Nearly all Americans recognize Mount Rushmore, and each year two-and-a-half million visitors gaze at that national memorial. The pull, of course, is the 60-foot-tall faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Gutzon Borglum sculpted them in the hard granite of the Black Hills mountain in order to “commemorate the founding, growth, preservation and development of the United States of America”: Washington, the first president, represents the birth of the nation; Jefferson, who oversaw the purchase of Louisiana Territory, represents the nation’s growth; Lincoln, leading the nation through its greatest military, constitutional and moral crisis, preserved the Union; and Roosevelt, president during years of brisk economic growth and the imperial venture that built the Panama Canal, represents the development of the United States.
Completed in 1941, Borglum’s selection of the four presidents has stood the test of time. In virtually every presidential ranking by historians through seven decades, Lincoln and Washington are always listed among the three rated as best, along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was not yet president when Borglum began designing, dynamiting and carving into stone. Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt are not far behind.
When historians cast their votes in evaluating presidents, they drill down into criteria such as executive ability, economic management, crisis leadership, relations with Congress, international relations, domestic accomplishments, court appointments, integrity and moral leadership. Evaluations fluctuate as evidence accumulates about the longer-term consequences of presidential (combined with congressional) policies.
Robert Dallek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of nearly two dozen books on U.S. presidential history, takes a broader view in analyzing characteristics of our best presidents. Among them are vision, national consensus builder, pragmatism, credibility, charisma and frankly, luck.
• Vision. Several 20th century White House occupants stand out. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had an enlarged vision of ways to lessen the harshness of early industrial capitalism. And in foreign affairs, Wilson is remembered for pursuing his dream, a League of Nations. Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address (1933) that “where there is no vision the people perish.” Program after program emerged from his administration to end the depression, reform the economic system and defeat fascism. Harry Truman led the nation in containing communism; later Ronald Reagan worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end.
• Consensus builder. A significant legacy of success cannot be accomplished by working alone, or with one party. Again, Franklin Roosevelt was exceptional in this, not only in responding to economic collapse but in preparing the United States for a larger role in world affairs. Lyndon Johnson, too, was a master of consensus on the politics of race and social legislation that resulted in a staggering array of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, our most significant civil rights acts, and federal aid to education, all while the poverty rate in the 1960s fell by nearly half. But his presidency was wrecked by his mistaken venture into the maelstrom of Vietnam.
• Pragmatism, the ability to shift with realities. In light of the foregoing, Roosevelt and Johnson again come to mind, as does Ronald Reagan. No one doubted his strong anti-communist views, yet it was he who embraced Mikhail Gorbachev and helped bring an end to the Cold War.
• Credibility, the capacity to maintain public trust. Of presidents since World War II, none ranks higher the Dwight D. Eisenhower, war hero and more pragmatic than his critics charged. One can lose credibility through deceit, as Richard Nixon did (“I am not a crook!”), and by promising too much, as Lyndon Johnson did when programs designed to bring harmony and improvement also resulted in burning cities.
• Charisma, the power of personality that inspires loyalty. Such leaders, turning charm into power with their gift for words, were adept at serving as symbolic spokesmen for the nation. They often appear at a time of national yearning for a new mood, or perhaps for new possibilities. Such was the case with Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Among the most memorable of all presidential quotes are FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”
To end with a question: In light of the criteria in which the foregoing presidents have overall scored well, how does President Donald Trump rate? We ask this knowing full well that any realistic assessment of a president after one year in office is impossible. But we can begin to think of Trump in a coherent way. Then wait until his presidency is over to make a substantial evaluation.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.