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Presidents, Good and Evil

- November 28, 2007

Back in the late 1950s, 60% of the second-graders in a study by political scientist Fred Greenstein said that President Eisenhower was “the best person in the world” — even better, apparently, than Mom or Dad or that other venerated figure of the period, the police officer. That a U.S. president should occupy such a high place in the American pantheon, at least among impressionable young children, should have occasioned no great surprise in light of a Gallup Poll finding from the preceding decade: In that survey, 28% of those polled called Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the greatest person, living or dead, in world history.” Finishing second, with 15%, was Jesus.

When I began teaching American politics to college freshman several decades ago, I routinely cited poll results like these as evidence of the tendency of ordinary Americans to idealize their president. Now, many years later, I still cite these results, but no longer to make the same point.

Rather, I juxtapose these poll results with some others that, though obviously not based on anything remotely approaching acceptable survey research methodology, convey the point quite nicely.

* In 1975, visitors as Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London were asked to select, from all the characters depicted in the museum’s exhibits, the most loathsome person in the history of the world. Their choice: Richard Nixon, followed by Adolf Hitler, Jack and Ripper, and Attila the Hun.

* In November of 1999, the New York Post conducted an online poll that asked, among other things, about the most evil people of the last 1,000 years. Hitler did better this time around, taking top honors. But the major surprise was that second place went to a write-in candidate: Bill Clinton. Then, after Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Josef Mengele, came another write-in candidate: Hillary Clinton.

Now, I am not one to heap praise on Richard Nixon or, for that matter, Bill and Hillary Cllinton, but I do want to register my sense that none of them comes even close to being the most loathsome or evil person in the history of the world, or even in the last century. At the same time, I must also record my demurrer from the idea that either Dwight Eisenhower or Franklin Delano Roosevelt merited consideration, let alone selection, as the best or greatest person of the modern era, let alone in all of recorded history. And that, finally, is exactly the point.

Americans, for reasons that are too numerous and too complex to analyze here, often seem to have Larger than Life conceptions of their president, which leads them to vacillate between images of omnipotence and impotence — recall in the latter respect that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, at the nadir of their presidencies, felt compelled to assure nationwide audiences that they were “not irrelevant” — and between images of competence and incompetence and even good and evil. These exaggerated concepts are both boon and bane to those who occupy the White House, as the history of the presidency since the 1960s seems to me to demonstrate.