At the other end of the scale, Franklin Roosevelt nearly always ranks high on the list because he did a lot of stuff and coped with major crises. But he caused some of the problems he is credited with fixing. In the view of economists, as opposed to historians, Roosevelt's economic policies mostly deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. Yet he gets credit for ending it simply because he stayed in office long enough for the depression to end on its own. If Roosevelt had left office after two terms, like every other president, perhaps Wendell Wilkie would instead be considered among our great presidents.
In other cases, presidents seem to benefit mainly from things they did outside of office. For example, Thomas Jefferson always ranks high on the list. But he really wasn't an outstanding president. His greatest accomplishment, writing the Declaration of Independence, took place a quarter of a century before he became president. Tellingly, Jefferson himself did not list his presidency as among his three greatest accomplishments.
I have always suspected that Woodrow Wilson benefits undeservedly from having been a professor of history at Princeton before becoming president. Historians are naturally biased in favor of one of their own. John F. Kennedy gets a similar boost from having employed one of the nation's best-known historians, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as a close adviser.
I suggest that an objective criterion for future presidential rankings ought to be how many people their policies killed unnecessarily. On this basis, Wilson would be among the worst because, in my opinion, America had no vital interests at stake in World War I and never should have become involved in it. And Harry Truman probably didn't need to drop atomic bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
To those who think this is a better way of ranking our presidents, one place to start is by going to this Webpage: www.opencrs.com/document/RL32492. There, you can download a document produced by the Congressional Research Service titled, "American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics." It reports the number of American military casualties from every war in history except the current one, which changes daily. Depending on how legitimate you believe a war was, you can do your own rankings of the presidents.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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