William Henry Harrison! James K. Polk! Millard Fillmore! Chester Arthur! Grover Cleveland! Warren Harding! Calvin Coolidge!
It must be Presidents’ Day on NRO.
Below, our contributors select their favorite presidents. Don’t worry: Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan also receive their due.
Naming George Washington as your favorite president is akin to saying that ice cream is your favorite dessert — not only is he (along with Lincoln) an obvious choice, he is also, on first glance, a boring one. Washington lacked the qualities that endear other presidents to us moderns: Jefferson’s dazzling intellect, Lincoln’s literary power and hardscrabble origins, TR’s superhuman energy, FDR’s patrician élan in the face of polio, Reagan’s warmth and wit.
Washington possessed virtues that are undervalued in our time: an extraordinary sense of duty, prudence, humility, and discretion. As the first president, he established the democratic dignity of the office, avoiding the trappings of monarchy while still imbuing the presidency with grandeur. He successfully managed the enormous egos (e.g., Hamilton, Jefferson) in the first cabinet. And if there ever was an “indispensable man” in American history, it was Washington — yet by voluntarily relinquishing power after two terms, he taught us that no man is indispensable in a democracy.
Other presidents might have been better writers, better dinner companions, or better politicians, but no president inspired more awe and devotion in his countrymen than George Washington — and none was a better man.
– Lee Bockhorn is a former speechwriter for Pres. George W. Bush and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole.
RYAN L. COLE
The obvious choices are the men we built monuments to: Washington and Lincoln.
Yet, in this age of president-as-savior, how about a chief executive whose presidency speaks not of the greatness of a man but the power of the office?
When Charles Guiteau’s bullet brought down James Garfield in 1881, the presidency fell to Chester Alan Arthur, whose calling card was a stint as collector for the Port of New York, a notorious den of corruption and political patronage.
“Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!” one horrified observer exclaimed.
Yet, surprise of surprises, Arthur, sobered by the responsibilities of an office he never sought or wanted, presided over one of the most ethical administrations of an unethical era. He also fought to end the spoils system he had so prospered from. At his urging, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in 1883, ending the country’s spoils system and establishing the civil service.
To be sure, Arthur will never join our presidential greats on Mount Rushmore, but his presidency offers a glimmer of hope by reminding us of the White House’s ability to transform its occupant, no matter his limits.
– Ryan L. Cole writes from Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.
H. W. CROCKER III
As a cowboy-boot-wearing California conservative who remembers when the Golden State was “Reagan Country,” my favorite is Reagan. But I’ve always had a fondness for another cowboy: Teddy Roosevelt. I know he’s regarded with suspicion by some conservatives, but I became enamored of him as a boy, and I’ve never seen fit to amend my boyhood enthusiasm for the Rough Rider President.
Libertarian sectaries are keen to disown TR (just as liberals these days try to claim him as one of their own, because he remains popular). But the libertarian critics have probably forgotten — or never cared — that Russell Kirk chose TR as one of his “ten exemplary conservatives.” TR captured Kirk’s imagination in boyhood and never let go.
I wish I could say, for controversy’s sake, that my favorite president was Jefferson Davis, but I’m afraid I can’t: He was an admirable man in many ways, and undoubtedly the most underrated politician in American history. But if TR had been born a generation earlier, defected to the South (with his Southern mother), and been sworn in at Richmond, the South would have had it made.
– H. W. Crocker III is the author most recently of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.