At 46 years of age and being a lifelong political observer, I have seen a lot of Presidents come and go. As I look back over the men who have held the highest elected office in the world, something struck me about them. For the most part they were pretty mediocre men and far from inspiring. Since Reagan this has really become more apparent. Here is a look at the men who have occupied the Oval Office, been in possession of the nuclear codes and held the title of Leader of the Free World in my lifetime:
Richard M. Nixon
Well you don't need to say much about Dick Nixon. A man forced to resign in disgrace. He might have ended up being a decent President but we will never know because history will only remember how he was forced to leave office. On the other hand he was also Vice President and served in the House and Senate so he had some significant experience before being elected.
Ford seemed like a nice guy, someone you wouldn't mind having as a neighbor. Ford also served in the Navy during World War II and was both a Vice President and a Congressman. Like his predecessor, Ford came across as deeply uninspiring and was unfortunately also mocked for being clumsy after a tripping incident, although as a young man Ford might have been the best athlete to ever be President, at least in my lifetime. Have him over for brats and beer? Sure. Follow him into battle? Uh, maybe not.
Yikes. Carter was a bumbling idiot. He would still hold the title as Worst American President if Obama hadn't been elected. He seemed over his head at every turn, from the Iran hostage situation to the energy crisis. Like many past American Presidents he served in the military and was governor of Georgia but in the end no one was inspired by him. He lost in an electoral landslide to Reagan in 1980, 489-49, a humiliating defeat. When you are generally thought of as a better past President than you were a sitting President, it is a sign you were a poor leader.
Reagan was until recently the only real leader we have had as President in my lifetime. When I say he was a leader, I don't mean in the sense that he held a leadership position. That doesn't make you a leader. Reagan inspired people, both his supporters and his detractors. When Reagan spoke he commanded the room and captured the attention of the audience. He used inspiring language about morning in America again and America as a shining city on a hill. He didn't apologize for American greatness, he embraced and celebrated it. He wasn't a perfect President by any means but he was a leader. In fact his leadership was so rare that even today, 30 years after his presidency, Republican candidates still sqauabble about who is the "heir to Reagan" and try to one-up each other on how is more Reagan-esque. It can be borderline cultic but it speaks to just how rare it has been to have real leadership in the office declared the leader of the free world.
George H.W. Bush
Bush the First won on the coattails of Reagan. He actually had a fairly distinguished life, honorably serving with distinction in combat in World War II, being a Congressman, ambassador to the UN, director of the CIA and Vice President. He had one of the most solid resumes of any recent President. Unfortunately he was also another uninspiring leader, easy to mock for Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live because of his goofy mannerisms. Bush came across as completely removed from the lives of regular Americans and his signature screw-up was his screechy pledge, intended to sound tough, to "Read my lips, no new taxes", a pledge which he then of course famously broke. The economy was going south and he seemed baffled and conflicted. In his re-election, no longer able to simply campaign as the continuation of the Reagan administration, he was crushed, winning only 37.5% of the popular vote and losing to Bill Clinton. According to Wikipedia: "President Bush's 37.5% was the lowest percentage total for a sitting president seeking re-election since William Howard Taft in 1912." .
What is largely forgotten is that Ross Perot, at one time leading both Bush and Clinton in polls, ended up pulling almost 19% as a third party candidate, almost 20 million votes. Perot would run again in 1996 and receive over 8% of the vote, or essentially the margin of difference between Clinton and Dole. Perot was the proto-Trump, pulling voters from both parties with a populist message.
Ah, Clinton. Clinton was a new breed of President. He was young (my age, 46). He was not a former military man, instead being a dope smoking draft dodger in his youth. He had a very undistinguished political career as Attorney General of Arkansas and then governor of Arkansas before leapfrogging to become President. He seemed simultaneously intimidated by and terrified of his wife Hillary who famously declared that she was not some "stand by your man", baking cookies wife. Unlike past First Ladies that realized that their husband had been elected, not them, Hillary was often a lightning rod for her husband. In spite of being impeached, although not removed from office, for lying under oath to a grand jury about Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton era is generally well thought of. It was relatively peaceful, other than some flashpoints, and was in general a time of a lot of banality. Clinton was the perfect 1990's President. He was unserious and goofy, eating fast food and having sex with interns. It was like a giant frat party and the country sort of cruised along. A leader? Not hardly. He talked about which style of underwear he preferred and played the saxophone on talk shows. The only place Bill Clinton could be trusted to lead you into is a brothel.
George W. Bush
Bush the Second, or Bush the Lesser, was in my opinion destined to be a one term President. He eked out a win over the risible Al Gore, one of the dumbest men to ever run for President, but he seemed to be so conflicted over what he wanted to be that I don't think he would have been re-elected. Then September 11th happened and suddenly the rudderless Bush Presidency had a raison d'être: the war on terror. For a few incredible days in September of 2001, Bush was a leader. His appearance at Ground Zero, his speech at the national cathedral, all seemed to energize Bush while bringing the country together. It may be awful to say but 9/11 probably saved the Bush Presidency. Then as he started invading countries and the wars dragged on, he became less popular and more confused.
Bush the Lesser often looked like a little boy trying to pretend to be his daddy, who was not exactly a great role model to emulate as President. What he never seemed, other than a few moments after 9/11, was someone that inspired people.
The current champion for worst President in living memory. Obama fancied himself a powerful, inspiring leader but he was the ideal President for the 2000s: basically a CGI President, a man who could deliver a pretty decent speech from a teleprompter but little else. He was the least distinguished man to hold the office of President perhaps ever. Like Bush 2 and Clinton, he had not served in the military (Bush sort of served). He was an admitted drug user in college. He was a "community organizer" and a law professor, served a few unremarkable terms in the Illinois State Senate and then served less than half a term as a U.S. Senator where he was pretty much a non-entity before resigning to run for President. Arguably Obama was the least qualified man to hold the Presidency in modern history and for his eight years I would qualify him as a man far too small for such an important position. He was and is petty, vindictive and narcissistic. His speeches are all about himself, no matter the topic at hand. Being the first non-white President and being of mixed race ancestry, he had a real opportunity to bring the races together. Instead his tenure was marked by increased racial strife. He was a decent speech maker but his speeches were vacuous and forgettable. As a President he was a disaster, virtually every decision he made was the exact opposite of the right decision. He bowed and scraped and apologized to world leaders that live under the protection of America. He gleefully oversaw the dismantling of marriage and introduced the tranny-tyranny we deal with today. He spent like a drunken sailor and exploded the national debt. He scolded and hectored people that didn't fall in line and mocked them for clinging to their guns and religion. He lied about Obamacare. He "won" a Peace Prize and then spent his tenure ordering drone strike assassinations and destabilizing the Middle East. Barack Obama was and still is a small man, a media creation. Obama was not a leader, he was more of a celebrity, equal parts a liberal rock star and a progressive religious icon.
Well. Trump is less than two years into his Presidency and whatever you say about him, he is a leader. He inspires passion from his base and frothing at the mouth hatred from his opponents. His rallies are loud, raucous affairs. The crowds feed off his energy and he does the same in return. He loves the adoration of the crowd. His leadership style is brash and sometimes crude but no one doubts that he is the leader of the Republican party. It is a mistake to assume that someone that only appeals to his side is a leader. Appealing to both sides in this political climate is impossible. The Left is virulently, violently opposed to anyone that is not 100% on board with them. Trump doesn't try to appeal to them and in fact often mocks and insults his political opponents. They hate it and his base loves it. Trump has singlehandedly remade the Republican party in his own populist and nationalist image, tapping into the coalition that Perot first awakened. With the midterms tomorrow, it was assumed by many that Republicans would hide from Trump but the opposite is true. Trump is criss-crossing the country holding huge rallies, including one in nearby Fort Wayne today that had people in line at 7 AM and promises to be way over capacity. If the GOP holds the House and increases their lead in the Senate, it will be because of Trump stumping hard for Republican candidates. Love him or hate him, there is little middle ground, Trump is a leader.
So 9 Presidents in my lifetime and maybe 2 were leaders of any sort, 3 if you count Obama which I do not.
And it is not just the winners. Look at the long line of uninspiring people that ran against the eventual winners. Walter Mondale? Mike Dukakis? Mitt Romney? Al "Lockbox" Gore? Hillary Clinton?! Bob Dole? Dole was a war hero but he put people to sleep when he talked. Dukakis was a joke with that tank stunt. Mondale was the even less competent half of the Carter-Mondale ticket. Mitt Romney says whatever he has been trained to say after sticking his finger in the wind to see where the political winds were blowing. He is the epitome of an empty suit. Hillary was one of the most polarizing figures to ever run, the worst possible choice to be the first woman President.
It seems odd, does it not, that the most powerful office in the world seems to mostly attract such mediocre leaders? I think many decent men and leaders just simply are not willing to do what it takes to become President. The endless holding out of your hand for money, sucking up to people you probably don't like, the endless scrutiny and criticism. Why would someone put themselves through all of that for any motivation other than narcissism?
Perhaps if the Presidency wasn't quite so significant, wasn't such an endless fishbowl of attention, better men would choose to run. As our government has grown more and more ubiquitous and powerful, so too has the importance placed on the President. In a more sane world, who the President is wouldn't matter so much to the average person on a daily, or now minute by minute, basis and we could see some real leaders and statesmen run for the office. Until that happens we can expect to see an endless succession of narcissistic political chameleons.