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April 04, 2012 12:39 PM A Theory of Interesting Presidents

By Jonathan Bernstein

Stanley Cutler says that “of all the presidents in the last 50 years, it is Nixon that’s the most interesting.” Is Nixon more interesting than LBJ? I’m not sure. I would say, however, that I find Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan to be the most fascinating postwar presidents.

Which suggests a theory of interesting presidents: the partisan presidency makes for less interesting presidents. Generally, the partisan presidency began to form as early as the Carter years, but really didn’t pick up steam until the Reagan administration; it’s pretty much fully formed, I would say, by George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

The idea would be that partisan presidencies are much less likely to take on the shape of the president’s personality. So Barack Obama or George W. Bush might be just as inherently interesting as John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, but it just doesn’t matter as much; what they do as president is much more a function of party than presidential personality.

To be sure: even now, personality (and skills, and other president-specific traits) certainly can matter. But less so, perhaps, than they did when party was less important.

Is this theory correct? I have no idea. Reagan doesn’t quite fit. And it’s certainly very possible that my sense of the presidents who are interesting is highly subjective — or, that it might be influenced by other things that have nothing to do with party. It’s certainly also possible that the three I find most interesting really are, in some sense, the most interesting — but that it’s just random luck that two of them served during the peak of the personal presidency.

So, who do you think were the most interesting postwar presidents?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

Comments

  • Mikhail on April 04, 2012 4:25 PM:

    I always found Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon most interesting, for much the reason you talk about. Each of them exhibited in themselves a certain character and complexity that you don't really find later.

    Eisenhower was a war hero and former supreme commander of the Allied military. As president, he presided over a broad prosperity. And yet, he was the one who helped enforce the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and he was the one who warned about the Military Industrial Complex as he left office.

    Johnson, meanwhile, managed to be staunchly progressive as a president, I tend to think one of the most progressive that we've had, but at the same time he was the man who was ultimately responsible for Vietnam.

    Nixon, in the meantime, ended Vietnam, and went to China, despite a reputation as a hard-line hawk. And of course, there was Watergate.

    Love them or hate them, I think each of the three really had an effect on how America evolved since WWII as a result of their own personalities. I'm not so convinced that you can say the same for other presidents since then.

  • TR on April 05, 2012 10:01 AM:

    And yet, he was the one who helped enforce the Brown vs. Board of Education decision

    Only when he was backed into a corner by Orval Faubus over Little Rock.

    Eisenhower never praised the Brown decision, and called his selection of Earl Warren "the biggest damfool mistake I ever made" after he led the Court to strike down segregated schools.

    As Roy Wilkins of the NAACP said, if Eisenhower had fought in World War II with the same level of apathy he fought for civil rights, we'd all be speaking German today.