Every six years Siena College releases a poll of the Best Presidents of all-time. Usually the race is between Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but in 2010 Franklin Delano Roosevelt came in first. This might irritate some (like some historian friends of mine), but I want to look beyond the top and focus on the fascinating.
Siena released their findings category by category, which makes me, a list nerd, very happy. Did you know Washington was the best at avoiding crucial mistakes? Buchanan had the worst leadership ability? But only one president ranked first in one category and last in another. Some people say Richard Nixon would be remembered as a good president if it wasn’t for Watergate, but it’s safe to say LBJ would have been considered one of the greatest if not for Vietnam. In the Siena poll, historians ranked Johnson 16 out of 43. Closer to average than to greatness. A three-star presidency. Here’s how Johnson ranked, from best to worst:
Relationship with Congress, Rank: 1
With the help of congress, LBJ pushed through the biggest series of government changes since The New Deal (FDR ranked second). Even with foreign policy, he had an excellent relationship with congress. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson a blank check to yield unilateral military might in East Asia. As a former member of both houses of Congress, and Senate Majority Leader for six years, Johnson was able to strong arm and compromise when needed to get his programs passed.
Party Leadership, Rank: 3
Two years as Senate Minority Leader, six as Majority Leader, three as Vice President, five as President, LBJ had a powerful sway over the Democratic Party. If Barry Goldwater is credited as the ideological leader of the modern Republican Party, Lyndon Johnson should receive equal credit for engineering the modern Democratic Party. In domestic policy, there is little or no difference between Johnson’s ideals and actions, and the current party platform. In 1964, over 80% of African Americans voted for Johnson, a stat that has continued for Democratic Party candidates ever since.
Court Appointments, Rank: 5
This high ranking has little to do with nominating Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court. Fortas was a justice for only four year before having to resign in disgrace. This has everything to do with the selection of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American nominated to the Supreme Court. Marshall was an extremely accomplished lawyer best known for his civil rights victories. He served for twenty-four years. The man even has a feast-day in the Episcopal Church, May 17, the day his Brown vs. Board of Education case proved victorious. Thurgood was a helpful ally of Johnson’s policies.
Domestic Accomplishments, Rank: 5
Ability to Compromise, Rank: 9 Overall Ability, Rank: 9
Again, these show his success with the Great Society, civil rights, and anti-poverty legislation that continued the United States success as the leading world power, and LBJ’s success as a great leader (when it came to working with American politicians).
Handling of the U.S. economy, Rank: 10
Willing to take Risks, Rank: 12
Executive Appointments, Rank: 12
Imagination, Rank: 12
Executive Ability, Rank: Rank: 12
More positive rankings, mainly for his ability to use the executive branch to promote his ideas. Imagination for his Great Society, War on Poverty, and Space Race success. Even with his failures, America began and ended his tenure as the most powerful country in the world. Note the high rank for “willing to take risks” when you see his rankings for “luck” and “avoiding crucial mistakes” later on.
Background, Rank: 15
LBJ was a college graduate who became a teacher before getting into politics. I guess historians took that information and said: “15”. I consider this the least important and most confusing of all of Siena’s rankings. Other than putting Thomas Jefferson first, I don’t understand any of these rankings. They gave the otherwise-great Abraham Lincoln his lowest marks for his background. I guess being born poor, with little education, dealing with depression, but still becoming a lawyer, state senator, and popular orator means “28”.
Leadership Ability, Rank: 15
Communication Skills, Rank: 16 His leadership was successful for 4 of his 5 years as president. For communication skills, which equal his overall score, I point you to an animatronic LBJ:
Intelligence, Rank: 21 A president of “average intelligence”. No surprised super-brained Thomas Jefferson ranks first.
Luck, Rank: 28 Integrity, Rank: Rank: 34 Avoid Crucial Mistakes, Rank: 37 Pretty poor rankings here. Luck and Crucial Mistakes seem equally paired. The man was on a great hot streak, but Vietnam was the end of his luck. His successor, Richard Nixon, was even worse when it came to avoiding crucial mistakes. As for integrity, I’m kind of shocked he’s ranked so low after taking the moral high ground when it came to civil rights, health care rights, and poverty aid. Seems dropping agent orange and napalm on a foreign country made him lose points.
Foreign Policy Accomplishments, Rank: 43 43 is the worst a president can be ranked in a category, and Johnson got it for one reason: The Vietnam War. The war was a quagmire, one which many consider the first (and maybe only) war The United States lost.
Johnson went all-in for victory but did not succeed. Eventually, the communists were victorious, and the U.S. lost over 50,000 troops. Johnson refused to run for re-election, as his foreign policy disaster overshadowed every single domestic success.
The war split the Democratic party, leading to the election of Republican Richard Nixon. This ended an era where 28 of the past 36 years Democratic presidents were in power. Republicans took power and held the presidency for 28 of the next 40 years. Still, over 40 years later, many of Johnson’s policies are still in place, and his work for civil rights helped push the south into democracy for the first time.
What do you think of LBJ? What other president deserves a high five and a middle finger?