Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?


I started to do this yesterday and then forgot. The piece in The New York Times in which political scholars rank all the presidents — brought to my attention by both Bud and Norm — has reminded me.

In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.

But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
  2. Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
  3. Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
  4. Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
  5. Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.

So… whom would y’all pick?

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

64 thoughts on “Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?

  1. bud

    1-Lincoln – Everyone gets it right

    2-Washington – Led the nation at the start. Could have messed up by didn’t

    3-Obama – Very under rated. Took over a catastrophe. Scandal free. Burdened with GOP congress for 6 years so his resume suffers.

    4-Kennedy-Should get more credit for civil rights law

    5-Teddy Roosevelt- The first environmentalist and a trust buster

    Just can’t put FDR in top 5 because of court stacking attempt and Japanese internment disgrace.

    Bottom 5

    40 Andrew Jackson
    41 Harding
    42 Trump
    43 Buchanan
    44 W – The complete package of awfulness. Trump does have the potential to knock him out of this infamous ranking. But for now W is clearly at the bottom.

  2. Norm Ivey

    1. Lincoln. Because.
    2. FDR for some of the same reasons as you cite, but also because you can see still see the impact of his presidency everywhere. The CCC has left us some beautiful state and national parks as well as some strong farming and conservation methods. The FHA is still around helping people get into their own homes. The WPA left behind all kinds of permanent infrastructure. The Rural Electrification Act (and TVA) helped create many of the electric co-ops that are still around. Farm subsidies expanded and food stamps were initiated during his tenure. Then, of course, there’s that little thing called Social Security.
    3. I like Ike–again partly because of his the impact his presidency had on infrastructure and technology, specifically the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and NASA. I also admire him for his warnings against the military-industrial complex, a warning I’m afraid we’ve ignored. We could use another president like him today. He’s also one of the better men who we’ve been lucky enough to have as president. It’s been a few years since I voted for a Republican for president, but another Eisenhower would do it for me.
    4. LBJ because you’ve convinced me, but I think a lot of his accomplishments don’t happen without JFK coming before. Kennedy’s youth and vigor and idealism primed the nation for Johnson to finish what he started.
    5. This one’s tough. I’m torn between Teddy, Jefferson, Truman and Obama, all of whom would appear in my top 10. I’m going with TR simply because of his storied life and the fact that he was so bullish on expanding the national parks. (See what I did there?) He led the way in trust-busting and laid the precedent for consumer protections. The Panama Canal didn’t hurt.

    Honorable Mention: Jimmy Carter. Ineffectual as president, but he was right about so many things. He installed solar panels on the White House. He lowered the national speed limit to 55. His efforts to get us to realize how dangerous it was to be dependent on foreign oil created a path and stimulated interst in solar and wind power that’s just now coming to fruition. He created the Departments of Energy and Education. He negotiated the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. After leaving office, his efforts on the behalf of mankind are without peer. The Carter Center, his work with Habitat for Humanity, the near complete eradication of the Guinea worm. He’s certainly the best person to have been president in my lifetime, even if he was far from the best president.

    Oh, and he signed HR1337 in 1978 which essentially legalized homebrewed beer at the federal level, for which I am eternally indebted. I no longer have to drink mediocre beer.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good list, well argued.

      I like Ike, too, and regret he didn’t make my list. I thought about him instead of Truman, but Truman exceeding expectations won the day. And I think Ike’s greatest achievements were at SHAEF.

      And I like Jimmy, too. A fine man, although not as effective a president as I would have liked.

      I would probably like Reagan more (although not Top Five more) if not for the way he treated Jimmy. I’ll never forgive his insipid “There you go again” during the debate. As though he were the teacher and Carter the slow pupil, instead of President of the United States. It was obnoxious, especially because it’s the kind of thing a fool says to a wiser man when the wiser man says things the fool doesn’t want to hear.

      I don’t think Reagan was a fool, and in retrospect I thought he dealt well with national security issues, the heart of the president’s responsibility.

      But I really disliked him for his disrespect, and disliked the electorate more for rewarding him for it. It was a tiny foretaste of the electorate rewarding Trump’s nonstop, infinitely greater idiocy. By comparison, Reagan was the Sage of the Ages, and looks much better to me in retrospect, when I can forget the 1980 campaign…

      1. Norm Ivey

        I’ll see your “There you go again” and raise you Lloyd Bentson’s “You’re no JFK.”

        Of course the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania has them both beat. Daily.

  3. bud

    Top 5

    1 Lincoln
    2 Washington
    3 Obama
    4 Teddy Roosevelt
    5 Kennedy

    Here are some honorable mentions and why they didn’t make the cut:

    LBJ loses points for Vietnam
    FDR losses points for court stacking and Japanese internment
    Clinton for Lewinsky lie
    Ike moved a bit too slowly on civil rights
    Reagan had too many scandals (Iran/Contra etc)
    Truman’s decision on the A-bomb was wrong
    Carter did not inspire
    Bush Sr didn’t either
    Ford botched Nixon pardon

    1. bud

      Upon reflection on TR’s handling of the Philippines I have to replace him with Ike. (I need to research early presidents like Jefferson, Madison and Monroe)

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, I was wondering how you were excusing his imperialism.

        But hey, everybody’s got warts. And TR — although I didn’t pick him for my five — is one of those rare presidents who was a real change agent, a reformer who got things done. Like FDR, like LBJ.

        His imperialism — and that’s what it was — was a product of his time, and also the fact that he wanted the United States to step up and take its place among the great nations of the world, and back then that’s what “great nations” did. I think he saw Britain, France, ze Germans and all divvying up the world, and didn’t want to see America get left. Hence the Great White Fleet, etc.

        And I’ll close with a few choice words from Randy Newman…

        1. Norm Ivey

          We could pick apart all of the presidents if we tried. Even the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all slaves, just those in the states in rebellion, and more Americans died in the Civil War than any other war (maybe combined?).

          I look at it in terms of long-term consequences. Those I listed I think had positive long-term consequences, even if they made some drastic errors. So while I admire Reagan, for example, I think the long-term consequences of his presidency tended more negative than positive, in particular in terms of deficit and debt. His presidency opened the floodgates that we can’t seem to get closed. Energy policy during his administration was non-existent. It seems to me that his presidency is when people started viewing the opposition as the enemy.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            “Even the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all slaves…” Lincoln didn’t pretend otherwise. The 13th Amendment is a better measure.

            As to what you say about Reagan: “I think the long-term consequences of his presidency tended more negative than positive…”

            He had an insidious effect on the country, beyond his foreign-policy triumphs. This was early in my journalism career, and I watched something happen in the early 80s. Before that, people were realistic about taxing and spending. Elected officials didn’t WANT to raise taxes, and would avoid it as far as they reasonably could. But Reagan introduced a new dynamic: He convinced millions of Americans that they could have all the government they wanted and needed (such as a military that would drive the Soviets into the poorhouse trying to keep up), and not have to pay for it. And they started electing other officials who would tell them the same.

            But that’s just part of today’s problem. Mark Sanford, the Club for Growth and the Tea Party introduced a new kind of insanity: The idea that you shouldn’t spend money on government even if you didn’t have to pay for it, even if the money fell from the sky. That is much worse than Reaganism…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              “We could pick apart all of the presidents if we tried.”

              That’s particularly easy if you tend to have single issues that are deal-breakers. If you say, “Vietnam: disqualified!” or “Hiroshima: disqualified!” or “Iraq: disqualified!”

              The presidency is an extremely complicated job, and you have to look at the men who have held it holistically, not elevating or damning them for one or two issues. That makes it possible to make a case for almost any previous president (although Buchanan and Andrew Johnson will still be seen as failures). Not until Trump did we have someone who’s bad pretty much across the board….

    2. Mark Stewart

      Bud, I am going to completely disagree with you here. The atomic bomb ended WWII and saved possibly millions of (mostly Japanese lives). Furthermore, I think the world needed to witness the power of nuclear weapons – so they would not be tempted to try to use them again. Without that example of those two cities being torched think about how much worse it could have been for the world in the 50s…

      1. bud

        I used to believe that but I think a more measured demonstration of the a-bombs power would have accomplished the same result. Incinerating 100000 civilians wsanot justified.

        1. Richard

          How many American soldiers would have been killed had we been forced to invade Japan? It was necessary and used effectively. In wars prior to the Gulf War, civilians were collateral damage. In WWII it wasn’t uncommon to bomb entire cities with “dumb bombs” in order to hit your target. It also sent a message to those who thought it was a good idea to sucker punch the US.

          I don’t know if it’s true, but I read somewhere that someone saw a quote in the guest book at the USS Arizona memorial… “They started it, we finished it”.

    3. Norm Ivey

      I have to agree that the Japanese internment is one of our darkest hours. I’m reading a biography of William Gruber, a German immigrant who invented the View-Master, and as a German, he was forced to move away from Portland to live inland in Idaho during the war, even while the armed forces were using his invention to train sailors and soldiers on identifying enemy ships and planes. he had to leave his American wife and young child behind.

      I’m more on the side of “it had to be done” when it comes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you are forced to fight a war, you should fight it all-out. Could there have been a better way–maybe a demonstration of the power? Probably, but I think it went far beyond subduing Japan. It was meant to send a message to other players on the global stage.

      1. Doug Ross

        A small part of the reason we have more gun violence in this country is because many have been conditioned to accept taking innocent lives as a reasonable action in time of war. No other modern country has socialized (and glorified) killing as well as we have.

        1. Norm Ivey

          I don’t think most of us believe taking innocent lives as reasonable during war as a general rule. World War II was different from any war we had fought before in that we were up against an enemy that might otherwise have never surrendered.

          But, yes, in some measure we have socialized and glorified killing.

        2. Richard

          So that explains all of the shootings in Chicago, Detroit, NE Columbia, etc…??? Killing of civilians during times of war? I blame drugs, fatherless families, video game, glorification of prisoners, rap music…

  4. Doug Ross

    If you weren’t an adult during the time a person was President then you are basing your rankings on what you’ve read — typically sanitized, incomplete histories that most often focus only on the positive aspects of each President.

    I don’t care what LBJ did regarding the Great Society. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and lied about the “progress” in Vietnam. If you use a rational scale to balance the pros and cons of a Presidency, lying and killing can’t be overcome by any legislation.

    I liked Carter – a man of intelligence who didn’t lie. The rest of them during my lifetime have either a lot of flaws (Nixon, LBJ, Clinton, W. Bush) or did little (Ford, Bush Sr.). So I guess that leaves it at Carter, Reagan, Obama and the rest tied for last. Obama’s greatest achievement was not having any real scandal in eight years. Other than that, he was unimpressive.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      This is backwards:

      If you weren’t an adult during the time a person was President then you are basing your rankings on what you’ve read — typically sanitized, incomplete histories that most often focus only on the positive aspects of each President….

      Give me someone who’s been picked apart by historians for a century or two. Give me some distance, time for the emotions to bleed away.

      “What you’ve read” is information of lasting value, rather than the gut reactions of the moment.

      Even without that remove, there’s the fact that print (a category that very much includes the written word online) is inherently superior to other media. It engages the mind more than the senses. It helps you think.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That said, I’m glad you like Jimmy. I love it when you and I an agree on something.

        Jimmy is the first candidate I really got excited about and looked up to. I don’t always agree with him, but I think a lot of him…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Before I stir up fans of TV “news” (and even I am a fan of PBS and NPR)…

        Yes, the senses that are engaged by broadcast media (and online video, podcasts, etc.) can communicate important things, and they can contribute, along WITH the written word, to an overall Gestalten impression that is useful, especially to those of us of an intuitive bent.

        I don’t mean to dismiss them altogether. But I can’t see them as valuable INSTEAD OF reading.

        Doug was being dismissive of reading history, and it got my dander up (“Geoffrey, bring me my Fighting Trousers!“)

        I’m saying what we see and hear and read here and now would be greatly augmented if we could also have the perspective of historians a century hence, after the passions of the moment have long cooled down…

        1. Doug Ross

          I wasn’t being dismissive of reading history. I’m dismissive of the concept of trying to rank Presidents who served 50 to 175 years before you were born. Unless you are a history major who spent years devouring texts written during and since the time involved, you’re just regurgitating what someone decided was important. The fact that Grant jumped up 7 places confirms that.

          I read Chernow’s Hamilton book and my view was that George Washington may have been a great general but wasn’t much of a President. He didn’t seem like he even wanted the job and when in office was mostly apathetic, bored — he certainly didn’t try to rein in Hamilton or Jefferson very much and that contributed to a lot of strife in the country at the time.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            “Unless you are a history major…” Well, I’m a history major — inadvertently. So maybe that’s why I reacted as I did. I was a semester away from graduating and only needed two courses to have a second major in history (my first being journalism), which was totally unintentional. I had just taken that many history electives. I was surprised when the guidance people pointed it out. So I took the two more courses…

            I had taken a lot of political science electives, too, just not enough to get in range of a major. I had tested out of both foreign language and math, so I had a lot of semester hours available, and I used them taking things that interested me…

  5. bud

    Classic Brad Warthen on his reasoning for including LBJ. Brad correctly argues why LBJ should NOT be included but then includes him anyway.

    Doug gets this half right. LBJ most certainly does not belong in the top 5 because of Nam. But his legislative record has benefited 100s of millions. This is complicated. As for the dismissive comment that Obama was scandal free; that is huge. I give great credit for that.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, you know, they tried putting out New Brad Warthen, but it tasted like something that had been left out in the hot sun and adulterated with truckloads of high-fructose corn syrup.

      So, by popular demand, they had to bring back Classic Brad Warthen.

      What’s even better is Mexican Brad Warthen, but it can only cross the border illegally, and Doug doesn’t like that. 🙂

  6. Mark Stewart

    Most overlooked Presidents, by year in office:

    19th Century
    1) James Monroe
    2) John Quincy Adams
    3) James Polk

    Twentieth Century
    4) Willam Taft
    5) Dwight Eisenhower (his civil rights record and ability to take Federal action without incurring personal animosity are way underappreciated)

    I do kind of agree with Doug’s conclusion but not his rationale: We tend to overrate those of our own era… unless we come to mythologize those of the past (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln…).

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      I’m a big fan of John Quincy — and I thought the 1828 election result was the greatest political disaster of our history until 2016 — but I’d put him in a different category: Presidents who were great because of their contributions before and after they were president. As much as I admire them, I didn’t include them in my Top Five list.

      In that category, I’d include Eisenhower, both Adamses, Grant, Madison and maybe Jefferson. Even Washington to some extent, but I included him in the Top Five anyway…

          1. Claus2

            So you don’t take a weekly pilgrimage to his “boyhood home” here in Columbia? You know the one he lived in for what… 6-7 months of his life.

            1. Norm Ivey

              Why would anyone take a weekly pilgrimage to a president’s home? It’s a building or estate. Interesting from a historical standpoint, but I can’t imagine visiting any of them more than once.

              The Sierra Nevada Brewery in Mills River, NC is as close as I come to making a pilgrimage.

              1. Claus2

                People do weird things, I know people who haven’t missed a Gamecock football game since the 1980’s.

                Actually they lived there for four years, from the time he was 14 to 18. Not exactly a “childhood home”. That’s like calling every house/apartment/grass hut Navy Brat Brad Warthen lived in as his “childhood home”.

          2. Mark Stewart

            Right, I’m not advocating for Wilson. Nor do I think Brad would. I was just bemused that all the “great” Presidents were in office during major periods of warfare. Some of that seems like it would be circumstantial – an opportunity for a stage perhaps…

            1. Doug Ross

              That’s not a surprise at all.

              Grant has no business being in any list of top Presidents. What he authorized and lied about to decimate the Native American population is worse than Japanese internment, worse than slave owning Presidents, worse than Monica Lewinsky, worse than Watergate, and worse than LBJ.

              From Smithsonian Magazine:

              “The outcry for annexation brought Grant to a crossroads. He had taken office in 1869 on a pledge to keep the West free of war. “Our dealings with the Indians properly lay us open to charges of cruelty and swindling,” he had said, and he had staked his administration to a Peace Policy intended to assimilate Plains nations into white civilization. Now, Grant was forced to choose between the electorate and the Indians.

              He had no legal reason for seizing the Black Hills, so he invented one, convening a secret White House cabal to plan a war against the Lakotas. Four documents, held at the Library of Congress and the United States Military Academy Library, leave no doubt: The Grant administration launched an illegal war and then lied to Congress and the American people about it. The episode hasn’t been examined outside the specialty literature on the Plains wars.

              Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ulysses-grant-launched-illegal-war-plains-indians-180960787/#MDs7owtBp1UKSk78.99

  7. Bart

    Sometimes a character flaw can eliminate someone from the honors they truly deserve. My list of favorites starts with Lincoln of course. Studied him more extensively than other presidents. Each one had his own angels to guide him and demons to contend with. Woodrow Wilson was perhaps the one I would place at the bottom of the list because of his open support of racism, his snub of Ho Chi Minh that caused him to turn to Russia for support and we know where the snub ultimately led us, and other betrayals and broken promises during his administration.

    I won’t give LBJ the honor of being the one who started the Civil Rights Bill that passed in 1964 because the originator of the bill was JFK and LBJ used his political acumen by arm twisting and overcoming filibusters by Democrats from the South and in particular, Byrd from WVA to finally get a modified version passed. So, he may get 1/4th credit but that is about all for me at least.

    I won’t dishonor FDR for his decision to send Japanese citizens to interment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor because the attack created a very dangerous and hostile environment in this country for people of Japanese descent. Like everything else that happens in the space of time of the moment in history, in retrospect it was a mistake but at the time, it was the only decision FDR could make.

    One president not mentioned and for good cause is Richard Nixon. However, when reviewing his list of accomplishments while in office, it is remarkable to say the least. A brief summary of the accomplishments during his time in office:
    Ended segregated classes in the South
    Started revenue sharing
    Ended the draft
    Signed into law new anti-crime laws
    Started the process to end the Cold War
    Stopped or help stop foreign oil suppliers from price gouging
    Started the EPA
    Produced a balanced budget before Clinton’s
    Signed the Equal Opportunity Employment Law
    Title IX
    Opened the door to China
    Worked with Russia on Treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons
    Ended the Vietnam War
    His SOS helped negotiate a treaty between Israel, Egypt, and Syria
    The first man on the moon happened under his administration

    There are other good things he did but his involvement in Watergate became the asterisk beside his name in the history books. Another act by Nixon was welcomed at the time but eventually turned into a disaster was his 90 day Wage and Price Freeze in 1971. Instead of gaining control over inflation, within a few years, inflation soared out of sight. Effective to begin with, ineffective at the end.

    Trying to rank former presidents and not place an asterisk beside their names is difficult at best, almost impossible. Each one had his down side and fair share of bad decisions during his administration. Each one dealt with the issues of the time in the best way they could and until January 21, 2017, they did try to work with the opposition on most issues. As much as I admire Lincoln, even Lincoln was a pragmatic politician and if it meant holding the Union together, he would have capitulated on the issue of slavery. But in the end, his better “angels” won the day.

    I also agree with Doug’s comments about Grant. He did earn the nickname, “Useless Grant”.


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Nixon is the first presidential candidate I ever supported — in 1960. When Kennedy won and my mother was watching the inauguration on TV, I hid behind a chair rather than watch. My mother told me to “grow up.”

      Mind you, I was only 7 years old.

      I had wanted Nixon because — this might surprise some — I thought JFK sounded too bellicose in the debates. I didn’t understand that he was a junior senator trying to show he was strong and tough running against a famously anti-communist vice president. I just thought the things he said about the Soviets sounded like he was somebody who would send my Daddy to war.

      I was kind of right. My Dad would be in the mangrove swamps south of Saigon, an area known as the Forest of Assassins, just full of VC, in 1967-68.

      I supported Nixon again, as a high school student, in 1968. I had no appreciating of Humphrey at all, and the only other option was George Wallace. Nixon seemed like the sensible candidate in the race.

      But then, when I got to vote in 1972, I stood there in the booth debating with myself, and could not pull the lever for him. Because of Watergate, which was just starting to come out. I’d have still voted for him if McGovern had had a chance, because he was a competent president and I thought McGovern was an incompetent loon. But I voted for McGovern as a protest against Watergate, knowing that Nixon would win…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, bud, he ran a terrible campaign. It made him look super-incompetent.

          There were a lot of reasons to say that, but the one that sticks in my mind after all these years is the Eagleton mess. I liked Eagleton. I hated that McGovern said he backed him “one-thousand percent,” then dumped him.

          But there were plenty of other things.

          McGovern, personally, was NOT a loon. He was, among other things, a war hero. But he wasn’t going to talk about THAT, not in a party totally traumatized by Vietnam and spitting on the ground at the mention of anything having to do with the military.

          1972 was when the Democratic Party was rapidly devolving from the FDR coalition to something that I could not support, steeped in anti-military sentiment and Identity Politics. It was McGovern’s bad luck to come along and become the standard-bearer at that moment…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            The Democratic Party of the early and mid’60s — that was a party I could support. The party of civil rights, and universal health care (or at least taking steps in that direction). A party that still had confidence that the U.S. had a responsibility to lead postwar global collective security arrangements, that saw the potential for American might to stand for something in the world.

            By 1972, it had become the country of, if you’ll allow a tongue-in-cheek quote from Sgt. Foley, “listening to Mick Jagger music and bad-mouthing your country…”

              1. Doug Ross

                My country, right or wrong.

                The changing views of Democrats couldn’t have been in response to how badly Vietnam was handled. Has to be some sort of deranged anti-American sentiment. War mongers had a long time to get it right and they failed… and they lied, lied, lied day after day while soldiers were getting killed. THAT’S why people stopped supporting the war.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “War mongers had a long time to get it right and they failed…”

                  No. We won every battle. Trouble was, we weren’t there to win the war.

                  And no, I don’t mean that in a whiny Rambo “The politicians wouldn’t let us win” way. I mean we actually were not there to win. We were there to preserve a status quo, and a fairly shaky status quo at that. The big flaw in our thinking was that we thought if we kept playing tenacious D and killed enough NVA and VC, they’d quit. But they weren’t going to do that. That’s what Tet proved. It was suicidal, and they got creamed. Complete military defeat of the North. But it showed they weren’t going to quit.

                  We weren’t there to play offense. You ever remember us mounting an effort to invade the north and take Hanoi? No, and for good reason — it’s not what we were there for.

                  And bottom line, THAT’S what was wrong. Not evil, lyin’ liars or imperialism or any of that other stuff. It’s that our basic strategic concept was flawed, and it wasn’t going to work.

                  I’m not saying we had the option of trying to win. By the logic of the Cold War, we didn’t. We didn’t want it to turn into WWIII, by pulling the Russians or Chinese in for direct combat against us. Remember, that had happened in Korea.

                  So we were there to play defense, and it wasn’t going to work, and it took a long time to figure that out.

                  Something else you might not be thinking of…

                  Our involvement there was something that we couldn’t just pull out of without totally screwing over out allies who’d put their lives and their families on the line to fight alongside us against the north.

                  And in the end, that’s what we did, and it was ugly and ignominious and a lot of people suffered for it.

                  From about the time Johnson inherited the presidency, there never was a time in which there was a clean, easy and honorable way to desert the South Vietnamese. And people shouldn’t pretend there was…

                2. Doug Ross

                  How does that negate my opinion that they had a long time to get it right but didn’t? Who else was responsible for the strategy? If the intent was to preserve the status quo then that speaks even worse of their desire to use human lives as chess pieces in their foolish power trip. There were too many WWII veterans in high command looking for a reason to go to war. What good is the largest military on Earth unless you get to flex your muscles once in a while?

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    “There were too many WWII veterans in high command looking for a reason to go to war.”

                    No, there weren’t. Not Ike, not Kennedy, not Johnson. And certainly not the generals.

                    Watch the TV series again, and watch the agonizingly slow way we got involved, a bit at a time, through the 50s and 60s. It ratcheted up, and ratcheted up, each time because people thought “A little more, and it will get done and we can leave.”

                    Whose “foolish power trip” was involved? I didn’t see anybody in this who WANTED what happened.

                    Why does everything have to be because people are evil, or dishonest, or cruel, or ambitious, or greedy? If you follow that formulation, thinking there must always be somebody in a black hat, you can’t understand the way big, complicated things happen in the real world.

                    Today, we actually do have a president who is completely out for himself, a guy who doesn’t believe in basic American values of tolerance and pluralism, a pathological liar, a profoundly greedy man who judges everything that happens in terms of how it affects him.

                    The reason you don’t see what a dire situation that is for our country, is that you see those qualities in EVERYBODY. You think leaders in the past were just as bad. But we’ve never had anyone like that in that position. We’ve had people who screwed up, made bad decisions — but we’re all prone to that. We have never, ever had someone so profoundly narcissistic — it’s ALL about him — or so ignorant of how things work. Ever.

                    That’s why I’m what you would call obsessed with this situation. And will be until everybody sees it….

                3. Claus2

                  “Watch the TV series again”

                  That’s just cruel, Ken Burns blew it on this one… it was worse than HBO’s The Pacific after coming out with Band of Brothers.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    “The Pacific” was good, but way less engaging than “Band of Brothers.”

                    Ambrose’s book about Easy Company was made for a miniseries. It was coherent, it was about a bunch of guys you came to know and care about, and they were in some pretty key parts of the war. When I first read it, I was amazed at all they had done.

                    And when I read it, I thought, This would be perfect in an HBO miniseries, like what Tom Hanks did with Ron Howard in “From the Earth to the Moon,” and shot in the style that Spielburg (and Hanks) did “Saving Private Ryan.” I actually almost wrote a letter to Hanks and Spielberg to suggest it, but didn’t.

                    Imagine my delight when they thought of it on their own…

                    But “The Pacific” never had a chance of being that. It was patched together from several books written from the perspectives of several Marines (Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone), and it just didn’t hang together.

                    But it did an awesome job of communicating just how awful the war in the Pacific was. And it had some really good bits. Chesty Puller’s speech to the noncoms was really good…

                4. Doug Ross

                  Once again, we must bring it all back to Trump… who has yet to start the war people like you told us was going to happen.

                  Meanwhile, Trump spent 90 minutes listening to school shooting students, victims, and parents and the reviews I saw from what are typically anti-Trump sources were that he did a good job of making it about them and about solutions. Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie, who has been a big anti-Trump guy all along, even said: ” After more than a dozen people told their stories, Trump asked, “Does anyone have any idea of how to stop [school shootings]?” He minced no words about shooters, calling them garbage, but he also didn’t lose contact with the idea that he was there to listen to and comfort the people in the room, not rail against miscreants. In a word, he was presidential, at least in his bearing and temperament.”


                5. Mark Stewart

                  More than the notes, which Trump needed to get through a meeting like that, it was the “45” emblazoned on his cuff that made me cringe.

                  Meeting the students and parents was all just theater – it was still all about his JOY in being President. Like when he stood last week with the grieving kids in FL and gave a thumbs up. Just gross.

                6. Doug Ross

                  It’s all theater. “Mission Accomplished” was theater. Obama sitting down for a beer with the cop and the black guy was theater. Everything in politics these days is carefully crafted and staged for television.

                  But it doesn’t matter what Trump does at this point to some people. Even if he gets some DACA bill through or actually gets some progress on bump stocks or assault weapons, you guys have to keep doubling down on just how terrible America is today. Otherwise you’d have to admit being wrong.

                7. Norm Ivey

                  Sure, it’s theater, and I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. I’ll be happy if he resolves DACA. The problem I have with his handling of DACA is that there was a workable solution in place, and he chose to end it. And I’ll be happy to give him credit if he gets something substantial done about assault weapons. Bump stocks are sort of a “so what?” for me.

                  My point in linking the picture of the notes is that most human beings and leaders don’t need such things to listen to people who’ve been through such a tragedy.

          2. bud

            Yep, the Eagleton thing was bad. But as you pointed out everyone has flaws. That is 1/1000 as important as Johnson’s handling of Vietnam. McGovern was the last nominee of either party who supported SHRINKING the military budget. Today we have to choose between a slow increase or a rapid one. Same thing with the death penalty. Sometimes you just don’t have a candidate for issues you feel strongly about.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Shrinking the military smack in the middle of the Cold War? I’m going to have to go ahead and put that in the “bad idea” category.

              As little as I liked Reagan, his buildup in the ’80s helped the Soviet Union collapse.

              Of course, a footnote here… the whole “Jimmy Carter’s a peacenik; Reagan’s a hawk” doesn’t really describe the truth.

              During the Gulf War in 1991, I took a break in the “Power Failure” project to help out the national desk. We had expanded the A section by several open pages a day, and the top newsroom editors wanted me (as a guy with experience dealing with the Washington bureau and national/international issues, and as a military geek) to spend time the regular national editors didn’t have perusing all the stories out there from the services we subscribed to, and picking the pieces that did the most to explain what was happening.

              There was one story in all those many I selected that I wish I’d made a copy of. It explained that most of the gee-whiz new military technology the U.S. was sending into battle for the first time was developed in programs started by Jimmy Carter in the late ’70s — NOT during the Reagan years. Reagan was all about the big strategic stuff, Star Wars and the like, and think about it: Carter had been a nuclear engineer in the Navy; he was a gearhead. His programs developed the weapons that soldier actually used

    2. bud

      Nixon was a complicated man. He also started the EPA. But I can’t give him credit for ending Vietnam. He took waaay to long. Plus he really was a crook. Probably should be around 25-30th.

      1. Bart

        As I said bud, there is an asterisk beside his name but it doesn’t diminish his accomplishments. As for ending the war in Vietnam, Nixon is responsible and he took the steps necessary “AT THE TIME”. Sometimes ending a war takes much longer than it does to start it. The only thing that can be used to classify him as a crook was Watergate and his denial and interference in the investigation.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Just being a pedant here, but I can’t control myself.

          Nixon didn’t END the war. He just pulled the U.S. out, which of course led a couple of years later to a crushing communist victory, and THAT ended the war. And then they turned around and invaded Cambodia. Before long, they were fighting the Chinese, too. I guess they weren’t as weary of war as a lot of people thought…

  8. JesseS

    Judging any sitting president or even the previous president is kinda dumb. We really don’t know what world they have left us with yet. W. sits pretty low on my list, but at this point the messes are pretty obvious with the destabilazition of the Middle East and whatnot.

    Instead of stacking them, I prefer asking who is overrated and underrated. Ike seems kinda underrated. On Civil Rights he is pretty much ignored or at least his administration is.

    Kennedy seems kinda overrated. So many dumb mistakes. If I had put any of our dead presidents back into the Oval Office, I’d probably have second thoughts on him. Lord knows what he’d allow the CIA to screw up in today’s world.


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