Why are some Presidents remembered with affection, while others are detested–or forgotten altogether?
Generally, Presidents who are warmly remembered are seen as making positive contributions to the lives of their fellow Americans and being “people-oriented.”
- Abraham Lincoln
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Franklin Roosevelt
- John F. Kennedy
Among the reasons they are held in such high regard:
- Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and restored the Union. Although he ruthlessly prosecuted the Civil War, his humanity remains engraved in stories such as his pardoning a soldier condemned to be shot for cowardice: “If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?”
- Theodore Roosevelt championed an era of reform, such as creating the Food and Drug Administration and five National Parks. Popularly known as “Teddy,” he even had a toy bear–the teddy bear–named after him.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully led America through the Great Depression and World War II. He was the first President to insist that government existed to directly better the lives of its citizens: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
- John F. Kennedy supported civil rights and called for an end to the Cold War. He challenged Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” and made government service respectable, even chic. His youth, charisma, intelligence and handsomeness led millions to mourn for “what might have been” had he lived to win a second term.
John F. Kennedy
Presidents who remain unpopular among Americans are seen as unlikable and responsible (directly or not) for mass suffering.
- Herbert Hoover
- Lyndon B. Johnson
- Richard M. Nixon
Among the reasons they are held in such low regard:
- Herbert Hoover is still blamed for the 1929 Great Depression. He didn’t create it, but his conservative, “small-government” philosophy led him to refuse to aid its victims. An engineer by profession, he saw the Depression as a machine that needed repair, not as a catastrophe for human beings. This lack of “emotional intelligence” cost him heavily with voters.
- Lyndon B. Johnson is still blamed as the President “who got us into Vietnam.” John F. Kennedy had laid the groundwork by placing 16,000 American troops there by the time he died in 1963. But it was Johnson who greatly expanded the war in 1965 and kept it going–with hugely expanding casualties–for the next three years. Unlike Kennedy, whom he followed, he looked and sounded terrible on TV. Voters compared JFK’s wit and good looks with LBJ’s Texas drawl and false piety–and found him wanting.
Lyndon B. Johnson
- Richard M. Nixon will be remembered foremost as the President who was forced to resign under threat of impeachment and removal from office. Like Herbert Hoover, he was not a “people person” and seemed remote to even his closest associates. Although he took office on a pledge to “bring us together” and end the Vietnam war, he attacked war protesters as traitors and kept the war going another four years. His paranoid fears of losing the 1972 election led to his creating an illegal “Plumbers” unit which bugged the Democratic offices at the Watergate Hotel. And his attempted cover-up of their illegal actions led to his being forced to resign from office in disgrace.
Richard M. Nixon
Which brings us to the question: How is Donald J. Trump likely to be remembered?
Historian Joachim C. Fest offers an unintended answer to this question in his 1973 bestselling biography Hitler:
“The phenomenon of the great man is primarily aesthetic, very rarely moral in nature; and even if we were prepared to make allowances in the latter realm, in the former we could not.
“An ancient tenet of aesthetics holds that one who for all his remarkable traits is a repulsive human being, is unfit to be a hero.”
Among the reasons for Hitler’s being “a repulsive human being,” Fest cites the Fuhrer’s
- “intolerance and vindictiveness”;
- “lack of generosity”; and
- “banal and naked materialism–power was the only motive he would recognize.”
Fest then quotes German chancellor Otto von Bismark on what constitutes greatness: “Impressiveness in this world is always akin to the fallen angel who is beautiful but without peace, great in his plans and efforts, but without success, proud but sad.”
And Fest concludes: “If this is true greatness, Hitler’s distance from it is immeasurable.”
What Fest writes about Adolf Hitler applies just as brutally to President Trump.
Intolerant and vindictive. Lacking generosity. Nakedly materialistic.
- Boasted about the politicians he’s bought and the women he’s bedded–and forced himself on.
- Threatened his Democratic opponent–Hillary Clinton–with prosecution if he were elected.
- Slandered entire segments of Americans–blacks, Hispanics, women, journalists, Asians, the disabled, the Gold Star parents of a fallen soldier.
- Slandered President Barack Obama for five years as a non-citizen, finally admitting the truth only to win black votes.
- Attacked the FBI and CIA for accurately reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin had intervened in the 2016 Presidential election to ensure Trump’s victory.
At this stage, it’s hard to imagine Trump joining that select number of Presidents Americans remember with awe and reverence.