.  I’m just doing this for fun so I don’t want to hear any grumbling about my lack of sources.  I’m doing this for me, for my own enjoyment, and just typing it up here so that others might get a kick out of it, too.

I’m going to write this as I research it.  Meaning, as I write, I’m not going to know what I find out about future presidents.  I’m going to start at #1, and go all the way through #43, summarizing the CV of each for its level of “executive experience” and then deciding if each has been remembered as a “good” president (mostly through my own opinion but I will try to be somewhat objective).  And I guess I should have a way analyze the results.  Maybe a comparative percentage presentation — percent of ‘good’ presidents with executive experience combined with ‘bad’ presidents without executive experience (null) vs. percent of ‘good’ presidents without executive experience combined with ‘bad’ presidents with executive experience (alternative).  That should work.  I’d expect, based on the rhetoric during the Republican convention so far that the first percentage will be higher than the second percentage.  We shall see!

First, let’s define “executive experience”.  (And again, I have very little knowledge in the way of the backgrounds of the Presidents through the ages — I have no idea what I’m going to find as I Google each man.)

OK — executive experience:  Let’s call it an ‘executive’ government job — at minimally, the level of governor.  I’m simply not convinced that VP should count.  Yes, in the early days of the country they were elected separately, and nowadays they often play significant advisory roles, and they preside over the Senate counting votes and breaking ties, I gotta say, I just don’t see how ‘executive’ it is.  And the Secretaries of the Cabinets…. on the face I want to count them, but they are heads of such narrowly focused organizations…. I just asked Frank and he votes no, not to count them.  So I won’t.  Owning and/or running a fairly large business as CEO.  Attaining the rank of Lieutenant General or General in the Armed Forces (or Vice Admiral or higher in the Navy).  And maybe I’ll give credit as I go for some other stuff.

I am not aiming to decree someone a good or bad person, or to lift up or decry their activities and accomplishments before and after the presidency.  Obviously our initial string of Presidents were all founding fathers, and in and that of itself is a measure of their personal greatness.  I’m trying to objectively form an opinion of these men as Presidents, independent of their other life achievements (or lack thereof).  So… should I decide that Thomas Jefferson was a crappy president, please don’t crucify me.  I’ll just decide, of my own opinion based on the trifle of things I read for each president, whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (ie. not necessarily BAD, but mediocre or worse).  Feel free to argue with me.  It will only increase my own learning on the matter.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

#1 — George Washington.  He was a General.  He led the entire Continental Army and then later the official United States Army.  Before his army career he was a farmer (a rich and successful one, though he did not make himself rich, he was ‘old money’.)   Good president?  By all accounts, I would say so.  It seems pretty agreed upon how thoughtful and fair he was, and how he listened and sought out opinions from all sides before making a decision.  Most importantly, the new country did not crumble under his leadership, as it most likely had the potential to in those early years.  So:  EE: yes.  Good: yes.

Oooh, I’m going to need a spreadsheet.  If only I had a friend or two who liked this sort of thing…

#2 — John Adams.  He was VP for eight years under GW.  Before that he served in what could be considered the legislative branch of the colonial government, first for the Massachusetts colony and then in the Continental Congress.  Before THAT he was a lawyer, who notably defended the British soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre and were subsequently charged with murder.  He achieved acquittals for six, and two were convicted of manslaughter.  So under my definition, he doesn’t have the executive experience I’m looking for.  It seems to be generally agreed that while he was viewed unfavorably during his time, history has viewed John Adams with a more favorable eye.  Specifically, the U.S. was having major problems with France.  The American populace hungered to go to war with France.  John Adams managed to avoid war and even more so, become allies with France before the end of his term.  I have to vote that Adams, all in all, was a success.  Again, the fledgling country stayed afloat, and since there’s “no such thing as a good war or a bad peace”, avoiding a war with a major superpower of the time was obviously (to me and others) a pretty wise move.  So… EE?  No.  Good?  Yes.

#3 — Thomas Jefferson.  Among his other notable accomplishments, like having Jeffersonian Democracy named after him, and penning a famous document or two, he served as Governor of Virginia for three years before becoming VP and then President after defeating John Adams.  There’s no arguing that Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable and intelligent man, with an amazing gift for the written word.  But to look at the major events of his presidential administration, I have to say he may have done more harm than good.  Among the good was the Louisiana Purchase and commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The bad included being the author of the words “all men are created equal” but doing little to eliminate slavery as an institution, and only freeing his own slaves in his will, upon his death.  He chose during his administration to suspend all trade with England and France (as American sailors were being captured in great numbers by British navy ships and forced into service for the Crown) which sunk the country into an awful economic state.  This trade war eventually led to the War of 1812 with Britain, possibly the closest our country came to collapse.  Great man?  Legendary?  I’ll say yes.  Good president?  Against every ounce of my being, against the fabled greatness, I’m going to say, no.  So…. EE: yes; Good: no.

#4 — James Madison.  He mostly wrote the Constitution, and as a US Representative helped establish the first ten amendments to the Constitution, more commonly known as the Bill of Rights.  He was Secretary of State under Jefferson.  But, according to me, no “executive experience”.  Most notable during his presidency was the War of 1812 with Britain.  Details aside, the U.S. won and remained an independent nation.  Rousing success, if you ask me, even if he bungled a lot of it, and even if Britain was a bit distracted by France at the time.  His policies also led to a stronger military and growing economic freedom and prosperity.  Maybe he wasn’t a super duper fabulous president, but I think he made the most of the situations presented him.  So…. EE: no; Good: yes.

Damn, this is taking a long time to get through each one.  But I shall persevere!!  More to come!