Grover Cleveland (2)
advocated hard-money and sound economic policies, opposed the annexation
of Hawaii, avoided war with Spain over Cuba, and also tried to treat
Native Americans fairly, unlike Benjamin Harrison (15), who built
up the navy, tried to annex Hawaii, supported the Sherman Antitrust Act,
and pushed for high tariffs and loose money, which helped cause the
Panic of 1893. William McKinley (38) raised taxes, increased the
size of government, started a war with Spain over Cuba and the
Philippines, and annexed Hawaii. Theodore Roosevelt (21) avoided
any major wars despite his aggressive foreign policy, but he increased
the number of government employees by 50 percent and used protectionism
to favour some industries and trust busting to punish others. William
Howard Taft (20) pursued a less aggressive foreign policy, but he
supported the income tax and high tariffs and initiated twice as many
antitrust suits as his predecessor in just half the time.
The worst president of all time according to Eland is Woodrow Wilson
(40), who dragged the US into WWI, allowed Britain and France to
impose a harsh peace on Germany, created the Federal Reserve System, and
presided over the start of alcohol prohibition in the United States.
Warren G. Harding (6) cut taxes and spending and pursued a
restrained foreign policy, and Calvin Coolidge (10) largely
followed suit, although he kept tariffs high and expanded the money
supply. Herbert Hoover (18) was also restrained in his foreign
policy, but he prevented the market from righting itself after the 1929
stock market crash by lobbying business to keep wages and prices from
falling, by raising spending and taxes, and by signing the Smoot-Hawley
Tariff Act against the advice of virtually all economists, thereby
raising American tariffs to their highest level ever. Franklin D.
Roosevelt (31) gets points for ending alcohol prohibition and
helping oversee the Allied victory in WWII, but loses more points for
defending the needless massive bombing of cities like Dresden, doing
little to allow persecuted Jews to come to the US, incarcerating many
tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans in prison camps, and of
course interfering heavily in the economy, thereby growing the welfare
state and prolonging the Great Depression.
Harry S. Truman (39)
needlessly dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, helped start the
Cold War, and entered the Korean War without a congressional
declaration. Dwight D. Eisenhower (9) ended that war and pursued
fiscally responsible policies, which led to impressive economic growth
during his two terms. The revered John F. Kennedy (35) may have
resisted his hawkish advisors and diffused the Cuban Missile Crisis, but
he was partially responsible for that debacle in the first place thanks
to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and he secretly intervened in the
Vietnam War. Lyndon B. Johnson (32) did support and sign the
momentous Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but he greatly
expanded the welfare state and escalated US involvement in the Vietnam
War. After pledging to end that war during the campaign, Richard M.
Nixon (30) prolonged it, and he also instituted wage and price
controls, abandoned what was left of the gold standard, increased
government spending, launched the War on Drugs, and was involved in the
Watergate scandal. Gerald R. Ford (16) was much more restrained
in foreign policy and did not increase spending very much, although he
raised income taxes, which helped to cause a deep recession, and he
pardoned Nixon before he could be charged, much less tried in court.
The best modern president was apparently Jimmy Carter (8), who
pursued a restrained foreign policy, was a budget hawk, deregulated
several industries, and nominated tight-money Paul Volcker as chairman
of the Federal Reserve. Ronald Reagan (34), darling of
conservatives, dramatically raised both government spending and the
debt, intervened more abroad than his predecessors, was embroiled in the
Iran-Contra scandal, and gets altogether too much credit for “winning”
the Cold War. George H. W. Bush (33) pursued an aggressive
foreign policy in Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Somalia, he bailed out
the savings and loans banks, and he raised taxes after pledging not to.
It took Bill Clinton (11) to put the brakes on federal spending
and turn the deficit into a surplus, and he also reformed welfare and
supported free trade. And George W. Bush (36) for his part
invaded and occupied two countries, authorized the use of “aggressive
interrogation techniques,” vastly increased government spending and the
debt, nominated inflationist Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal
Reserve, and bailed out the financial institutions that made bad loans
in the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
There you have it. For those of you keeping track, Eland’s top four
presidents are Tyler, Cleveland, Van Buren, and Hayes, far less
well-known than the giants actually enshrined on Mount Rushmore, whom
Eland ranks 7th, 21st, 26th, and 29th.
There is of course plenty of room to quibble with Eland’s rationales for
his rankings, which are only very briefly sketched above. Was Thomas
Jefferson really a worse president than Herbert Hoover? Was Jimmy Carter
really the best modern president? I myself was not entirely convinced by
all of Eland’s specific arguments and rankings.
But the lively discussions that can arise from such a challenging
reassessment of the presidents are a big part of the fun of this book.
Such debate can help shake things up, maybe get people to reconsider
some of their ideas and beliefs. And the book’s overall argument is a
good one: that presidents who are charismatic and who do a lot of things
usually get all the love, whereas the ones who simply do their best to
respect the Constitution and promote peace, prosperity, and liberty are
largely ignored and forgotten. When enough people take the kinds of
ideas discussed in this book to heart, then a solid candidate like Gary
Johnson will stand a better chance of becoming President of the United
States of America.