I don’t think that Eugene McCarthy could have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if LBJ had stayed in the campaign and ran for another term. As I mentioned in that earlier post about what I think would have happened if LBJ and Nixon had faced each other in the ‘68 election, Johnson, like any incumbent President, would have had significant advantages and as the head of the Democratic Party, he would have controlled the party throughout the process, so any challenge from fellow Democrats could have been handled pretty easily once he put the party apparatus into action and shaped the Democratic National Convention into whatever he might have needed it to be in the case of a floor fight. Plus, LBJ had a powerful campaign organization that was already familiar with a a primary fight (the unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination against John F. Kennedy in 1960) and a Presidential election (the massive popular vote and Electoral College victory in 1964).
There is also another thing that is frequently overlooked when people bring up Eugene McCarthy’s impressive showing against LBJ in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary. President Johnson actually wasn’t on the ballot in the New Hampshire Primary; he was a write-in candidate, partly for strategic reasons (to test the waters in case something like McCarthy’s strong showing in the primary were to happen). So while LBJ won 49% of the vote and McCarthy won an impressive 42% of the vote, I think it’s always important to note that Johnson was a write-in candidate. Still, McCarthy’s performance was impressive, no matter what, and it was a sign that LBJ was going to face a fight from anti-war advocates during primary season and that McCarthy couldn’t be taken lightly. McCarthy technically came in second place in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, but it was basically considered a victory, and his strong showing definitely led Johnson to withdraw from the race.
Why didn’t McCarthy do better in the 1968 Democratic primaries once Johnson withdrew from the race? Well, to put it bluntly, Bobby Kennedy screwed him over. For several months prior to the New Hampshire Primary, anti-war activists urged RFK to challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination, but Kennedy consistently declined to consider a challenge and openly voiced his support in favor of President Johnson’s re-election. Then Eugene McCarthy stunned LBJ and the Democratic Party with his showing in the New Hampshire Primary, and it became clear that there was a passionate anti-war voting bloc that could make a serious difference in the 1968 election. Despite shooting down for months about not entering the race and supporting the incumbent LBJ over his fellow anti-war advocate McCarthy, Kennedy jumped into the race just four days after the New Hampshire Primary.
I know this isn’t a very scholarly way to put it, but RFK pulled a real dick move by jumping into the race after McCarthy had done the legwork in New Hampshire and demonstrated that President Johnson was very vulnerable. When Kennedy announced his candidacy, he immediately started siphoning a lot of those anti-war votes that had propelled McCarthy to the cusp of an upset over an incumbent President in the New Hampshire Primary. Many of those voters saw Kennedy as more electable than McCarthy because he was, of course, a Kennedy, and as they battled each other during the primaries that followed, Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, joined the race and was basically seen as the mainstream candidate. To a lot of those young Democratic voters who had supported McCarthy and then bailed in favor of Kennedy once RFK declared his candidacy, HHH was a continuation of the Johnson Administration’s increasingly unpopular foreign policy. But the back-and-forth battle between RFK and McCarthy in many of the state primaries helped clear a path for Humphrey to take a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates as the 1968 Democratic National Convention approached. After winning the California Primary, Bobby Kennedy looked to have some momentum, but he was assassinated that night. In truth, RFK’s only chance at the nomination was probably if all of the candidates headed into the Democratic National Convention without anybody able to clinch the nomination on the first ballot and having a floor fight ensue. Even then, I believe it would have been unlikely for RFK to have been nominated by a Democratic National Convention that was still largely controlled by Lyndon Johnson’s party organization, which would have worked diligently to prevent Bobby Kennedy from being nominated as President. As for McCarthy, he ended up in second place in the delegate count at the Convention, but the battles between him and RFK during the primary season resulted in many of the delegates who had pledged to support Kennedy voting for anybody else besides McCarthy (Kennedy’s delegates were released from their pledge due to his death). Eugene McCarthy got a pretty raw deal in 1968 after being responsible for a major turning point in history with his near-defeat of President Johnson and the aftermath of the ‘68 New Hampshire Primary.
I agree — I think LBJ would have won in ‘68 if he had run. First of all, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, of all people, almost pulled off the victory over Richard Nixon in 1968. Humphrey lost the popular vote by a margin of just over 500,000 votes — in an election where George Wallace won nearly 10 million votes. Despite his Civil Rights accomplishments, I think Johnson would have neutralized Wallace in some of those Southern states. In fact, it’s very possible that a heavyweight like LBJ in the race would have kept George Wallace from launching a bid as serious as he actually did in 1968. Wallace won 46 Electoral votes (all of them being states of the Deep South) and I don’t think that would have happened with LBJ in the race.
Wallace was a big factor in the race, but another big factor was the battle for the Democratic nomination and the turbulence surrounding the primaries, RFK’s assassination, and the battles between Chicago police and anti-war protesters outside of the Democratic National Convention. If LBJ had been the candidate, there would have been no primary fight, and the DNC would have been much more disciplined. There definitely still would have been anti-war protests, but instead of seeming to add to the chaos of the Democrats’ nomination process, it would have come across differently.
And the biggest difference would have been the difference between Lyndon Baines Johnson on the campaign trail and Hubert H. Humphrey on the campaign trail. On television, LBJ often came across wooden and uninspiring, but he was something altogether different while campaigning. More importantly, LBJ wouldn’t have rolled over and just let Nixon get away with any Nixonian dirty tricks. LBJ could play just as dirty, and he would have if it meant the difference between four more years and a forced retirement. LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and the head of the Democratic Party; he controlled the party apparatus would have known who to use the power of his office and his power of the Democratic Party to propel him to victory if it was kept close.
It definitely would have been closer than the 1964 election; LBJ wouldn’t have cruised to a landslide over Nixon in 1968 like he did over Barry Goldwater four years earlier, but I do think LBJ would have beat Nixon. In the election that we did get — a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace — the Electoral College results were Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46 (270 votes needed to win). Nixon won the popular vote in 1968 over Humphrey by only a few hundred thousand more votes than Kennedy beat him in 1960 (one of the narrowest victories in American history) and George Wallace claimed 9.9 million votes. As I said, in my opinion, if LBJ had run in ‘68, Wallace either wouldn’t have run or he wouldn’t have been able to get ballot access in all 50 states. Either way, he wouldn’t have won 9.9 million votes and I don’t think he would have won any of the five states that he did actually win in ‘68 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). LBJ would have built a powerful voter registration and get out the vote organization in those Southern states with large African-American populations whose right to vote was signed into law and protected three years earlier by LBJ. I think that those new voters, in addition to the Democrats who remained Democratic voters in the South despite LBJ’s Civil Rights policy, would have put those states in the Democratic column. Wallace also won one of North Carolina’s 13 Electoral votes in ‘68.
If it was just LBJ vs. Nixon, I think LBJ would have won all of the states that Humphrey won (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) as well as the states that Wallace won (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). I also think that LBJ would have won 11 of the 32 states that Nixon won majorities in over Humphrey (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In many of the 32 states that Nixon won in the actual 1968 election, his margin of victory was slim and Wallace’s removal from the equation likely would have swung more votes into the Democratic column than the Republican, resulting in a swing of those 11 states. The popular vote margin would still be pretty close, but LBJ would win majorities in most of the major states (those with the most Electoral College votes). In a straight LBJ vs. Nixon matchup in 1968, I think the Electoral College result would be: LBJ 381, Nixon 157.
And, yes, this question motivated me to actually go back and re-figure the 1968 Presidential election’s Electoral College map state-by-state. Don’t say I never did anything for you guys.
That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.
I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.
And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.
FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.
One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.
Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.
Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
36th President of the United States (1963-1969)
Full Name: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Born: August 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Texas
Term: November 22, 1963-January 20, 1969 (Assumed the Presidency upon the death of John F. Kennedy)
Age at Inauguration: 55 years, 87 days
Administration: 44th (Completed the term of President Kennedy) and 45th
Congresses: 88th, 89th and 90th
Vice President: None (1963-1965) and Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. (1965-1969)
Died: January 22, 1973, LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
Age at Death: 64 years, 148 days
Buried: LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 5 of 43 [↑1]
In 2012, many of my longtime readers were surprised that I had LBJ ranked #6 instead of #3, or even #1 as some people suspected I might put him due to my unabashed appreciation and frequent praise of his leadership. I noted then — as I am also noting now — that the distance between the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 is almost non-existent. You can basically consider all three of those Presidents as tied for fourth place, but I couldn’t conceivably have a tie in my own personal rankings. There are no specific statistics or metrics or any sort of processes in determining my Presidential Rankings that would lead to a tie, so including one just because the Presidents ranked 4th, 5th, and 6th are basically interchangeable in my opinion would be a cop-out or just plain lazy. (With that said, while the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 are separated by an almost imperceptible distance, the difference between those three Presidents and the President ranked #7 is pretty significant.) LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy. I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History. I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it. With this year’s 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and next year’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson’s legacy has received an infusion of attention, and that attention has led to a greater appreciation of LBJ’s leadership. The escalation of the Vietnam War undoubtedly casts shadows over Johnson’s accomplishments, but I believe Civil Rights will ultimately dominate discussion of LBJ’s overall legacy. The increase in attention and admiration due to the anniversaries of the Civil Rights legislation is why I have LBJ at #5 this year instead of #6, but again, I think the Presidents that I have ranked #4, #5, and #6 are interchangeable.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 12 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 15 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 14 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 41
2000: Public Opinion Poll: 19 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 18 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 16 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 11 of 40
17th President of the United States (1865-1869)
Full Name: Andrew Johnson
Born: December 29, 1808, Casso’s Inn, Raleigh, North Carolina
Political Party: Democratic (Elected Vice President in 1864 on the National Union ticket, a coalition party of Democrats and Republicans during the Civil War)
State Represented: Tennessee
Term: April 15, 1865-March 4, 1869 (Assumed office upon President Lincoln’s assassination)
Age at Inauguration: 56 years, 107 days
Administration: 20th (Completed Lincoln’s 2nd term)
Congresses: 39th and 40th
Vice President: None
Died: July 31, 1875, near Carter’s Station, Carter County, Tennessee
Age at Death: 66 years, 214 days
Buried: Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Tennessee
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 41 of 43 [↔]
Much like James Buchanan, whoever was in the pilot’s seat as the wounds of the Civil War began to heal and a bitterly divided nation worked towards Reconstruction was going to have a difficult time. Unfortunately, the man who led the nation through that Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, ended up being one of its final casualties and Andrew Johnson was thrust into the White House. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union, but he was also a vehement racist. He didn’t fight for equal rights or emancipation, he fought against a Southern aristocracy that he had long despised. Lincoln’s assassination robbed the nation of many things, the most important of which was a steady and gracious visionary with top-notch political skills committed to truly reuniting the North and South. Johnson made enemies in the South, in Congress, and in his own Administration, became the first President to ever be impeached, and barely survived a trial in the Senate. With just one more vote, Johnson would have been convicted and removed from office, but his narrow acquittal by the Senate allowed him to limp to the finish line and complete the term of the martyred Lincoln.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 19 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 23 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune: 32 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 39 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 37 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 40 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 38 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 37 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 41 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 43 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 36 of 40
Despite being the only Southern Senator to oppose secession and refuse to give up his seat when his home state joined the Confederacy, Andrew Johnson was no abolitionist, no friend to African-Americans, and had despicable opinions on black people that he was more than happy to express even while he was in the White House.
Johnson adamantly opposed even basic human rights for African-Americans and saw all of them as an inferior race. We’re talking about a President of the United States who didn’t hesitate to say things like “You can’t get rid of the negro except by holding him in slavery” and “If you liberate the negro, what will be the next step? It would place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, humpbacked negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.” Just reading Andrew Johnson’s nearly 150-year-old words gives me a sickening feeling and I don’t think it requires much more of an in-depth explanation to illustrate how awful, ignorant, and intolerant he was.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia
"Watch their hands, watch their eyes. Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes. The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say." — Lyndon B. Johnson
This gives me a good chance to start promoting the fact that I will be updating my Presidential Rankings this year. Those of my readers who have followed me for a while know that I have always been hesitant about ranking the Presidents because doing so invariably raises more questions and controversy than not ranking them. Plus, I’ve always believed (and still do) that it’s impossible to accurately compare and contrast individuals of vastly different generations who likely wouldn’t be able to comprehend the issues faced by their predecessors or successors because there is such a distance between them — not just in time, but in the complexity of the job and the national political climate. The Presidency of James Madison was a completely different position from the Presidency of William McKinley, and those are just two Administrations that I chose at random. We can’t really rank all of the Presidents in a scientifically meaningful way because they basically had totally different jobs that just happened to have the title of “President of the United States”. And, in many cases, Presidents lived in an entirely different nation than other Presidents — the nation is always changing, so it would be downright unfamiliar to take a President from one era and place him in another.
BUT…I aim to please and that’s why I finally buckled to pressure and ranked the Presidents in 2012. As I said then, I’ll be updating the rankings biennially since it’s so unlikely for there to be drastic changes in the list from one year to another. I also doubt that there are any dramatic changes every two years, but I’m updating them anyway — the 2014 Presidential Rankings will be published on the Fourth of July weekend.
As for your question, I am cognizant of the dark cloud the shadows Lyndon Johnson’s legacy due to Vietnam and I factored that into my ranking of LBJ. I also recognize that I’m probably one of LBJ’s biggest fans and rank him higher than many other historians do. It’s not just a personal bias, though — if it weren’t for Vietnam, I’d probably have LBJ ranked #4 instead of #6 and the only reason he wouldn’t slip into the top three is because I can’t justify displacing Lincoln (#1), Washington (#2), or FDR (#3). Like I wrote in my LBJ post for the rankings:
LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy. I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History. I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it.
When it comes to Thomas Jefferson, it’s important to remember that my rankings were of these leaders as President, not for anything else that they did in their life. Jefferson’s ranking focuses only on his accomplishments from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809 and to put it simply, Thomas Jefferson is an overrated President. I ranked Jefferson at #11, above James Madison and directly below Bill Clinton. Looking at that list with fresh eyes, I actually think I ranked him higher than he deserves. In my ranking of Jefferson, I wrote:
Another of the “Precedent Presidents”, the biggest achievements of Thomas Jefferson’s two terms in the White House were ambitious exhibitions of Executive power that seemed to go against the strictly republican, weak central power beliefs that Jefferson had lived his life on — the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the use of Executive Privilege, the abolition of the slave trade. Surprising until you realize that Jefferson’s biography was a maze of contradictions. While Jefferson will always be impossible to fully understand, it’s also impossible to overlook the fact that the 3rd President expanded the boundaries of the nation, expanded our understanding of the country we lived in, fought back against the Barbary pirates in a show of national strength, and even expanded the office of the President by his use of Executive Privilege in Aaron’s Burr’s treason trial. The last two years of Jefferson’s term, with the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act left his successor, James Madison, with a wealth of inherited problems, but Jefferson’s achievements prior to that modernized the Presidency and American politics in a way that cannot be discounted.
I downplayed the mess that Jefferson left Madison when he turned the White House over to his fellow Virginian in 1809 and I shouldn’t have. The Embargo Act crippled the American economy and devastated nearly every aspect of American industry and agriculture. Instead of boldly declaring our neutrality and punishing the British and French for repeated violations of American sovereignty, the Embargo Act left American products rotting in warehouses throughout the country while the American ships normally used to export American-made goods fell apart in their docks from disuse. While it was President Madison who led the nation into the War of 1812, Jefferson’s actions towards the end of his Presidency undoubtedly helped commit the nation on the path to another military conflict with the British Empire.
Also, as I wrote in my ranking of Jefferson, almost all of the major actions that he took as President were the result of the type of demonstrations of Executive power that he had been so concerned about and vehemently opposed to since the foundation of the republic. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that we had no idea what Jefferson actually stood for — and he very well might not have know for sure, either. When I rank the Presidents, nothing matters but their Presidency, and Jefferson’s performance in the job was definitely not better than Johnson’s.
Jefferson probably realized his shortcomings as President, too. When he died in 1826, a tombstone that he personally designed was placed on his grave at Monticello. Jefferson himself wrote the epitaph on his tombstone which read, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia”. Jefferson neglected to list that he had once served as President of the United States.
George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.