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 by William H. Benson

February 22, 2007 

      The Founding Fathers listed the duties of the President in Sections 2 and 3 of Article II of the Constitution.  “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.”  “He shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons.”  “He shall have Power, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  “He shall appoint ambassadors.”

     “He shall from time to time give the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”  “He shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.”  And then at the end of Section III they insisted that, “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”

     Once can see that the President’s duties are not detailed nor numerous, almost vague.  In fact, the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention struggled more with the method of selecting the President—the Electoral College—than with delineating duties.

    Forty-two men have served as President of the United States.  Some, such as Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, proved dismal failures, due to the financial scandals committed by their advisors.  Others distinguished themselves, men such as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, the two Roosevelt’s, Truman, and Reagan.

     The most embarrassed of the forty-two was James Madison who fled the White House as the British stormed and then torched Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.  From a hilltop, he looked behind his coach to see the smoke rising from the Executive Mansion, a most ignominious moment.

     The only other time that Washington was attacked was, not during Lincoln’s Presidency during the Civil War which was one of Lincoln’s real fears, but on 9-11-2001 during George W. Bush’s first year in office.

     The laziest President was not Ronald Reagan, as he was so accused, but his hero, Calvin Coolidge, who it was reported slept twelve to fourteen hours out of twenty-four hours, and even more on slow days when he would catch an afternoon nap.

     The two most successful Presidents in terms of achievements were those who faced the biggest challenges: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Lincoln watched the nation split into two nations because of his election as the Republican candidate.  He then was required to fight a four-year war that spilled the nation’s blood.

     FDR stared directly into the face of an economic tornado, the Great Depression, and then just as he was seeing some promise of hope, he faced two new challenges: Hitler and the Nazi regime in Europe and the Japanese empire in the Pacific.  Could anything have been worse for those two Presidents?

    The wealthiest President was probably John F. Kennedy, due to his father’s money.  The two Roosevelt’s—Theodore and Franklin—came from old money out of the Dutch along the Hudson River north of New York City.  The poorest of the poor was probably Lincoln, who pulled himself out of the desperate conditions he found himself in as a youngster growing up in the wilds of frontier Kentucky.

     Two Presidents were impeached—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—but in the resulting Senate trial neither were convicted.  A third—Richard Nixon—resigned rather than suffer an embarrassing impeachment and trial due to his coverup in the Watergate scandal.  Historians now agree that Nixon should have stayed, fought, and had his day in court, which is what Clinton did.

     The most thoroughly liked of the Presidents during their era were Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan.  The most detested were Lincoln because of the Civil War, Truman because of the Korean War, Lyndon B. Johnson because of the Vietnam War, Nixon because of Watergate, and Carter and Clinton mainly because they were from poor families from the South—Georgia and Arkansas.

     The two most incompetent Presidents were Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, the fourteenth and fifteenth Presidents.  Neither did much to stem the drift toward a disunion and war.  They passed it on to Lincoln to sort out the mess and reunite the states.

     Dwight Eisenhower would get my vote as the most bland of the Presidents.  He ran the Executive office as if he was managing a country club, more anxious to get out on the golf course than pursue a path of leadership in the post World War II era.

     Certainly, the most excitable of the Presidents was Theodore Roosevelt.  A British ambassador once remarked, “one has to remember that this President is only about six years old.”

     George Washington did at least two things right: he appointed Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and Alexander Hamilton as his Secretary of Treasury.  They were the nation’s two thoroughbreds, far more capable and intelligent than the President.  The difficulty was that they each disliked the other.  

     One President, Grover Cleveland, served two terms, and not consecutive, and so he became the twentieth and twenty-second Presidents.

     Some men never did become President and probably should have.  In this category I would include: John Jay, Henry Clay, Roger Tawney, Stephen Douglas, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.