~ Posted by Georgia Grimond, December 4th 2012
At the polls in November, voters in America’s presidential election had a choice of two (serious) candidates. In our last Big Question, our panel had a choice of 43. We asked six writers to choose the best American president of all, and four went for the men from Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The other two wanted to chisel out portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.
As our online poll closed, Lincoln was way out in the lead. Jesse Norman, MP, admired Lincoln’s political genius, arguing that he "gained the presidency through charm and stealth" and then "renewed a moral vision for America"—a vision which persuaded 33% of our voters. In second place, with 21%, was FDR, a "mass of contradictions", according to David Thomson, but a man who thrived in a crisis and became the "first president of the world".
Clinton, Anne McElvoy argued, realised that "a left-of-centre party could deploy the best instincts of the moderate right" and that "this is what a lot of voters want", so we should overlook his "infamous flaw". In our poll, 14% were convinced, making Clinton the most admired of the post-1945 presidents. Emily Bobrow went back to the very beginning, choosing George Washington. "His humility", she wrote, “ensured the institution was built to last.” About 9% of voters agreed with her. Christopher Lockwood wrote that Washington was “more of a divine being than an ordinary human”. Theodore Roosevelt, "a dynamic figure who invented the modern presidency”, was his pick, but in our poll he ran second-last, with 1% less than Washington. Last of all, on 6%, was Thomas Jefferson who, David Rennie said, created “modern American politics itself”.
So what does it take to be remembered? Lincoln and FDR were decisive in war and, with the New Deal and the end of slavery, pioneering in peace. Many readers nominated Ronald Reagan, singled out as "a true leader" who "changed the world we live in”. But there is more to it than stamping your authority. The two George Bushes collected only a handful of votes between them.
Finally, it’s vital to stick around long enough to make your mark. The 32 days William Henry Harrison spent in office earned him only two votes, one of them because he “didn’t overstay his welcome”. And what of the present Mr President? It will be another four years before history begins to judge the legacy of Barack Obama. Until then, it is Lincoln who presides.
Georgia Grimond is letters editor of Intelligent Life