Politics & Policy

Presidential Considerations

Faves and raves.

Monday marks Presidents’ Day. This means sales at the mall. But it actually also has something to do with the presidency too. And in that spirit, NRO asked a group of historians and commentators who their favorite presidents have been.

Richard Brookhiser

When Napoleon was on St. Helena, one of the remarks he made in his table talk was “They wanted me to be another Washington.” Then he went on to explain, in Napoleonic fashion, how this was not possible in his circumstances. Ambition always finds reasons.

Ambition always finds reasons — except when you refuse to look for them. Dictators always have trouble with trouble with Washington.

So do conservatives. He was a revolutionary — he went to war and put his neck in a halter. What’s more, he did it in the name of rights. Artful Tories, from Burke to George Will, blow away at the word.

Plenty of other people have trouble with too — liberals, atheists, Christian nationists — but let’s spend his day meditating on our troubles with him. Better, his troubles with us.

— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.

H. W. Crocker III

Ronald Reagan was certainly the greatest president of my lifetime – and easily the most inspiring. His first great achievement was dissipating the Carter-era miasma (which evaporated the minute RWR was elected). And while it’s easy to forget how unpopular he sometimes was, we never doubted him.

I moved to Washington about midway through the Reagan years — and fun years they were. More than any other administration of the last half-century, it was effervescent with ideas — not cockamamie ideas, like the Great Society, but real ideas. Speechwriters were cherished, young people were nurtured, and there was a tremendous sense of purpose. Unfortunately, all that disappeared when George H. W. Bush and the Republican establishment took over. Reagan’s presidency was the last glorious summer of California conservatism (which has apparently ridden off into the sunset with the cowboy who once led it).

If I can cheat and name two presidents, let me vote for another cowboy, Teddy Roosevelt. I know he’s regarded with suspicion by many 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.

 – H. W. Crocker III is the author most recently of Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting.

John Derbyshire

Calvin Coolidge; because he practiced restraint in office to an exceptional degree, letting the country run itself and using the power of the presidency only when he thought it would be derelict not to do so. Now, you may say that Coolidge was the last president who could take that minimalist approach to governing, and I suspect you are right. Our times are not his times; our America is not Coolidge’s America; our world is not that world. It is still possible though, even today, for a president to be more Coolidgean, or less. A president may still practice restraint, silence, frugality, and skepticism. He may still trust the American people to take care of many matters for themselves, without waiting for ukases out of Washington, D.C. to guide them. He may still calmly tell those who are hotly opposed to government actions that “the remedy is in the ballot box.” He may still be deeply suspicious of great changes. He may still revere the Constitution and cogitate endlessly on the intent of the Founders. He may still in his private life be an exemplar of bourgeois rectitude. And he may still reply, when asked on leaving office what his administration’s principal achievement had been: “Minding our own business.”

— John Derbyshire is a columnist for National Review & NRO and author of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.

Bruce Frohnen

William Henry Harrison was only president for about a month. And he spent that month in a sick bed, dying of pneumonia. Why is he my favorite president? No other president has done so much to live up to the original intent of the framers, that ours was to be a republic, with a representative assembly at its center and at the apex of power. Ironically, Harrison entered office with the intention of increasing congressional responsibility and power. Unfortunately, his death brought in the Jacksonian John Tyler who sought to act as an Imperial President. But Harrison, in his plans and in his deeds, stood for a true, free republic, answerable to the people in their local constituencies, and not as some democratic mass speaking only through circus-like plebiscites held every four years. He valued our Constitution and its fundamentally localist, limited government principles over dreams of greatness for himself or his party. And it was those principles, and the customs they fostered, that made our country great.

– Bruce P. Frohnen is associate professor law at Ave Maria School of Law and co-editor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.

Paul Kengor

Not surprisingly, I’ve chosen Ronald Reagan. Perhaps my personal experience is instructive: I was an adolescent in the late 1970s. I remember America in those days. It was a lousy time. Post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, Jimmy Carter’s malaise, hostages in Iran, the energy crisis, the misery index, patriotism was ridiculed, our self image was awful, and then, topping off a decade of continuous expansion, the Soviets ended 1979 by invading Afghanistan — their first direct military intervention outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. We were losing the Cold War. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way; this was to be “the American Century.”

There was one leader who was certain he could reverse the wheels of history: Ronald Reagan. I cannot begin to convey to young folks today the degree to which Reagan restored American morale and changed the nation. And then, by the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War was over. The Soviet Union literally disintegrated by 1991. Most extraordinary, it occurred without a missile fired. Reagan actually intended to bring freedom to the communist world, and it happened. Few presidents got so much of what they wanted. What Reagan got was the great triumph of our age.

— Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His most recent work is The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

John J. Miller

Calvin Coolidge was a tax-cutting, budget-slashing man of few words. He was the first president to talk on the radio and the last one not to fly in an airplane. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he said, early in his career. Shortly before leaving the White House, he said: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.” Liberal academics never have liked Coolidge, but Ronald Reagan had his portrait hung in the Cabinet Room.

— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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