by Len Lear
The relative greatness of U.S. presidents or its opposite is a subject of endless fascination to political junkies. One local resident who is a lot more than just a barstool debater, however, is author, historian and former dean of Temple University Ambler, Dr. James Hilty.
The best and worst presidents to serve the U.S., in fact, is a subject that has consumed Hilty, a professorial Lower Gwynedd resident (previously of Blue Bell).
A highly respected presidential historian with particular expertise on the Kennedy family, Hilty’s books 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.
“If asked,” he told us last week, “I tell people I’m an Independent, an inveterate ticket-splitter, but I’m registered as a Democrat. I’m also 80 years old and have carefully cultivated a number of political biases over the years but never once deliberately inflicted them on my students.”
According to Hilty, James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president (1857-1861), was the worst president in our history. Buchanan, a bachelor from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was followed by Lincoln, generally considered the nation’s finest president.
“Buchanan personally favored the rights of slave owners,” said Hilty, “supported the Dred Scott decision (1857) and advocated for the expansion of slavery into the western states. When eight southern states seceded late in his presidency, he denied their legal right to secede but did nothing. He also failed to prepare for war. As a result, by March of 1861 when Lincoln took office, all federal forts in the seceded states were lost (except Fort Sumter), and one-fourth of the federal troops had surrendered to Confederate armies.
“The task of preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the U.S. was left to Lincoln … As Mark Twain explained, Lincoln presided over a profound, wrenching experience which ‘uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country’ and profoundly influenced ‘the entire national character.’ Lincoln remains a central figure in our public memories and our collective identity. He guides us even today toward the ‘better angels of our nature.’ Carl Sandburg said it best: ‘Lincoln abides.’”
In Hilty’s opinion, which presidents have seen the greatest rise in their evaluation since they left office? “Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan have all gained esteem in historians’ eyes, mostly for difficult actions taken or not taken that with the passage of time are seen in better light. All three suffered their critics during their presidencies.
“Truman left office in 1953 with a 23% approval rating, but by 1966 he was considered a ‘near great’ president, ranked in the top 10 by historians who emphasized the enormity of his many consequential decisions made at the end of World War II and at the outset of the Cold War. Truman’s feisty nature, penchant for colorful language and tint of scandal were offset by a rock-ribbed sense of duty and unmatched honesty that subsequently earned praise from both sides of the partisan aisle.
“By the 1980s Eisenhower’s restraint in foreign affairs, successful management of the economy and the comparative overall stability of the 1950s merited a major reconsideration of his presidency and appreciation for his ‘hidden-hand’ leadership. Eisenhower, who jumped from 22nd in 1962 to as high as 5th in one 2018 survey, definitely deserves a top 10 ranking. Eisenhower and Reagan were quite popular while in office, but popularity does not necessarily equate with greatness. John Kennedy, for example, remains more popular in death than when alive. He still earns very high approval ratings from the general public, and they rate him among the greatest presidents.
“His shortened presidency, now fairly regarded as transitional, is difficult to assess. Historians have placed him as high as 5th and as low as 18th. JFK’s strength in managing the Cuban Missile Crisis, commitment to the space program and personal élan will continue to hold him in good stead with the public and provide decent but not great ratings from historians. I would rank him 12 out of 45.”
How about George W . Bush’s ranking?
“Bush and Cheney tended to overreach, first by going to war against Iraq in 2003 based on flimsy evidence and shaky reasoning, then by fighting two costly wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) simultaneously and finally by failing to build a substantial multinational coalition to fight the wars. Bush called for an all-out effort to defeat the terrorists yet failed to adequately engage the country in the process by asking for some equitable level of sacrifice and involvement. Instead, he pushed for a $1.3 trillion tax cut, consequently running up huge deficits to pay for a volunteer army and expensive private contractors. A quick victory in the field turned sour with revelations of American torture of combatants and no evidence of the supposed weapons of mass destruction.
“Bush also faced serious criticisms over his management of Hurricane Katrina, the exposure of a secret directive he issued to the NSA authorizing warrantless surveillance, his mishandling and subsequent withdrawal of a Supreme Court appointment, the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outrage over the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (torture) on enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the financial crisis of 2007-2008, prelude to the ‘Great Recession.’
“By the time he left office Bush’s approval ratings had sunk to 19%, the lowest ever recorded for a sitting president.”
To Be Continued: Hilty’s evaluation of the Obama and Trump presidencies. Hilty can be reached at email@example.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org