So, who was/is the best (or least harmful) of the lot? I'm going to start by assuming that you are not one hundred years old (and forgive me if you are, my centenarian friend) but instead somewhere in the middle; middle aged, shall we say? With that assumption, we'll start with John F. Kennedy, who would have been President when someone as old as 49 today was born. JFK was also in a sense the first President of the modern era of the Presidency (the first real television president, the first president to hold live press conferences, the first president to have a nationally televised debate with his opponent -now a regular feature of our farcical national elections, and the President whose assassination ushered in the end of American innocence and the beginning of the age of cynicism and distrust of the government).
So, let's nominate and eliminate. Starting with JFK, we have a president considered by many as overrated. He was too young, too inexperienced, too much of a womanizer, his indiscretions even possibly leading to blackmail down the road if he hadn't been murdered in Dallas. The public, however, still loves the man, rating him consistently as one of the best Presidents ever. A result of the myth-making echos of assassination still reverberating nearly 50 years later? Or is there real merit in that popular assessment after all? We'll leave Kennedy aside for a moment and go on, in chronological order, to his successor.
Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, had a negative view of Lyndon Baines Johnson. He saw Kennedy as a political opponent but also as a friend, and told many times of their plans for debates in 1964 and even the possibility of campaigning together around the country.
Goldwater’s rising popularity in the South in the early 1960s helped him win a tough bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Goldwater had been looking forward to running an issue-oriented campaign against his friend and political rival, President John F. Kennedy. An avid pilot, Goldwater had planned to fly around the country with Kennedy, in what the two men believed would be a revival of the old whistle-stop campaign debates.
Goldwater was devastated when those plans were cut short by Kennedy’s death in late 1963, and he mourned the president’s passing profoundly. Nevertheless, he won the Republican nomination in 1964, setting up a showdown with Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who he despised and would later accuse of “using every dirty trick in the book.” -A Profile of Barry Goldwater
Kennedy could also deliver a speech, while Johnson was a dud at public speaking, dull, uninteresting and completely uncharismatic (not necessarily bad things in and of themselves, but in LBJ's case, another indication of his complete unworthiness to hold the highest office in the land).
Compare JFK's inaugural address with Johnson' 1965 inaugural:
Johnson, of course, gave us the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the disastrous expansion of the Federal Government with his vision of a "Great Society". He was also an outright crook (long before he became president). I'm therefore putting him in the bad/worst category.
Then we've got Richard Nixon, who was the "comeback kid" long before Bill Clinton. Defeated in 1960, possibly as the result of a stolen election, Nixon next went on to challenge Governor Edmund Brown (father of former governor Jerry Brown, now again the Democratic nominee for governor of California) in California in 1962, losing and then declaring that the press wouldn't have him to kick around anymore. Nixon then did the seemingly impossible and went on to win the White House in a close 1968 election.
Vietnam, Watergate and an endless list of other offenses removes Nixon from consideration as the "best" of recent presidents.
Then you've got the first "president by appointment", the once Leslie King, known to us as Gerald Ford. He is the only US president to gain the office without ever being on the ballot on a national ticket as either a presidential or vice-presidential nominee, having been appointed to the vice presidency by Nixon after Spiro Agnew's resignation in 1973. An non-entity and pardoner of the criminal Nixon, he can't be seriously considered as the best or even least harmful of recent presidents.
Then came Jimmy. Elected due to the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the peanut farmer and former one-term governor of Georgia was victorious against non-elected incumbent Ford in 1976.
Carter actually had many good points, and might be in the running as best only because he was less awful than his immediate predecessors. Let's set James Earl Carter, Jr aside as well.
Ronald Reagan brought us morning in America, though some might say mourning in America, spending insanely with his cold war military build-up and leaving us with the wonders of an escalated "war on drugs", among other anti-freedom policies. On Reagan's good points, one can only say that Fed Chairman Paul Volcker had much more to do with the economic recovery of the 1980's than Reagan did. And what was up with that dye-job on his hair?
George H.W. Bush, of the criminal Bush family, is not even in contention. A total fiasco from start to finish (though even he doesn't look too bad compared to his lunatic son).
Slick Willie aka William Jefferson Clinton is starting to look pretty damn good, even though his reign over the boom of the 1990's was based on an economy built on sand, at least we had relative peace and prosperity for a few years while he was in the White House.
The two most recent
That leaves us with only three to choose from: Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton.
The economy was not bad or (seemingly) very good under two of them. Carter can't really be blamed for the stagflation of the late seventies, and deserves credit for things like deregulation and not being a total warmongering mass murderer like most 20th century presidents. His character was better than Clinton's, but it was no doubt better than Kennedy's as well, but we're not talking personal morality here, but how harmful or not each was to the country they presumed to guide. Therefore it's hard to give Carter points for that.
Clinton might have been a rapist, and is just a very good, deceitful politician, but that very desire to be popular and be president may have made him a fairly good Chief Executive.
Finally, let's consider again that tragic figure of romantic history we started with, JFK. If he had not been assassinated there is no guarantee we wouldn't have escalated in Vietnam, but think about where the young John Fitzgerald Kennedy may have been going late in his short presidency by listening to his June 1963 commencement address at American University:
"What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time."
"Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles—which can only destroy and never create—is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task."
"First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
"I'm taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard. First, Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking towards early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered -- Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history; but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind. Second, to make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not -- We will not be the first to resume."-John F. Kennedy
I think the choice is clear. All things considered, John F. Kennedy was the best president of the last 50 years.
How about you? In both your own lifetime and these last 50 years or so, who do you
think deserves to be called the best President of the United States of America?