‘I am not fit for this office and should never have been here,” Warren Gamaliel Harding, America’s greatest president, once admitted.
Now, no person, however highly he may regard his abilities, is truly fit to preside over the most powerful institution on earth. But, alas, someone needs to do the job. And “President Hardly,” as in “hardly working” — an unfair moniker — understood both the virtues of republican governance and man’s foibles far better than most. Which is why I tend to get a little upset when his political legacy, whatever little of it exists, is tarnished.
Every year, a bunch of fancy historians are asked by some think tank or media outlet to rank the presidents of the United States in order of greatness. These lists, to be charitable, are useless exercises in revisionism. They are worthwhile only in reminding us that those who chronicle our national story often value all the wrong ideals. It is not merely that these experts have a penchant for dismissing presidents who embrace virtues that gird the American project — a reverence for individual liberty and restraint top among them — but that they offer hagiographic treatments of the near-autocrats and busybodies who most certainly do not.
Take C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey, in which nearly 100 “historians and biographers” rated 43 presidents on ten qualities of leadership to tally their scores. The categories used in this pseudo-historical assessment — public persuasion, crisis leadership, moral authority, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision and setting an agenda, equal justice for all — are all useful, but mostly political considerations.
It rarely occurs to our list-makers, it seems, that presidents can be supremely talented politicians, wielding power with great skill and gravitas, and still do great damage to the office and the nation. Never do these historians evaluate presidents on their most difficult, and often most precarious, political decision: not to use their power.
The president’s charge isn’t to create intergenerational welfare programs, or to placate journalists with platitudinous sound bites, or to engage in friendly bipartisan relations with Congress, even if those acts seem to be most admired by historians. The oath of the presidency doesn’t even read “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and exhibit great moral authority.”
Though, speaking of moral authority, the two top-ranked presidents are almost always Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and really, who are mere mortals to quibble? After that, however, we see an unhealthy adoration of power, which speaks to a misunderstanding of the presidency itself.
Which is to say, nearly every list ranks Franklin D. Roosevelt — whose attack on constitutional norms and botched handling of the Great Depression should have pushed him to the bottom third of any decent list — in third place. Had Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon signed an executive order compelling the relocation of 120,000 Americans into camps, whatever else he may have accomplished in his career, we would still be working through our national trauma.
If you’re under the impression that Roosevelt’s wartime record (not the internment camps, but the fight against Axis powers) is what makes the near-four-term president a star with historians, you probably haven’t taken a deep dive into the rankings system. What really propels FDR to the top of the list is autocratic instincts and technocratic accomplishments. Historians love presidents who “reimagine” governance. It’s not the peace, prosperity, and freedom of the Jazz Age that sends a chill up the leg of our experts, it’s the creation of the National Labor Relations Board.
It’s not just FDR. C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey is top-heavy with names like Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and America’s worst president, Woodrow Wilson, who happens to offer us an interesting counterpoint.
A former newsman, Harding, ranked 13th by C-SPAN, had inherited one of the worst recessions in American history from Wilson, and it took him less than a year to turn it around. He in large part embraced methods that are scoffed at by those who rank presidents. As Paul Johnson once noted, the Harding recovery was “the last time a major industrial power treated a recession by classic laissez-faire methods, allowing wages to fall to their natural level” and cutting spending.
Wilson lied and then bumbled his way into a disastrous European conflict, undoing a stalemate that might have saved the world from another conflict, before officiously demanding that the continent reimagine itself; Harding wouldn’t join even a scaled-down version of the League of Nations, because it was none of our business.
Whereas Wilson segregated the federal government, setting back civil rights for decades, Harding spent his time trying to undo the damage, speaking out forcefully against lynching and advocating for full civil rights for African Americans. While Wilson attacked free expression, supporting the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917–18, Harding released war opponents, even commuting the sentence of the socialist Eugene Debs. Upon his untimely death, the widely popular Harding left America with the austere and morally upright Calvin Coolidge, who continued his policies and his prosperity but still ranks behind the likes of Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford.
While “moral authority” is useful for those seeking the public’s trust, Harding’s personal weaknesses are surely no worse than Wilson’s. We shouldn’t ignore the scandals that later came to light, yet other presidents who rank high on these lists, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — who shared Harding’s personal peccadillos get glowing marks despite the actions of those in their administrations.
Of course, the historic appreciation of activist leaders is merely a reflection of contemporary partisan attitudes. Perhaps one day leading historians will reassess both our Hardings and our Wilsons. Until then, though, we’re stuck with their stupid lists.
This article appears as “More Harding, Please, Less Wilson” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.