People have been jumping over themselves to declare George W. Bush our worst president ever. But they don’t realize that history values very different things than the people who have to live through it.
When the president is currently serving, what you mostly want is a nice quiet country and a decent economy. In short, you want your own life to get better. But the future-people who are making historical judgments don’t give a damn about your life. They care about their lives.
For instance, you might be out there cursing up a storm about George Washington because you just wanted to get the crop in and then whoops, suddenly the nation is being blockaded and either the British or your own side is out there burning down your crops. We, on the other hand, are all “Yay, George, we’re really happy not to be living in Canada.”
The Economy is number one in things that don’t matter at all for historical judgment’s sake. Andrew Jackson is on our twenty dollar bill, but the man wrecked this nation’s economy and thrust us into a severe depression. Thomas Jefferson absolutely crippled our economy with the Embargo of 1907. It doesn’t matter now, though. The economy is all in the past.
Similarly, losing wars ceases to matter as soon as the veterans of that war start to die off. Truman was tremendously disliked during his time for botching the Korean War. Now people talk about how great he is for something to do with civil rights. Or whatever it was. President Johnson’s reputation has also risen as the war he botched fades from memory. Now he is justly remembered for his civil rights legislation. And can anyone remember that founding father Madison started the War of 1812 and then got our nation badly whupped? On the other hand, if you win a war you get mad props. Wilson is remembered for WWI, FDR for WWII, Abe Lincoln for the Civil War.
All the costs of losing a war, in terms of dead men and wasted money, are in the pasts. But the benefits of winning a war are in the future. For instance, the Spanish-American and Mexican-American wars were immoral wars that cost people their lives. But we still remember the fucking Alamo (and yes, I know the Alamo predated the Mexican-American War).
Repressing your citizens also does not matter. John Adams passed the blatantly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, now he’s a hotshot founding father with an HBO special. FDR very nearly destroyed our entire system of government with his court-packing agenda, and he interned the Japanese. Doesn’t matter. It’s the same principle. Sure, it’s terrible to oppress people. But in the view of history, those people are already gone. All that matters is what the president has done to affect the lives of those people, looking back from history.
Which brings us to the most important criteria for being regarded as a great president: legislation. Preferably legislation that is still around and helping us out today. The Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65 were landmark, as were many of Johnson’s other Great Society initiatives. FDR’s New Deal stands out as one of the planks of his greatness.
So, in view of this, what should a president who wants to achieve greatness do? Clearly he should start a few wars and pass alot of legislation (powered by deficit spending, which is how Lyndon Johnson did it, too). If the legislation sticks, you win. If you win the war, you win. But if you lose, it’s really not gonna be a big deal 60 years from now.