The institution of the presidency’s had a bad year.
With a few exceptions, Donald Trump makes all of his predecessors look good. There was a time when the President of the United States did not spend hours at a time watching cable news. Or when they didn’t compare the size of their, um, “Nuclear Button” to that of other foreign leaders. At least in recent decades, there was also a time when the White House’s immigration policies weren’t guided by white nationalists.
Yet America’s also had very bad presidents long before our “very stable genius” kinda sorta won a presidential election. We’ve also had presidents who’ve received a little more criticism than they deserved. The following list is not a list of great presidents. Some of them, frankly, were terrible presidents. Rather, it’s a list of presidents whose very real accomplishments are too often overlooked.
It’s also likely to be an unpopular list. I’m not here to make friends.
1) George W. Bush
Let’s get the most controversial name out of the way first. George W. Bush was a very bad president. He left the economy in a shambles. The Iraq war was a debacle. Perhaps worst of all, his failed presidency discredited many of the relatively moderate Republicans that staffed his administration, and created a power vacuum that tea party extremists, religious zealots, and white nationalists raced into.
But the second President Bush was also responsible for what may be the single greatest humanitarian program of the last several decades.
Bush took office amidst a devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the common view among many public health experts was that HIV positive Africans in poor, less developed nations could not be trusted to keep up with their anti-AIDS medications. Providing these individuals with lifesaving drugs, the conventional wisdom held at the time, would lead to drug-resistant strains of HIV bred by patients who frequently missed doses.
Bush ignored this advice, and launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a multi-billion dollar effort to provide medication to HIV positive individuals in Africa. It was a miraculous decision. In 2017, over 13 million people received antiretroviral therapy thanks to PEPFAR. In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry estimated that 5 million children are alive because of PEPFAR.
It was the single greatest thing President Bush ever accomplished. And, in terms of lives saved, far outweighs the many costs of his presidency.
2) Chester A. Arthur
If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably trying to remember who Chester A. Arthur is right now. But Arthur makes this list because he signed legislation that rolled back a primary source of corruption in the federal government and, eventually, reworked the nature of the presidency itself.
Our 21st president became quite rich off of government corruption. A loyal ally of Sen. Roscoe Conkling, who controlled Republican patronage appointments in New York, Arthur became Collector of customs at the Port of New York, a job that allowed him to take a percentage of the fines and other penalties levied against merchants who sought to avoid paying tariffs. At the peak of his earning power, this job enabled him to collect more than a $1 million a year in 2018 dollars.
He rose to the presidency almost by accident. After a brutal nomination fight between Republican Party “Stalwarts,” who supported the patronage system that made Arthur rich, and “Half-Breeds,” who supported civil service reform, the two factions compromised and nominated Congressman James Garfield for the White House. Arthur became Garfield’s running mate in order to shore up support from Conkling’s Stalwart faction.
The old patronage system was a curse upon the presidency, and not simply because of the corruption it fostered. When Garfield assumed the presidency in 1881, presidents were expected to meet with any American who wished to see them — and most were there simply to seek a patronage job. As Candice Millard wrote in Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, the line to meet with President Garfield “began to form before he even sat down to breakfast” on his first full day in the White House. Worse, “by the time he’d finished, it snaked down the front walk, out the gate, and onto Pennsylvania Avenue.”
The President of the United States was a glorified HR manager.
Arthur became president after Garfield was shot by a frustrated job seeker, and the new president spent much of his time in office dismantling the very patronage system that had fueled his career. President Arthur used his first presidential address to Congress to promote civil service reform, and he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which gradually converted government jobs from patronage appointments into civil service jobs selected on the basis of merit.
This act proved to be one of the most important governmental reforms in the history of the presidency, not just because it dismantled a corrupt system that enriched party loyalists and placed incompetents in office, but because it freed up the President of the United States to focus on being president. Without the Pendleton Act, it would have been difficult to impossible to build a modern administrative state featuring powerful regulatory agencies staffed by policy experts who maintain continuity across presidential administrations.
3) Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon was what political scientists call a “preemptive” president. His vision was distinctly conservative, especially on matters such as race and the role of the courts, but the transition from FDR’s New Deal coalition to Ronald Reagan’s more conservative coalition was not yet complete, and Nixon still had to answer to voters who sought active, progressive governance.
The result was an ambitious domestic policy agenda that shored up many of the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society.
“The great question of the seventies,” Nixon proclaimed in his 1970 State of the Union address, “is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?” The next summer, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. He also signed legislation significantly expanding the Clean Air Act, as well as legislation such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Nixon also signed legislation expanding the federal safety net. Among other things, this legislation grew Medicare to cover 1.7 million people receiving disability benefits as well as people with acute kidney disease. It created the supplemental security income program for the aged, the blind, and the disabled. It increased Social Security benefits for people who spent their careers in low-income jobs, increased pension benefits for widows and dependent widowers, and expanded the government’s role in providing nursing home care to the elderly.
Decades before Obamacare, Nixon also proposed a universal health insurance plan. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) later said that his failure to cut a deal with Nixon over such a health care plan was the biggest regret of his legislative career.
None of this excuses Nixon’s many failings. He appealed directly to many of the white resentments that later fueled the rise of Donald Trump. His four Supreme Court appointments began the Court’s nearly 50-year long march to the right. He kept America in the Vietnam War for years after becoming president. And, of course, there was that whole Watergate thing.
But Nixon was a deeply morally flawed man who could sometimes be pressured to do the right thing. He expanded the American safety net and built much of the modern architecture our nation relies on to protect the environment.
4) Ulysses S. Grant
President Grant’s inclusion on this list may be a bit controversial, largely because his reputation has enjoyed a bit of a revival in recent years. He may no longer be an underrated president.
Nevertheless, the remnants of one of the most sophisticated smear campaigns in American history still cling to Grant. Schoolchildren were taught that the Civil War’s greatest hero was little more than a drunkard and a magnet for corruption recently enough that it is all that many American adults know about the man.
The Animaniacs take on U.S. Grant is a great sign of how much historiography has shifted.https://t.co/t9tWM2qr5S
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 16, 2018
The real Ulysses Grant was, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes, “a flawed president who nonetheless held a strong commitment to black rights.” Grant made ill-considered appointments as president, and he was closely tied to Sen. Conkling’s Stalwarts (Conkling led the effort to nominate Grant for a third presidential term). But Grant was also the last president until Dwight Eisenhower to propose and sign civil rights legislation. He used the Union army to protect black Americans from white supremacists, defended black citizens’ rights to vote and hold office, and took on the Ku Klux Klan.
The end of Grant’s presidency marked the end of any meaningful effort to achieve racial equality in the United States for nearly a century — albeit due in large part to a Devil’s deal Grant’s successor struck in order to secure the presidency.
It was this aspect of Grant’s record — his profound efforts to secure the blessings of liberty for black Americans — that fueled the smear campaign against him. Led by Columbia historian William Dunning, Southern sympathizers taught that Reconstruction was a disaster, black people were inherently unfit to rule, the Confederacy was a “Lost Cause,” and Grant was “a drunken military brute.”
The Dunning School did not simply dominate the academy for decades, it captured presidents like Woodrow Wilson and inspired iconic works of popular culture such as Gone With the Wind. It came to dominate grade school lessons, and even infected children’s cartoons.
It was a concerted effort to paint Southern slaveholders as heroes and to justify Jim Crow. And to accomplish this goal, it twisted the reputation of the man who won the Civil War, then spent much of his presidency fighting to make sure that victory meant something.
5) George H.W. Bush
The first President Bush’s reputation took a well-deserved hit recently due to allegations that he fondled women who were being photographed next to him (if you want to read the details of these allegations, google the phrase “David Cop-a-Feel“). As president, moreover, Bush showed a disturbing blindness towards sexual harassment. The single worst thing Bush did in office was appointing anti-government radical Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, a man facing multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment, including the Anita Hill allegations that dominated much of Thomas’ confirmation hearing.
Yet, compared to today’s conservatives, Bush is practically a communist. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a minimum wage hike, and a major civil rights bill undoing several Supreme Court decisions that restricted anti-discrimination law — though, admittedly, the later two only happened after Bush vetoed more liberal versions of the legislation. Bush signed environmental legislation targeting acid rain and ozone-depleting chemicals. And his views on immigration would turn him into Breitbart’s leading enemy today.
Also, Bush had the good sense to set a clear objective in the Gulf War and to avoid getting embedded in the kind if Iraqi quagmire that bedeviled his son’s presidency.
Bush makes this list, in other words, because he represents a lost era in American history when the election of a president of the one party was a reason for partisans of the other party to mourn, but not a reason to fall into despondency or to fear that the government would entirely turn away from their concerns. George H.W. Bush was not a nihilist. He believed he was in a dialogue with liberals. He supported some of their goals and was willing to compromise on others. He often tried to move policy in a more conservative direction, but he had no interest in a revolution. And he certainly didn’t try to sweep away all of the progressive accomplishments of the twentieth century.
Bush represents, in other words, the kind of center-right political leader that exists in a health democracy, someone who shares a sense of obligation to his fellow citizens, and who wants to advance his own political goals without doing permanent damage to our democratic system. That is something to be nostalgic for, even if Bush was a flawed president.