Monday was Presidents Day, which meant school was out. I strongly suspect that our schoolchildren did not spend the day meditating on the leaders of our country. I suspect they found other diversions.
I am not especially upset by this. After all, some holidays you just take in stride. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about trees on Arbor Day, for example.
But this year, I did reflect on presidential history because I happened across a couple of polls on the subject of "greatest presidents.’’
The results were surprising. Abraham Lincoln was given the distinction as our greatest president in one poll, but in another poll the nod went to Ronald Reagan. Even more surprising is that George Washington was sixth in one poll, seventh in the other.
Washington finished behind both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in one poll, which is really hard to fathom.
In the poll that put Lincoln at the top, Clinton was second and Reagan third, which suggests that the polling cut across current political preferences.
Not that it really matters, but it is hard for me to determine where contemporary presidents belong in such a ranking. In baseball, a player cannot be considered for the Hall of Fame until he’s been retired for five years. It’s a good system because the delay allows for voters to get a better sense of the player’s achievements. Time provides context, which is an important factor in
I think something similar is needed when considering something akin to a hall of fame for presidents. This is strictly arbitrary, but I’d put the figure at 30 years, which means that Gerald Ford would just have become hall of fame eligible.
Politics aside, I suspect that in 30 or 40 years, Reagan and George W. Bush might get a look; Reagan for his role in ending the Cold War, Bush because 9/11 fell on his watch.
Clinton, I suspect, won’t get much consideration. Think of Clinton as a victim of his time in this sense: Nobody ever puts together a list of "Greatest Peace-Time Generals.’’
So, if the list is confined to those who served prior to 1975, my top three would consist of Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Washington’s leadership helped form the basis of our republic, Lincoln preserved it and FDR rescued it.
Each was a man with skills perfectly suited to his time. In fact, it is hard to imagine our new country with someone other than Washington as our first president. It is equally hard to fathom a leader other than Lincoln at the time of our great national tragedy, the Civil War. Who but Roosevelt could tell us: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself’’ and be believed?
When our children are our age, perhaps Reagan or Bush or even Clinton will have risen to that standard.
Time will be the best measure of that.