BY Abram Conrad
(Originally published on June 4, 2010)
For early reviewers, one of the most controversial sections of A Visual History of the American Presidency was its ranking section. We were often asked: What makes a good president, and how does a good president differ from a great president?
A presidency is impossible to separate from its context. Good people were elected into poor situations, and sometimes failed in their capacity as leaders of the nation. Other presidents rose above the office, changing the political landscape and dominating their era. Hoover was over-matched by the Great Depression, while Theodore Roosevelt changed the way the presidency was viewed and the way America interacted with the world.
We referred often to the considered judgments of others; in our final assessment, we judged good and great presidents on the following criteria.
Good presidents successfully navigated political tensions and stayed true to the principles, morals, and ambitions of the executive office. They provided leadership through periods of intense change in America, due to internal tension, such as westward expansion; or external necessity, like war.
The presidents in the highest tier — the great presidents — surpassed the criteria of successful leadership. These few individuals changed the presidency through both action and philosophy. They brought strong and active leadership and a new vision to the office, and they irrevocably changed the foundations of the presidential office. The presidents here were not visionaries as much as they were transformers, shepherding the United States into new eras of governance with a sure hand and steadfast faith in the nation’s ability to progress.
Describing a good president is relatively easy, though, when faced with the cruel determination of naming the nation’s worst presidents. What makes a bad president? We’ll post our thoughts on that next.