The Cynic’s Guide to American Presidents

July 7th, 2009

Sometimes I’m just annoyed at politicians. Yesterday, after receiving a letter from Sen. Brownback and reading coverage of Sarah Palin, I was annoyed at them.

So, in keeping with my theme of being annoyed at politicians, here’s my cynic’s guide to American presidents. Yes, it’s biased, under-represents successes, but that’s the point.

I’ll start with FDR, because I feel like it.

FDR – 1933-1945 (D)

Took office during the worst economic crisis of the 20th century. Tried lots of things to fix it; a few of them actually worked, and the best produced social improvements that lasted decades.

Finally solved the depression by getting us into a war, but died before he could get us back out of it. In a stunning display of racial and ethnic discrimination, rounded up and jailed legal Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and their children just because they were Japanese, German, or Italian. Presided over the firebombing of Dresden, which killed roughly 25,000 civilians in what would be called a terrorist war crime today. Formed an alliance with Stalin that indirectly led to the Cold War.

When asked if he wanted the German people to starve, he replied, “Why not?”

Had an affair with his wife’s secretary that must have inspired Gov. Sanford. FDR, however, kept it secret from his wife for 4 years and the public for 48 years.

Harry S. Truman – 1945-1953 (D)

Became vice president, but when FDR died 82 days later, didn’t want to be president. Victory in Europe was achieved shortly after he became president, but not due to anything he did. Ended World War II, started the Korean War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. Saved the lives of countless Berliners, ended the lives of even more Japanese, though Stalin knew about the bomb years before Truman did.

Desegregated the US military in an early civil rights victory, but committed some of the worst mass murders in history using that same military.

Famously embarrassed the Chicago Tribune by winning re-election over Dewey.

Had the lowest approval rating for any American president until George W. Bush came along.

Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1953-1961 (R)

Before becoming president, was supreme commander of NATO during World War II, and thus also was implicated in the Dresden bombing. Reclassified German POWs, depriving them of Geneva Convention protections. Played on fear to justify building the interstate highway system, one of the largest long-term contributors to environmental and energy problems. Refused to defend people from McCarthy, despite privately criticizing McCarthy.

Integrated Washington, DC public schools. Took over the Arkansas National Guard to integrate Arkansas schools. Failed to get us involved in wars in Lebanon and Vietnam, despite his best efforts. Picked Nixon as his vice president, a decision nobody will forgive him for.

Famously warned of the military-industrial complex, a prediction that the profit motive of defense companies would lead politicians to support war for jobs. One of his most accurate predictions, ironically about a situation he created.

JFK – 1961-1963 (D)

Defeated Nixon to win the presidency, mainly because JFK looked better on black and white TV. Famously said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But the country did several things for him, including providing security when he had secret meetings with his mistress. (Gov. Sanford, you have a lot to learn.)

Tried Eisenhower’s plan to overthrow Castro. Almost got us a war with Russia, and Castro captured 1189 people. Also almost succeeded in starting the world’s first atomic war, also over Cuba, which was created partly because his earlier Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite putting 16,300 soldiers in Vietnam, it would take Johnson to finally turn that one into a war.

LBJ – 1963-1969 (D)

Supported the largest expansion of civil rights in the 20th century, and also the largest chemical weapons poisoning of a people in American history. Destroyed 6 million acres of land, intentionally destroying Vietnamese food crops, and poisoned 4 million Vietnamese and countless American soldiers. Vietnam war led to the death of 2 million Vietnamese civilians and tens of thousands of American deaths.

An early supporter of the war on poverty, voting rights, and the war on crime, he nonetheless stirred up some of the biggest riots in the 20th century because of Vietnam.

Managed to win re-election in 1964, though probably only because the Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater, who made LBJ’s war policies look mild and sane.

Didn’t bother to seek re-election in 1968, knowing he was so unpopular. Though still remained more popular than Truman and Bush, which is saying something (though not a lot).

Richard Nixon – 1969-1974 (R)

Known as “tricky Dick”, managed to live up to the nickname. Announced he was leaving politics after losing to JFK in 1960 and a governor’s race in 1962, then won the presidential election in 1968.

Secretly expanded the Vietnam war to include Cambodia and Laos, while simultaneously calling himself a peacemaker. Greatly expanded Social Security and Medicare, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.

Went on a famous trip to the Soviet Union, where he mocked Brezhnev for not having color TV. Went on a famous trip to China, where he opened up the possibility of numerous ping-pong tournaments between the two countries.

Despite being heavily favored to win re-election in 1972, his paranoid campaign organization, called “creep” (CRP), broke into Democratic headquarters. The resulting coverup had him ordering illegal actions by the FBI, and unleashed G. Gordon Liddy on the country, which we’ll never forgive him for. His arch-nemesis — print journalists everywhere — achieved new respect due to the Watergate scandal, immortalizing an otherwise obscure porn movie by naming a secret FBI informant after it. Perhaps Nixon’s most lasting achievement.

Famously lied when he told people “I am not a crook.”

Gerald Ford – 1974-1977 (R)

Became president, and lost to Carter, because of Richard Nixon. Wikipedia wrote 2 paragraphs about his presidency, which seems about average for him. Supported women’s liberation, opposed swine flu. Both supported and opposed LSD. Best thing to ever happen to Chevy Chase’s career on SNL.

Jimmy Carter – 1977-1981 (D)

A Georgia farmer, he defeated Chevy Chase to win the presidency in 1976. Got us involved with Iran, failed to rescue the American hostages.

Dealt with an energy crisis by talking honestly about it with American people and making solid plans to deal with it. That ended so poorly that it would be 20 years before another president attempted the “honesty and planning” approach. Could have saved us trillions of dollars if he had been less honest about saving energy.

Famously built homes for the people that Reagan made homeless.

Ronald Reagan – 1981 – 1989 (R)

Despite presiding over the largest expansion of the federal debt in history, he is still well-liked by fiscal conservatives. Unlike Carter’s “tell it like it is” approach, told everybody that things were fine and getting better, and got us into $3 trillion of debt as a result.

Famously fired all the nation’s air traffic controllers, leading to ongoing problems with ATC today. Started a war in Grenada, another in Libya, and escalated the Cold War, though gave the whole country Alzheimer’s about all these actions. Famously called Nazi SS soldiers victims, but ordered generals to lay a wreath on their grave after it became too controversial for him to do it himself.

Violated US and international law by selling weapons to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Also sold weapons to Iraq to use to fight Iran. Single-handedly saved an American jelly bean company. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, but suspected of having it during his presidency, if his answers to the Iran-Contra investigation are any guideline.

George H. W. Bush – 1989-1993 (R)

Started a war in Panama and another in Iraq, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that his son could announce “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Pardoned many of the Iran-Contra conspirators. Launched the careers of Dana Carvey and Bill Clinton.

He refused to take charge when Reagan was shot, throwing the federal government into turmoil during a crisis. Barely took charge even after being elected.

Bill Clinton – 1993-2001 (D)

Taught the world how to deal with allegations of affairs with mistresses. Future SC Gov. Sanford voted to impeach him for it, arguing that he broke a promise to his wife more important than the one to his country. Launched the careers of Ken Star and Monica Lewinsky, in rather different ways.

Brokered historic Arab-Israeli peace at Camp David in 2000. Despite shooting down plenty of Iraqi planes in no-fly zones, never managed to cure Republicans in Congress of their constant criticism that we should just re-invade and finish what H. W. Bush didn’t (it would take Dubya to finally cure the Republicans of THAT wish).

Had more “gates” named after him than any president (Whitewatergate, Travelgate, Troopergate). Tried to both encourage and stifle the Internet (clipper chip). Greatly helped the career of David Letterman.

George W. Bush – 2001-2009 (R)

Took office and promptly went on vacation. Responding to the worst attacks on American soil, started two wars, one of which actually managed to fight the people that were tangentially related to the ones that attacked us. Nominated an Arabian Horse judge to head FEMA, then famously praised him after his mismanagement led to thousands of deaths after Hurricane Katrina.

Finally invaded Iraq after his dad refused to go deeply into that country, and announced “Mission Accomplished” before the real fighting ever began. Never seemed to doubt it, either. Actively repressed science in government and supported archaic religious fundamental positions, ironically doing more harm to Christianity in the eyes of the world than any president in recent memory.

Ran for president as a “uniter, not a divider”, then proceeded to act as a divider. Criticized Clinton for nation-building, then tried to build up Iraq. Defeated the husband of a ketchup magnate for re-election in 2004. Launched the career of Jon Stewart.

Supported massive tax breaks for the wealthy, ran up the federal debt more than anyone since Reagan, supported massive deregulation. Not to be outdone by the worst response to a natural disaster in recent times, his policies also implemented the worst response to an economic calamity since Woodrow Wilson. Finished office with the worst popularity ratings in history and tried to reignite the Cold War after staring into Putin’s soul and finding it just as divine as Brownie’s.

Barack Obama – 2009-? (D)

Defeated Tina Fey and the ghost of Barry Goldwater to win the presidency. He’s trying Carter’s “honesty and long-range planning” approach to not just energy, but health care, education, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as well. Good luck with that.

I’ll get the hammer and nails.

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  1. TheGZeus

    “ended the lives of even more Japanese, though Stalin knew about the bomb years before Truman did.”
    Read up on the way the Japanese military lead the citizenry into mass forced ‘suicides’ and the way in which their soldiers surrendured(that is to say, not at all, ever) and then think about how things would have gone in a land invasion.
    Think of how many more innocent lives would have been lost on that island. Think about the American lives that would have been lost. I have no doubt the would have been fighting pre-teens in uniform within weeks. The emperor was considered their supreme being, with absolute control, and he was taking _his_ orders from the military.

    _Never_ underestimate the Japanese propoganda machine. Even today your average Japanese history book blames Truman for bringing Japan into the war.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love Japan, just as much as I love America; but we have to be honest about both sides, here.
    Yes, he was hoping it would impress Stalin. No, that’s not why he dropped it.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    This is a piece of satire, and I stated at the outset that it was biased. So you aren’t pointing out anything new.

    In all seriousness, however, I would refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_over_the_atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki for a good treatment of both sides of the debate. I am opposed to the bombings, and agree with most of the reasons presented against their use.

    Reply

  2. Caracal

    Enjoyed your Cynic’s Guide to American Presidents. Was rather horrified to see you gloss over Bush Senior, though; but I guess that’s part of his plan. Please go read Russ Baker’s “Family of Secrets”. Sure changed my opinion of Poppy Bush, and of Nixon too somewhat.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I did briefly trawl his Wikipedia page. I dunno, guess I figured that nothing much else stacked up all that well to starting two wars and pardoning the Iran-Contra guys. It just didn’t have enough zing :-)

    Reply

  3. Brian

    I’ll try not to nitpick too much, because as you stated this post is not intended as a serious, objective analysis.

    FDR: Japan, hell-bent on hegemonizing the Pacific, declared war against the United States. What course of action ought he have taken besides military engagement?

    Truman: North Korea initiated the Korean War. In the wake of World War II, the U.S., with military assets swelled in the region, was understandably reluctant to pull a Neville Chamberlain.

    Truman, pt. II: Dedicated huge sums of taxpayer money to rebuild other nations, foes and allies alike.

    Eisenhower: I think the Interstate system just might have contributed somewhat to commerce, too.

    Reagan: Performed the calculated escalation of the Cold War that led to its end.

    GW Bush: Had nothing to do with the corruption and ineptitude of local governments in Louisiana. Also had little to do with the fundamental issue with FEMA, that the federal government is ill-equipped to address matters local in scope.

    Bush, pt. II: Swallowed his pride and admitted that he’d erred in judgement, taking upon himself enormous risk by initiating the ultimately successful “surge”.

    Bush, pt. III: Lowered tax rates for all income brackets.

    Obama: McCain == Goldwater? McCain was (and is) among the most moderate, bipartisan Republicans in Congress. Pre-election, he probably took as much criticism from his own party as he did from the Democrats.

    Obama, pt. II: Gained national prominence for a single astounding achievement: making a nice speech at the ’04 Democratic Convention.

    Obama, pt. III: Ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility. Has instead of reducing debt contributed further to its rise.

    Obama, pt. IV: Honesty and long-range planning? …nevermind, I’ve spent too much time on this comment already.

    A few notes, so that I might not be labeled a hawk, a neocon, etc.:
    -> Dresden, Vietnam, Iran (propping up the Shah; Iran-Contra), Iraq (propping up Hussein), et al. were disgraceful. I shudder to think that we were actually involved in such debacles.
    -> All listed have made their own significant contributions to the ravage of the United States Constitution.
    -> I very much wish GW Bush had not so effectively convinced the nation (many Republicans included) that Republican == neoconservative.

    Best regards,
    Brian

    Reply

  4. Andres Salomon

    What, no mention of President Cheney? ;)

    Reply

  5. Jon

    @Brian: Dubya managed to convince most non-US that Republican = neocon, too — his legacy is very much international.

    Reply

    Brian Reply:

    Yuck, I forgot, that too.

    I just can’t decide whether I should continue to call myself a Republican and just go through the pain of constantly reminding people that the GOP is an ideologically diverse party; instead call myself a moderate Libertarian; or take the easy way out and become an “independent”.

    Reply

  6. Kurt

    Interesting, especially since I don’t care that much about history. I would also be interested in an Optimist/Idealist’s Guide to American Presidents, for contrast.

    Reply

    Kirklin Reply:

    Every one claims to be for the truth…but few can tolerate it and fully incorporate its lessons into their lives. The human capacity to rationalize remains our most remarkably intact fault. It would be interesting to be able to measure irony and paradox and see if it did not, in fact, occur more often than its counter parts…thus requiring either some new words or changing some definitions. The saying “Fact is stranger than fiction” was not formed in a vacuum.

    The Optimist/Idealist’s Guide: It would be much more delusional than Johns’ “Cynic’s Guide”.

    Reply

  7. Branden Robinson

    I like it! Wouldn’t change a thing.

    I like how the final line works on two levels, especially given the emotions Republicans projected onto Democrats regarding Obama.

    Reply

  8. Matthew W. S. Bell

    Yadda satire yadda, however, I fear that the most important thing for the USA with the current president is whether it can admit the approach, not whether the objectives are eventually achieved.

    Reply

  9. Benjamin Mako Hill

    FDR was also in office during the firebombing of Tokyo which killed four time as many people as in Dresden in a single night. Nearly every other major and medium-sized city in Japan was firebombed with more than half a million dead and many million homeless. FDR wasn’t in charge during all of that, but he was for much of it.

    Reply

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