Wednesday, February 23, 2005

OK, I meant to post this yesterday on the actual Presidents Day, but rather unmanned by the awful death of Hunter S. Thompson and other stuff, it got delayed. Anyway, pretend it's still Presidents Day, let's get historical!

I am a bit of a presidential history buff, and my low opinion of the current yahoo in the Oval Office hasn't dissuaded me of my unnatural interest in the men who've held his job before. I'm less interested in the politics, although that's part of it all, than in the personalities and events each President has dealt with, and have read a few dozen books and biographies of them. So, in honor of the holiday, here's my Presidents Who Fascinate Me and Those Who Don't So Much lists.

Top 10 Presidents Who Fascinate Me:

1. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) An endlessly fascinating personality, cowboy, author, soldier, environmentalist, explorer and adventurer, who manages to be both highly complex and very basic at the same time. He was "larger than life" in a way very few Presidents have managed to be. I highly recommend Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," one of the best presidential biographies I've ever read. He brings this thrilling character to life.

2. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) Entire cosmologies have been devoted to Jefferson, yet he still eludes pinning down. Perhaps the smartest man to ever be President, yet clueless in other respects. Endlessly interesting once you get to know him.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) Having just finished the first three books of author Robert A. Caro's megalithic biography of LBJ, I discovered how interesting this highly forceful man was. His is a Shakespearean story -- all his life wanting to be President, rising from dirt-poor poverty to enormous Congressional power. Incredibly arrogant yet immensely talented at dealing with power, he only becomes President when Kennedy is assassinated -- and then loses everything to a little war called Vietnam. Hubris takes a fall, and he's dead by age 63.

4. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) An abject failure as President, and a truly tragic figure who's always been oddly interesting to me. His son was killed on the way to inauguration day and left him shattered; his wife went insane. He was drafted for the presidency and hung out to dry by his party, baffled by the Civil War looming on the horizon.

5. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) Fifty billion right-wing conspiracy theorists can't be wrong, they love this guy! Besides, whether or not you agree with him politically, Clinton's story of rising from nothing to become President is quintessentially American, and his flaws and appetites even more so.

6. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) Although he's encrusted by the burdens of legend now, underneath it all is a frontier character and a most unlikely president, who ended up being the one man that could save a union torn asunder. Probably the one president I'd most like to meet, given a chance in some mythical time machine.

7. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) Sheer force of will beat the Depression, beat the Nazis and beat polio. Sure, he got more than a little mad with power, and probably shouldn't have run for four terms, but his courage is unforgettable.

8. Richard Nixon (1969-1974) Pure evil is always fascinating.

9. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) Widely regarded as the worst of our presidents, despite or perhaps because of his failures of character, unsuitability for the office and general incompetence, he remains an interesting case study in "getting in over your head."

10. Andrew Jackson (1828-1837) By many accounts the first bona fide sociopath to become President, Jackson loved killin' Indians in his youth, fought in duels and generally was a wild man. Yet he also was the founder of the modern Democratic party and idolized by zillions in his time.

Our Dullest Presidents

1. William Henry Harrison (1841) Caught pneumonia at his inauguration. Died 30 days later. Borring!

2. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) The grandson of the other Harrison, his nickname was "the Human Iceberg." Not a people person, then.

3. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) Yeah, he won World War I and all, but this former president of Princeton and moralist just never quite appealed to me.

4. James K. Polk (1845-1849) Actually a pretty effective president, but deadly dull individual who was so uptight he never vacationed. Claim to fame is having a song by They Might Be Giants about him: "Austere, severe, he held few people dear..."

5. George Bush I and II (1989-1993, 2001-?) If you can't say anything nice...

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