I'm re-entering the real world today after a couple weeks of "official" vacation. But actually, I didn't leave the real world all that much. I barely left Mattoon. (I was even in church last Sunday, if you looked carefully.)
This year's vacation included a sprained ankle, crutches, pneumonia, urgent family matters, annual conference responsibilities, cancelled travel plans, replanting the garden, spring cleaning around the house, and remote monitoring of issues in the congregation. This will not go down as one of my best vacations ever.
My primary escape from the "real" world came mostly from ignoring the daily "news" and focusing instead on history. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson are less unsettling to me than Barak Obama and Donald Trump. History is saner than politics. Taking a break from "Breaking News" isn't the worst thing one can do.
As you probably know, one of my favorite historical subjects is that of American presidents. So my vacation included some escape into their stories.
Several years ago someone asked me about my fascination with presidents. I like to read about them because none of them were perfect. All can elicit at least some sympathy from me. All were handed challenges that can be case studies for how we handle the challenges of our own lives. An enormous amount of material is available on each president, which means we can just go on learning from them, and on...and on.
So, near the end of my vacation, I gave a presentation to a group of Chinese scholars on the "best" and "worst" presidents in American history. (Substituting for Jie in her work was also a part of my vacation.) The incumbent president was excluded from my list, as one cannot make historical judgments without the perspective of hindsight. (Just to keep things interesting for the scholars, I also gave my ratings on the Chinese presidents!)
You can find many ratings of US presidents online and in books. Some historians like to do that. But one of the requirements of being a scholar (or pseudo-scholar) is that you must disagree with all
other scholars and come up with your own criteria and list. And so, I used some of my vacation time (about 30 minutes) to develop my own grading scale for the presidents.
Great presidents (give them an "A") face horrifying problems and lead the country to healthier and stronger places. Good presidents (give them a "B") face normal problems and lead the country to better and stronger places, more or less. Average presidents (give them a "C") face normal problems and leave the country sort of like it was before. Below average presidents (give them a "D") face normal problems and leave the country worse off. Failing presidents (give them an "F") do things (or fail to do things) that require decades to heal. "F" presidents keep us singing "We Shall Overcome" over and over.
Some presidents get an "incomplete." William Henry Harrison only lived a month after becoming president (He and several other White House residents likely died from the sewerage system leaking into the drinking well: rest in peace old man Harrision, Zachary Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, James Polk, and Willie Lincoln.) Harrison doesn't get rated. Neither does James Garfield, who was shot and killed a few weeks after becoming president. From what we know of the two men, however, I expect Harrison would have gotten a "D" or "F" from me and Garfield would have gotten a "B."
So who gets an A in my grade book? Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. Lincoln was far and away the valedictorian. Only presidents who served during a great crisis can qualify to get an "A." Other might also have been great, had they been serving in a different time. And not every president during a great crisis performed well.
Who gets an F? Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.
Presidential quality seems to depend on a number of things: temperament, understanding of history, political skill, moral character, delegation skills, consistent priorities, and learning on the job.
But as the economy, American culture, and government bureaucracy have grown so complex in modern history, it may now be virtually impossible to be either a total champion or a total loser.
Most interesting of all to me are those presidents who defy grading. They moved the nation forward in one area but set it back in another. They were mentally unstable, but in their crazy risk-taking they solved problems that no one else in their generation could understand. They are the ones who make a Lincoln or a Washington look boring. These are the presidents who get no grade from me, but just make my jaw drop and leave me wishing to hear more and more of their stories.
So, if you're tired of Fox and CNN and MSNBC and CBS, find a good book on Richard Nixon, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Andrew Jackson, or Woodrow Wilson...or my very favorite, Lyndon Johnson. And take a little vacation from the news yourself. Don't worry, it will all still be there when you return. --Mike