The Big Question: Christopher Lockwood chooses the president with the neatest definition of a just society...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012
What a dreary lot America's early presidents were! Not Washington, of course, who ranks these days as more of a divine being than an ordinary human, or, to be fair, the first half-dozen, who were revolutionaries and constitution drafters. But once you get past them, it's a procession of nonentities like Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur. Only Lincoln sets the imagination soaring; the rest of the 19th-century lot were eminently forgettable and mostly forgotten.
But then, in 1901, thanks to a bullet aimed at William McKinley, comes Theodore Roosevelt (26th president, 1901-09), a dynamic figure who invented the modern presidency. He excelled as a police commissioner, a governor, a soldier, a naturalist, a sportsman and a writer, quite apart from his time in the White House and, more than any president before or since, he made the concept of equality of opportunity central to his politics. "No man is above the law, and no man is below it," he said, and that strikes me as one of the neatest definitions of what a just society should be that you can pack into a single sentence.
And how he applied it. He took on trusts, the over-mighty giant companies that exercised political and economic power without constraint, squeezing out competition and stifling the development of new ideas. He proposed health insurance for all, though it took a century to get there. He mediated between unions and employers. He was America's greatest conservationist, establishing five national parks and 150 national forests. With his soft voice and big stick he made America respected abroad, mostly using its power for good (some, but by no means all, in the Philippines would disagree). He put the first Jew in the cabinet. He preached sound money, and twice helped see off William Jennings Bryan.
But most of all he radiated optimism and turned the presidency (the bully pulpit, he was the one to call it) into the vital force it is today in America and in the world. That has its downside as well as its up, but he started the practice of daily briefings, interviews and photo ops that over time helped make the American president into the acknowledged leader of the free world. When one thinks of America's can-do spirit, it is as often as not Roosevelt that one thinks of. Just don't call him Teddy: he hated that.
Who do you think was the best president? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Emily Bobrow on George Washington, David Thomson on Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Rennie on Thomas Jefferson, Jesse Norman on Abraham Lincoln and Anne McElvoy on Bill Clinton
Christopher Lockwood is the US editor of The Economist