by Lou Mancinelli
Time and perspective. That is what it takes to judge the true value of a presidency, according to author, historian and former dean of Temple University Ambler, Dr. James Hilty.
The best and worst presidents to serve the U.S. was the subject of a talk Hilty, a 74-year-old Blue Bell resident, was scheduled to deliver in Lower Gwynedd the week leading up to Presidents’ Day, but it has been rescheduled for next November due to the weather.
While the talk was canceled, the Local did a telephone interview with Hilty. Celebrated this year on Feb. 17, the term Presidents’ Day began to appear widely by the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers. “It was basically a way for advertisers to dress [someone] up as Washington or Lincoln and sell more cars,” said Hilty.
A highly respected presidential historian with particular expertise on the Kennedy family, his publications include “Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector” (1998); “The Kennedy Administration” in Presidential Administration Profiles, (1999); “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” and “Robert Francis Kennedy,” Historic World Leaders (1994); and “John F. Kennedy: an Idealist without Illusions” (1975). He has also written widely about Harry S Truman and Bill Clinton and such topics as the JFK assassination, recent presidential elections, the Clinton impeachment and presidential leadership. He also serves as a consultant on American politics for national and local media.
According to Hilty, James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president (1857-1861), is commonly regarded as the worst president in our history. Buchanan, a bachelor from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was followed by Lincoln, generally considered the nation’s finest president.
Lincoln inherited a nation in which seven states had already seceded when he took over as president in 1861, the same year the Civil War started. Washington guided a nation in transition from being ruled by the king’s authority to a republic on the heels of a revolution. FDR first entered office in 1933 amidst the heart of the Great Depression.
Those at the bottom — James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and William Harding — all failed to act decisively when the country needed their leadership, or else their actions proved ineffective. Harding drank whiskey in the White House during Prohibition and left behind an administration doused in corruption.
These examples are obvious. On the other hand, when Dwight Eisenhower left the office after two terms in 1961, his presidential rankings scored near the bottom. Now, though, according to Hilty, there has been a reassessment among many historians, and Eisenhower is commonly ranked among the top 10.
The same applies to President Harry S. Truman, Hilty’s favorite. When he left office, it was with a 23 percent approval rating. But 15 years later, both Republicans and Democrats, according to Hilty, agreed that Truman had taken decisive and important effective action. He’s sometimes now considered in the top 10.
He ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He demanded unconditional surrender from the Japanese and Germans. He decided America would help finance Europe’s reconstruction after the war.
With the impact a presidency contributes to the consciousness of a nation, perhaps it is strange to reflect upon the commercial nature that walks hand in hand with the creation of Presidents’ Day.
As far back as the 1860s, different states observed the birthdays of presidents for different reasons. Pennsylvania celebrated Washington’s birthday on Feb. 12 and Lincoln’s on Feb. 22. But Alabama never observed Lincoln’s birthday. Instead it honored Thomas Jefferson’s on April 13.
A congressional delegation in 1879 first declared Washington’s birthday a holiday in Washington D.C. and expanded it into federal law in 1885. In 1971 President Nixon signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act setting most federal holidays on Mondays except New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Christmas. Congressional debates on the Uniform Monday Holiday Act stressed the commercial, retail importance of Monday holidays and their convenience for businesses and schools.
“And so,” said Hilty, “for the last four decades we’ve all seen those many dreadful caricatures of Washington and Lincoln paraded before us as we’ve been urged to buy a Toyota, Ford … whatever, as part of our patriotic duty. Presidents’ Day sales start sometime after New Year’s Day and continue until Easter.”
So while it may have been created with commercial interests, nevertheless Presidents’ Day can be the time to reflect about who has served the country and how. Hilty’s interest in the field grew out of his wanting to learn about how power worked.
Historians have ranked presidents since Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. first organized a group of historians and political scientists to analyze the issue in 1948.
For his role, Hilty studied history at Ohio State University after service in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1958 to 1962. He finished college on the Vietnam War GI Bill and received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1973. He taught at Temple for 41 years, as well as other institutions.
“You can’t be a great president just by simply exerting power,” said Hilty, a regular speaker on NPR and other programs. “The great presidents had the ability to persuade.”
Other didn’t. Once time has passed and George W. Bush’s presidency can be analyzed with perspective, how will it be considered? His approval ratings sank to 25 percent, according to a Gallup Poll in November, 2008, at the end of his second term. But years earlier, his ratings soared to their peak at 90 percent in late September, 2001, after the World Trade Center attacks.
For Hilty, and other historians, that represents a time in history when Bush had the opportunity to unify the country. Instead, by the time he departed, Bush left behind a divided legislature and a divided voter base. In that sense, Bush now ranks around number 38 of 43, according to Hilty. The consensus now is that he failed.
Regarding Barack Obama, he adopted the War on Terror and is still carrying on the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan. He also inherited The Great Recession, the nation’s largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The stage is set, therefore for Obama to be a president with the possibility of rising to greatness.
“The question is,” said Hilty, “will anyone give him credit?”
Hilty and his wife, Kathleen Griffin-Hilty, were married in 1979. They have three children and six grandchildren. Hilty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.