UPDATED, WHERE NOTED
I have written several times about presidents and the presidency. This time I focus on the dual legacy of the presidents: the legacy they brought to the presidency and the legacy they bestowed on it. I begin with a selection of pre-twentieth century presidents, then rip through the Teddy Roosevelt-George W. Bush succession. (I indicate parenthetically the years of each president's birth and death, and the years in which his presidency began and ended.)
George Washington (1732-99, 1789-97) -- a Virginia plantation owner of a "middling" social rank who learned at an early age to take responsibility for large endeavors. Without his fierce determination to succeed, the United States might never have been born. His natural dignity set the standard for all presidents, a standard met by too few (if any) of his successors.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, 1801-09) -- born of circumstances similar to those of Washington, but an architect of ideas and a political schemer more than a straightforward man of action. The range of Jefferson's erudition and intellectual curiosity set the standard for all presidents, a standard that has yet to be met by any of his successors.
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845, 1829-37) -- a brawling, backwoods populist. Jackson's mythical status unfortunately helped to make a virtue of vulgarity, and it set the stage for the "populism" that plagues us still.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-64, 1861-65) -- the quintessential American: from humble beginnings to the nation's highest office. Lincoln's brilliance as a wartime leader and rhetorician validates his iconic status. Lincoln wavered on the issue of slavery -- insofar as allowing slavery to continue in some parts of the nation might have preserved the Union. In the end, Lincoln preserved the Union and led the way to the abolition of slavery. (Lincoln's current "libertarian" detractors, notably one Thomas DiLorenzo, would have had him sacrifice the Union because -- they claim wrongly -- slavery would soon have ended out of economic necessity.) UPDATE: A comment by my son stirs me to add that the revealed preference of libertarian extremists is for States' rights over emancipation, when it comes to a choice between the two. Now, I generally favor States' rights, but I draw the line at slavery (if not other things). As I wrote here, in a different connection, "an attack on States' rights isn't always a vice."
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85, 1869-77) -- a farmer's son and career soldier who rose to greatness during the Civil War, when the nation most needed greatness. Grant's presidency coincided with the upheaval and rancor of Reconstruction, and so he should be remembered as being -- with Lincoln -- a savior of the Union.
Theodore Roosevelt (Jr.) (1858-1919, 1901-09) -- a busy-body from "old money" with crackpot ideas. Roosevelt's image as "man of the people" rests on his constitutional inability to stick to the proper business of government, unlike his predecessor but one in the presidency, (Stephen) Grover Cleveland. TR's trust-busting meddlesomeness put us on the road to the regulatory-welfare state (i.e., socialism).
William Howard Taft (1857-1930, 1909-13) -- TR's temperamental negative in every way but money (if Ohio money can be called "old money"). Taft did not scapegoat business in the way that TR did, but Taft was not a small-government conservative. (He pushed for the Sixteenth Amendment, which authorized the federal income tax, for example.) Taft simply restored some semblance of dignity to the presidency, both during his term of office and, by association, through his later service as Chief Justice of the United States.
(Thomas) Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924, 1913-21) -- a preacher's son whose sense of self-worth was vastly inflated by his acquisition of a Ph.D., a professorship, and the presidency of Princeton University. Wilson won re-election on his promise not to enter the Great War, a promise on which he soon reneged. Wilson -- through his championship of the League of Nations -- injected into American politics the naive, dangerous, and persistent belief that international strife can be averted and alleviated through super-national organizations.
Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923, 1921-23) -- a bourgeois vulgarian who was in over his head. Harding's perceived weakness -- his reliance on unscrupulous cronies -- overshadows the fact that, for a time, the nation had a respite from the regulatory activism of Wilson's regime. Harding, by his death in office, bequeathed us...
(John) Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, 1923-29) -- Harding's dignified, reticent successor. Had Coolidge chosen to run for re-election in 1928 he probably would have won. And if he had won, his inbred conservatism probably would have kept him from trying to "cure" the recession that began in 1929. Thus, we might not have had the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, etc., etc., etc.
Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964, 1929-33) -- a bright, rich technocrat whose people skills were less than zero. Hoover's bass-ackward efforts to bring the economy out of recession (e.g., signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill) contributed in large part to the onset of the Great Depression. Thus came FDR, the New Deal, etc., etc., etc. UPDATE: My son reminds me that Hoover "was a great anti-Communist and left an important legacy for many later conservatives." Indeed, he did. That legacy includes the establishment, by Hoover, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Hoover Institution was for many decades the only conservative American think-tank. It is, to this day, a redoubt for scholars and writers of the conservative-libertarian strain.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945, 1933-45) -- a professional pol with old money who fell in with professors and communists and became a more dangerous version of his cousin Teddy. FDR was a "man of the people" only because the people were desperate for a father figure. He was, in fact, a thinly disguised dictator whose New Deal worsened the Depression and established the regulatory-welfare state as a permanent fixture in America. FDR's imperious style set the tone for presidencies to come. His conciliatory gestures toward Stalin were aped by...
Harry S Truman (1884-1972, 1945-53) -- the feisty, "common man" in the White House. Truman's vaunted folksiness and decisiveness overshadow the flaw he shared with FDR: blindness to the foreign and domestic threat of Communism. Truman's unwillingness to respond effectively to Communist China's aggression in Korea emboldened the USSR to tighten its grip on Eastern Europe and test America's resolve through third-world proxies.
Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969, 1953-61) -- a popular general whose ready smile and garbled syntax belied his natural dignity, steely determination, and cunning. If Ike had been had been a conservative (in the mold of Robert A. Taft) and not a middle-of-the road Republicrat, he might have deployed his popularity in the service of smaller government. As it was, his main legacies were (a) the vast pork-barrel program known as the Interstate Highway System, (b) a tacit acceptance of the "containment strategy" (e.g., inaction in the face of the Soviet's brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956), and (c) the repudiation of what he called the military-industrial complex. The second and third actions served to encourage the Soviet Union's imperial aims.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-63, 1961-63) -- a bootlegger's son whose "charisma" and displays of "vigah" belied his moral sleaziness and poor health. JFK's good relations with the media led to the creation of the myth that he was somehow acted courageously in resolving the so-called Cuban missile crisis. But Kennedy's actions actually had dire, long-run consequences for the U.S. As I wrote here:
[T]he Bay of Pigs invasion, which the Kennedy administration botched, would make Castro more popular in Cuba. The botched invasion pushed Castro closer to the USSR, which led to the Cuban missile crisis.
JFK's inner circle was unwilling to believe that Soviet missile facilities were enroute to Cuba, and therefore unable to act before the facilities were installed. JFK's subsequent unwillingness to attack the missile facilities made it plain to Kruschev that the the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961) would not fall and that the U.S. would not risk armed confrontation with the USSR (conventional or nuclear) for the sake of the peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Thus the costly and tension-ridden Cold War persisted for almost another three decades.
I should add that Kennedy's willingness to withdraw missiles from Turkey -- a key element of the settlement with the USSR -- played into Nikita Krushchev's hands, further emboldening the Soviet regime. Some legacy.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73, 1963-69) -- a corrupt, vulgar man of humble beginnings, whose deep-seated feelings of inferiority manifested themselves (as they often do) in power-lust and egomania. It is impossible to say whether LBJ or his successor, Richard Nixon, was the most loathsome person ever to become president. LBJ's main "gifts" to the nation were (a) the extension and entrenchment of the New Deal, via the Great Society, and (b) a half-hearted commitment to the unnecessary war in Vietnam, from which anti-war (i.e., pro-appeasement-and-surrender) forces in the U.S. have been drawing sustenance for 40 years.
Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-94, 1969-74) -- the Republican Party's LBJ, who - because he was a Republican -- garners more loathing than LBJ. Nixon, following Johnson as he did, multiplied the scorn that Americans had begun to develop for the "imperial" presidency. (It was too little, too late, however. Americans would be more free and prosperous today had TR and FDR been subjected to popular scorn for their imperiousness.) More specifically, Nixon failed to bring a timely or honorable end to the war in Vietnam; he imposed price controls in a (misguided) effort to deal with inflation; and he legitimated the brutal regime of China's dictator, Mao Zedong. Nixon's singular legacies are (a) the Nixon Halloween mask, (b) the line "I am not a crook," and (c) the not-so-mysterious mystery of the 18-1/2 minute gap. (For the youngsters among you, that gap was found in a tape of Nixon's conversation with his henchmen about covering up his role in the Watergate break-in and subsequent effort to cover up the White House's involvement.)
Gerald Rudolph Ford (born Leslie King Jr.) (1913-2006, 1974-77) -- a son of the Middle West, as moderate in politics as he was mild in manner. Ford, whose life's ambition was to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives, had to settle for the presidency that devolved upon him when Nixon resigned in disgrace. Had Ford allowed Nixon to be punished for his role in Watergate, Ford might have been elected president in his own right, thus sparing us the regime of...
James Earl Carter (1924-, 1977-81) -- a wealthy businessman who exudes false humility and suffers from the "guilt" of being a white, Christian American. He therefore became a white, Christian, anti-American -- a trait that has become glaringly obvious in his post-presidential years. Carter's signal "accomplishments" as president were two. First, he deepened the country's "malaise" by whining about it. Second, he did too little, too late, in reaction to the seizure of America's embassy, and the Americans in it, by Iranian thugs. Carter's ineffectual response to those Iranian thugs encouraged the belief that Americans would accede to terrorists' demands.
Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004, 1981-89) -- a man of innate dignity (belying his career as a second-rate film star) and thoughtful, articulate conservatism (belying the portrayal of him as a "dunce" by his liberal detractors). Reagan was unable to dismantle (or even do much damage to) the welfare-regulatory state that arose from the New Deal and Great Society, but he was able to vanquish the Soviet Union, without firing a shot.
George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-, 1989-93) -- born to wealth and verbal ineptitude (a trait inherited by his son George W.). Bush's presidency was notable mainly for the Gulf War of 1991 and, in particular, Bush's failure to oust Saddam Hussein when given an opportunity to do so easily and decisively. (I need say no more about that.) Bush's betrayal of his promise of "no new taxes," a brief recession that had ended before he left office, and his inability to play the "common man" with any degree of verisimilitude caused him to lose his bid for re-election to...
William Jefferson Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe) (1946-, 1993-2001) -- our trailer trash president, known mainly for sexual predation (if not worse) and an ability to cry on cue. The latter trait caused him to be popular among bleeding-heart types (though he was twice elected with a minority of the popular vote). The former trait was forgiven readily by the same hard-core liberals who would have called for the castration of a Republican with Clinton's sexual track record. Clinton's legacy is two-fold: the emasculation (no pun intended) of the armed forces (that's how he erased the budget deficit) and the elevation of his (oft-betrayed) wife to the status of "serious politician."
George Walker Bush (1946-, 2001-) -- a big-government "conservative" whose track record on fiscal matters is no worse and no better than that of his post-World War II predecessors. As I see it now, Bush will leave us with two main accomplishments. First, his tax cuts will prove to have helped the economy, thus shoring up the case for so-called supply-side economics. Second, he did what his father should have done in 1991: depose Saddam Hussein. Third, and most importantly, unlike Truman, Carter, Reagan (yes, Reagan), and Clinton, he has refused steadfastly to cut and run in the face of inferior but troublesome enemy forces in Iraq. If the situation in Iraq and the Middle East stabilizes -- as it could well do -- the nation and the world (eventually) will be grateful to G.W. Bush for his resolve in the face of fanatical terrorists, fanatical Leftists (at home and abroad), inconstant conservatives (of the cut-and-run variety), and fickle public opinion.
Related: Presidents of the United States at American History Since 1900