Posts Tagged FDR

The presidents: relative greatness

FDRPerspective is a good thing which, I guess, is why Newsweek decided to release a list of the 10 best presidents since 1900. With 18 presidents vying for a spot, each had about the same odds of making the list as they did of getting elected in the first place. However, the stakes were much lower here.

People (especially people with history degrees) like to say that the real measure of a great president is his legacy. That’s true; it is hard to know what a president’s impact on the country will be until we see the long term effects. Still, I’m not a fan of ranking the presidents.

Certain presidents are obviously greater than others: FDR topped Newsweek’s list, and rightfully so. The problems come when historians, pundits, or the general public try to compare incomparably great acts.

FDR won World War II, but Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War and freed the slaves. So which one is better? America wouldn’t be the same without either man, so how can one be better than the other?

The United States of America has had many moments that have defined its history and character. Singling out one triumph or crisis as the moment that made America the country it is today is nigh impossible.

There are other methods of ranking presidents, though. If weighing the relative importance of different historical events is too subjective, why not make it a popularity contest? Instead of pretentious historians, why not leave the decision of up to the people each president has sworn to serve?

That would be even more subjective. Frankly, the public may not know enough to make the choice. People live in the present, which is where they need to be to make informed decisions in the 2012 election, but it’s not so good if they’re judging the president from 1912, or 1812.

Ronald Reagan made Newsweek’s list, and he was also chosen as the “Greatest American” in a 2004 Discovery Channel poll. Most people think the Gipper deserves these accolades because he ended the Cold War. In reality, other parties deserve more credit. Reagan didn’t make the people of East Germany and the Soviet Republics to overthrow their governments.

Historians can be pedantic sometimes, but they have the contextual knowledge that allows them to understand the “big picture” of a president and his time. That’s why Barnes & Noble sells their books.

A quality like “greatness” may be too subjective to quantify although, like certain other things, people know it when they see it. That will inevitably lead to arguments over relative greatness, which will lead to a new search for an objective measure. It’s vicious cycle time.

Even if there were an objective way to measure presidential greatness, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. We might know that the man who ended slavery is greater than the man who fought World War II, or the man who was president first, but what meaning does that distinction actually have?

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History isn’t boring, people are

FDRHistory isn’t boring, unless you make it boring. Last week, I went to FDR’s home in Hyde Park, New York to learn more about America’s only four-term president. I thought it would be cool to see the place where so much history happened firsthand, but that’s not what any of the other visitors seemed to care about.

Most of the people in the tour group were probably old enough to remember Martin Van Buren’s presidency. They must have slept through World War II, because all they cared about were mundane details. Are the palms in front real? (Yes, but they go inside during wintertime). What did the King and Queen of England eat when they visited? (Hot dogs on paper plates). How big was FDR’s stamp collection? (He had 1.2 million stamps).

It saddens (and angers) me when people miss the point of history like this. Yes, FDR was a person like anyone else, but why so much focus on the minutiae of his life? This house is where one of America’s greatest presidents met with world leaders to organize the largest war effort this country has ever undertaken. Who cares about the bloody hot dogs?! Biographers think it’s important to humanize their subjects, but this is ridiculous.

In school, people are taught that there are no such things as dumb questions. I disagree. If you’re in a group of people eager to see a historic site and suddenly have the urge to ask whether the large bell on the porch is the “dinner bell,” maybe you should keep it to yourself.

That’s why I’m proposing what the ad men call a “movement.” We should replace the older tourists at historic sites with young people. They won’t care about minutiae; they’ll be too busy texting. So if anyone comes to one of these sites and actually wants to see it without being bogged down by trivia, they can.

That is the choice we have: hyper-interest or no interest. No wonder people think history is boring.

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