Which Presidents Do the Presidents Themselves Like?Google Questions
Originally published 2-17-03
Mr. Fleming is the author of more than forty books of fiction and non-fiction and is a member of HNN's board of directors.
Calvin Coolidge called Herbert Hoover "the wonduh boy." Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt:"No guts!" Richard Nixon thought Democrat Woodrow Wilson was the greatest president of the twentieth century.
It is hardly surprising that presidents would have strong opinions about their predecessors and successors. The presidency of the United States is a unique job and the holders of the office have been acutely aware that they were members of a small extremely select society.
John Adams put his finger on one secret of George Washington's success:"the gift of silence .... He had great self command." It was, alas, a gift that President Adams disastrously lacked.
Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, considered Andrew Jackson, the man who kicked him out of the White House in 1828,"a barbarian who can barely sign his name." Adams had equally little use for Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, whom he saw as a player of"base and dirty tricks." On the other hand, Adams admired James Madison's"imperturbable patience" in the chaos of the War of 1812.
James Garfield remarked that he could never decide whether Ulysses Grant's amazing imperturbability was proof of his greatness or his stupidity. Grant returned the compliment when he said Garfield lacked the backbone of an angleworm, because he failed to keep his promise to retain certain Grant supporters on the federal payroll.
Theodore Roosevelt called William Howard Taft, a man he had handpicked as his 1908 successor,"a puzzlewit" and a"fathead" when he ran against him in 1912. Taft thought Roosevelt, in his disregard for the Constitution,"not unlike Napoleon."
These epithets were mild compared to the beating Teddy gave Woodrow Wilson for his three-year long hesitation to join the Allies in World War I. TR compared him to James Buchanan, whose passivity had let the country drift into the Civil War. TR mocked Wilson's fondness for abstract principles, calling him"a Byzantine logothete." 11Wilson did not like Teddy very much either."I am told he no sooner thinks than he talks, which is a miracle not wholly in accord with an educational theory of forming an opinion," Wilson said. He had an even lower opinion of his successor, Warren Harding:"A fool of a president."
Franklin D. Roosevelt left us a more measured opinion of TR and Wilson in a comment to Wilson's biographer, Ray Stannard Baker:"Theodore Roosevelt lacked Woodrow Wilson's appeal to the fundamental and failed to stir, as Wilson did, the truly profound moral and social convictions. Wilson, on the other hand, failed where Theodore Roosevelt succeeded in stirring people to enthusiasm over specific events, even though these...events may have been superficial."
Commenting on a poll of historians who placed Wilson among the great presidents, John F. Kennedy vigorously disagreed. He pointed out that Wilson had made a botch of his Mexican intervention in 1914, edged the United States into World War I for"narrow legalistic reasons" and messed up the fight for the League of Nations. Kennedy's admiration went to presidents such as James K. Polk and Harry S Truman, who achieved their objectives.
Republicans Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, on the other hand, argued for Wilson's greatness. But Hoover, who served under Wilson in World War I, pointed out a significant flaw -- a tendency to mistake"honest and proper argument against his conclusions for personal criticism." Nixon thought Wilson"had the greatest vision of America's world role."
Harry Truman admired Wilson for a different reason -- the Federal Reserve Act of 1914."That transferred the money power from Wall Street to Washington, where it belongs," Mr. Truman said. Also high in HST's pantheon were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln -- for their bold assertion of the implied powers of the presidency, Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase and Lincoln in his conduct of the Civil War.
Any man who weakened the presidency earned Harry Truman's contempt. At the head of this line was Lyndon Johnson. Truman felt Johnson should have run for reelection in 1968, as Lincoln had run in 1864, and let the voters decide whether they wanted war or peace in Vietnam. By allowing anti-war protestors to boast that they had driven him from office, Johnson"did more harm to the presidency than any man since Buchanan," Truman said."His problem was no guts!"
Dwight Eisenhower thought John F. Kennedy's showbiz friends such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis sullied the dignity of the White House. He was even more appalled by Kennedy's deficit spending. Ike frequently repeated the old saw:"You can always tell a Harvard man but you can't tell him much."
Ike's opinion of Lyndon Johnson was even lower. He considered him"superficial and opportunistic," without"the depth of mind [or] the breadth of vision to handle great responsibility." He totally disapproved of his handling of the Vietnam War. Ike condemned"acting in driblets" and Johnson's constant interference with his military commanders.
For a man who was written off by Truman and Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson had impressive flashes of insight into presidential styles. When he was majority leader of the senate, he remarked that the great presidents were"men of reconciliation. Lincoln never permitted the radical Republicans to drive more moderate elements out of the party. Wilson appealed to elements throughout the nation and only went down when he became too doctrinaire and too arbitrary."
Johnson's hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he pointed out a serious flaw. Recalling his days in the House of Representatives in the 1940s, he faulted Roosevelt for constantly taking Congress by surprise with controversial legislation. As president, Johnson made sure all his legislative proposals were preceded by weeks of briefing and cajoling to smooth their passage.
FDR was also Ronald Reagan's presidential hero and role model. His speeches were full of quotations from him, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes merely echoed. Responding to critics of his cuts in social welfare programs, Reagan compared himself to Roosevelt."Like FDR, I'm not trying to destroy what is best in our system of humane, free government -- I'm doing everything I can to save it."
Several years after Jimmy Carter left the White House, he said:"Of all the presidents who have served during my lifetime, I admire Harry Truman the most." In explaining his choice, the man from Plains, Georgia, did a pretty good job of summing up the ideal president."He was direct and honest...courageous in facing serious challenges, and willing to be unpopular if he believed his actions were best for the country." Courtesy of TomPaine.com