1732-99; no party; 1st president, 1789-97
Who was the best president? That we can even ask the question is thanks to George Washington (1st president, 1789–97) who shaped the role with his own battle-hewn hands. Elected unanimously, he assumed the job reluctantly and batted away efforts to make him a king. His humility ensured the institution was built to last.
It would have been easy for the first boss of a new government to have grown tipsy with power. Before Washington, the world's leaders were all bejewelled monarchs or medal-encrusted generals. But after years of fighting against hunger and defeat as a revolutionary hero on the battlefield, Washington was not seduced by pomp. He rejected an array of flowery titles ("His Highness", "His Exalted High Mightiness"), preferring the simplicity of "Mr President". He accepted his inauguration wearing a simple brown suit.
Washington was tall, brave and impressive-looking (despite some lifelong angst over terrible denture-work), yet his "colloquial talents were not above mediocrity," as Thomas Jefferson put it. He had sound instincts on the battlefield, but little in the way of formal education. This was ultimately a good thing, as it left him with just enough impostor anxiety to be wary of too much public attention. Not only did he not drone on at the lectern, but he swiftly appointed an ideologically balanced cabinet of advisers, including Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Mindful of precedent, he personally ensured his executive power was checked by the legislative and judicial branches of government.
After decades of public service, Washington pined for a quiet life at home in Virginia, and hoped to retire after one four-year term in office. He succumbed to a second in the interests of national unity, but was then glad to hand over the reins to his elected successor, John Adams. His farewell address in 1796 warned his fellow citizens against the rise of polarising party politics and "the baneful spirit of faction". He died several years later, unaware of just how polarised his country would become.
Few American children are spared some malarkey about a young George Washington who "cannot tell a lie" (which meant he sang like a canary over chopping down a cherry tree). These tales were largely invented to explain Washington's integrity as an adult. America's first president was not a witty intellectual or a scintillating orator, but he was uniquely honourable at a vulnerable time for the nascent republic. It seems fitting that his purse-lipped visage graces the dollar bill—the humblest and most essential note of them all.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
1882-1945; Democrat; 32nd president, 1933-45
He came to power amid economic catastrophe and he restored prosperity and hope. It wasn't perfect. There was a bad slump in 1937, and only the engine of war re-established employment and production. Of all the cards in the New Deal, none would be more potent than social security, less a step towards socialism than part of the modernisation of America. He signed an order outlawing racial discrimination in the war effort, but he allowed the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, more than half of them US citizens.
He led the country into war not out of economic expediency but because he believed it was morally necessary. He had helped Britain before December 7th 1941, and he then opposed both the cynicism of Stalin and the imperialism of Churchill. But he was dying: at the Yalta conference in February 1945, observers could not credit that FDR (32nd president, 1933-45) was only 63.
He had sacrificed himself, yet he was always ambitious. He manipulated his victory in the election of 1940 and ended up serving as president longer than anyone else ever will. Along the way he fought with the Supreme Court. He appointed nine justices but they had the nerve to defy him, and he had the ego to fight. He was misguided in most of this, but he outlined the conflict between the presidency and the Supreme Court that still rages today.
Roosevelt was a media man: he inaugurated radio fireside chats and could be as good a speaker as Churchill. He exercised obsessive control of photographs or newsreel that showed him crippled. That vanity also led him into reckless love affairs, mostly with secretaries. This pained another great innovator: his First Lady, Eleanor, intelligent, outspoken, a model of what a consort might accomplish.
FDR was a mass of contradictions: an aristocrat and a man of the people; one of the strong men in a dangerous world yet physically helpless; paralysed but restless. Thank God he had crises to manage. Without them, he might have been a playboy and a rogue.
He changed the landscape of American politics, urging that in a mass society government had duties—to strengthen the nation, but to take care of the people, too. In 2012, that impulse confronts the belief that the New Deal and the Good Society are unaffordable myths; that people must look after themselves, like pioneers on the frontier. FDR is the first president of the world, and his face at the end shows what a monstrous task that is.
1743-1826; Democratic-Republican; 3rd president, 1801-09
The spring of 1804 marked the peak of Thomas Jefferson's long career. Nearing the mid-point of his time as president (3rd president, 1801-09), he had just snapped up a vast tract of land from a cash-strapped Napoleon, doubling America's size at a cost of some three cents an acre. A punitive campaign against the Barbary powers was proving wildly popular, as the fledgling American navy inflicted shock and awe on foes in north Africa.
Then came a series of letters from Abigail Adams, wife of the man Jefferson had unseated from the presidency—letters that might have unmanned a less confident figure. Abigail accused Jefferson, who had served as vice-president to her husband, of betraying the fraternal principles of the American revolution. Not only had Jefferson sponsored muck-raking journalists to spread "foulest falsehoods" against her husband during the election of 1800; she also accused him of ditching the detachment proper to a national leader and of being a "party man", actually campaigning for his own victory.
Jefferson denied it all, but the charges were true. His predecessors Washington and Adams aspired to be virtuous magistrates, wielding power in the public interest. Jefferson was America's first politician-president: partisan, ruthless, passionate, and capable of outrageous hypocrisies. He served not some abstract republic but the people, in all their raucous, distrustful, disputatious individuality. While safely ensconced in Paris as his country's envoy, he had cheered a bloody anti-tax revolt at home, observing: "I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere."
His suspicion of centralised power had consequences for ill as well as good. His creed of "states' rights", advanced as an argument against censorship and repression, would later become the bedrock of the Southern case for preserving slavery. His own ambivalence towards slavery—arguing for abolition in principle while ducking concrete chances to restrict its practice, including on his own estates—has toppled him from modern rankings of the greatest presidents. The best that can be said of his contortions is that they were born of wide-eyed terror and a guilty conscience, rather than the self-serving delusions of divinely ordered superiority that comforted most slave-owners. He trembled for his country when he contemplated slavery's injustice. Yet he could see no peaceful end to the practice, imagining freed slaves wreaking bloody revenge unless exiled far away.
He thought big and was lucky: two very American virtues. His time in office anchored in place the form of argumentative, popular democracy that bears his name, and thus modern American politics itself—the worst and best sort there is. Jefferson was not the greatest man ever to serve as president. But his was an indispensable presidency.
Born 1946; Democrat; 42nd president, 1993-2001
First, a concession: a president who ends up indicted in office and havering over the precise meaning of the word "sex" with an intern is not going to win a contest based on personal morality. But then that might knock out a few contenders, including JFK. And, despite his infamous flaw, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton (42nd president, 1993-2001) was a great one for America.
He created a new, more potent form of progressive politics by grasping that a left-of-centre party could deploy the best instincts of the moderate right. Clinton saw that this is what a lot of voters want. Without this model, it is hard to imagine the politics of Blair or Cameron in Britain, or Gerhard Schröder in Germany. Clintonism is a successful export.
On arriving in office in 1993, Clinton balanced the books by cutting the deficit, rather than adhering to a tax pledge he should never have made. This is the lesser of the evils in a politician and it established his reputation as a fiscally responsible leader—something his avatar, Barack Obama, has still not quite managed.
A readiness to embrace policies associated with the right enabled him to expand charter schools, bring excellence to the poorest children and, in the Welfare to Work programme, provide a template for tough-but-tender reforms by other leaders seeking to break down the dismal cycle of reliance on the state.
Accused of lacking substance by those who underestimate the importance of style, Clinton established a fresh way of talking about politics: affable, inclusive and persuasive. He understood that America requires empathy as well as leadership and changed the way politicians communicate, just as the great orators of America's past had done.
In the altered world left by the end of the cold war, Clinton saw that America would not involve itself in every foreign skirmish and needed new principles of intervention. Although it took him too long to act, an end to the carnage in Bosnia and Kosovo came only because he was brave enough to back intervention and build a coalition. His reluctance to commit troops to ground wars while deploying the might of US air power against murderous dictators was wise, or, at least, markedly less damaging than what followed.
Bill Clinton made it harder for America's critics to dislike her. That is a very good thing for anyone who believes that the remaining superpower can be a force for good.
1809-65; Republican; 16th president, 1861-65
Let your eye sweep across a photograph of Mount Rushmore, or better still the real thing, and you will see four men who have a strong claim to be America’s greatest president.
There is Washington, who won the war of independence and handed over control of the army to civilian authority; who chaired the Constitutional Convention, wordlessly, in that sultry Philadelphia summer of 1787; and who gave up the presidency in 1796 and headed back to his farm rather than become a monarch.
Then Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and purchaser of the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the United States and opened up the frontier. And Teddy Roosevelt, who led the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, built the navy, busted monopolies and founded America’s national parks.
Yet Washington is an icon, not a man; Jefferson was a devious hypocrite who betrayed his president and friend John Adams, and proclaimed universal equality but never freed his own slaves; and Roosevelt, for all his peacetime genius, never faced the supreme test of leadership in war. No, for me it has to be the last of the four, Abraham Lincoln.
Unlike the others, Lincoln (16th president, 1861-5) grew up in adversity. He was born in a one-room log cabin, lost his mother at the age of nine, had the barest minimum of formal education, failed as a small businessman, and taught himself the law by ploughing carefully through Blackstone’s "Commentaries". He was tall and skinny, and not pretty: accused once of being two-faced, he said if that was so, why would he have chosen the face he had? He had served just one term, two years, as a Congressman before he ran for the presidency on the back of his national reputation as an opponent of slavery.
Why Lincoln? Because he was a political genius who gained the presidency by charm and stealth, reaching out across factions to win the delegates he needed. Because he famously built and managed a "team of rivals" from the most brilliant politicians of the day. Because he had wit, modesty and self-control, which hid his despair at personal setbacks including the premature deaths of two of his children. Because he won a civil war, the worst of all conflicts, despite blundering and pusillanimous generals, incompetent officials and a cacophony of conflicting advice and naysaying. Because he conquered external opposition, and his own doubts, and freed the slaves. Because he renewed a moral vision for America as one nation founded on freedom not on bloodlines, and on choice and self-determination not on ancient prerogative. Because of the magnanimity of his plans for Reconstruction. Because, from his "House Divided" speech to the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, he spoke for America in language that remains unforgettable to this day. And finally, because he died in office, serving his country.
1858-1919; Republican; 26th president, 1901-09
What a dreary lot America's early presidents were! Not Washington, of course, who ranks these days as more of a divine being than an ordinary human, or, to be fair, the first half-dozen, who were revolutionaries and constitution drafters. But once you get past them, it's a procession of nonentities like Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur. Only Lincoln sets the imagination soaring; the rest of the 19th-century lot were eminently forgettable and mostly forgotten.
But then, in 1901, thanks to a bullet aimed at William McKinley, comes Theodore Roosevelt (26th president, 1901-09), a dynamic figure who invented the modern presidency. He excelled as a police commissioner, a governor, a soldier, a naturalist, a sportsman and a writer, quite apart from his time in the White House and, more than any president before or since, he made the concept of equality of opportunity central to his politics. "No man is above the law, and no man is below it," he said, and that strikes me as one of the neatest definitions of what a just society should be that you can pack into a single sentence.
And how he applied it. He took on trusts, the over-mighty giant companies that exercised political and economic power without constraint, squeezing out competition and stifling the development of new ideas. He proposed health insurance for all, though it took a century to get there. He mediated between unions and employers. He was America's greatest conservationist, establishing five national parks and 150 national forests. With his soft voice and big stick he made America respected abroad, mostly using its power for good (some, but by no means all, in the Philippines would disagree). He put the first Jew in the cabinet. He preached sound money, and twice helped see off William Jennings Bryan.
But most of all he radiated optimism and turned the presidency (the bully pulpit, he was the one to call it) into the vital force it is today in America and in the world. That has its downside as well as its up, but he started the practice of daily briefings, interviews and photo ops that over time helped make the American president into the acknowledged leader of the free world. When one thinks of America's can-do spirit, it is as often as not Roosevelt that one thinks of. Just don't call him Teddy: he hated that.