“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV
by Lynn Mandaville
I’ve long held the personal theory that presidents, even the “bad” ones, serve a purpose in the big picture of the great American experiment.
It’s important here to note that by “bad” I mean my personal evaluation of a given president, not yours or anyone else’s, only mine. Not even the C-Span ranking of presidents, about which I’ve only recently educated myself.
My feeling has, so far, been with regard to three presidents in particular: Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, all three of whom I hold in high regard.
Johnson, as you’ll remember, took over the reins of the presidency when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Kennedy was largely a popular president, made larger than life by his assassination and the conspiracy theories that followed.
Kennedy had begun, along with other giants of the Civil Rights Movement, legislation that would result in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under Johnson. Johnson went on to be a great champion of civil rights legislation before the divisiveness and controversy over the Vietnam War caused him to remove himself from politics.
Kennedy was a truly hard act to follow, and I know I had pretty much dismissed Johnson from memory until, while visiting dear friends in Austin, TX, we went to the Johnson Presidential Museum. A unique museum in and of itself, the museum leads visitors through Johnson’s political career. The museum’s excellence overwhelmed this visitor with the massive scope of legislation Johnson managed to usher through Congress during his term in office.
The C-Span ranking of presidents puts Johnson at a pretty solid 10-11th place over its four individual ratings by historians in 2000, 2009, 2017, and 2021. (You can find the ten criteria used to rank presidents by googling C-Span Ranking of Presidents.)
Whether or not you have been a Lyndon Johnson fan, it appears that Johnson already had it in him to step up to the needs of the country after a great national trauma.
He was the right guy for the right time, in my humble opinion.
Jerry Ford came to office following the moral failure of the Nixon administration. Tricky Dick (whom I voted for, much to my later disappointment and shame) resigned following the Watergate scandal, as well as the resignation of his vice president, Spiro Agnew (who you might remember resigned following the investigation into his criminal conspiracy, tax fraud and bribery, pleading no contest) that put Gerald Ford in the VP position. Republicans like Barry Goldwater visited Nixon to encourage the resignation, which was recognized then as a stain on all Republicans if not condemned by the party as a whole.
Jerry, who had come from the rank and file of the House as Minority Leader, became president when America needed someone to restore moral integrity to the office and to government in general. In spite of his pardon of Nixon, done, Ford said, to put the shame of Watergate behind us,
Ford found some popularity because of his plain-spoken wife, Betty, his all-American family of clean-cut kids, and his pastel shirts and flashy neckties. Despite caving to the presidential uniform of dark suits and red, white, and blue ties, Jerry was still Everyman, a guy whose clumsiness he could take a ribbing about, probably because Ford was one of the most athletically accomplished men to hold that office.
Ford was a man of high moral principles, a former Eagle Scout, and a man well-liked among his former House colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Ford, too, was, in my opinion, the right guy for the right time in history. He falls solidly in the mid-range of rankings by C-Span, but I thought he was the perfect man for the role he played in helping to heal a nation.
Jimmy Carter has always had a place of highest regard in my opinion of presidents. He came to office facing a weak economy and a strong desire among the populace for better environmental policy. His forte, however, was in seeking peaceful resolutions to problems domestic and foreign.
Many felt his pardoning of Vietnam era deserters and resisters was an enormous mistake. (I thought it was brave. It probably is one of a few devastating mistakes that cost him re-election.) But he brokered the famous Middle East Accord between Egypt and Israel (which earned Nobel Peace Prizes for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978), and his continuing efforts beyond his presidency won him a personal Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
There was, however, the disastrous rescue attempt of the Iran hostages in 1980, which pretty much sealed Carter’s doom for a second term.
Yet Jimmy had had a special popularity that stemmed from his humble roots in rural Georgia, where he had served as governor, was the owner of a successful peanut farm, where he was the son of the colorful Miss Lillian and more colorful brother Billy, where he, too, had a clean-cut American family, and where he taught Sunday school every Sunday when he was back in Plains (and still may on occasion, if I’m not mistaken).
Jimmy had a moral presence that stood him in good stead as president, and brought with it respect around the world and in all instances where reconciliation was the goal.
C-Span ranks Carter just slightly above Jerry Ford, solidly in the average range of presidents during all four rankings so far.
I put Jimmy high on my own list because he was the right guy for the right time.
These three men have one characteristic in common. All three scored very high in the category “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” This, to me, is one of the most important qualities of any president, and it shows in the rankings that this can bring up the standing of any average guy who holds the office of president. Ford was rated at 51.3%, Carter at 72%, and Johnson at a whopping 86.2%.
Our former president, Donald Trump, has been listed in the ranking only once so far, because he’s the most recent to leave office.
C-Span ranked Trump 41st out of 44 presidents. (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, but only counts as one president for purposes of the ranking.)
To readers, it is no surprise that Trump falls dead last in my own opinion poll. But C-Span gave him some good marks in a couple of areas that brought him up from that worst of all placement, in spite of (in my opinion) obvious shortcomings. Trump scored well (in comparison to his other categories) in Public Persuasion at 43.9% and Economic Management at 42.7%. But in Pursued Equal Justice for All he scored 27.6%. (In Moral Authority he scored a pitiful 18.7%.)
And yet, in spite of his poor showing, I dare say that Trump may prove to have been the right guy for the right time.
The Republican Party has been in serious disarray for the greater part of the 21st century. It is scrambling to regain power in Washington, and it is badly splintered, despite the appearance of unity under the thrall of Trump cultism.
The Democratic Party is showing its own signs of strong divisions as well. It can’t decide whether it is moderate or progressive. It can’t decide whether to fight for its future, or whether to founder in seeming lack of conviction to the fight.
Both parties have shown that, to them, it is more important to “win” the political power game than to represent “We, the People.”
Trump revealed through his presidency that Americans, for the most part, don’t understand how their country was designed to work. They aren’t familiar with the Constitution, or with the backgrounds behind the Amendments. They don’t understand the electoral process, or the oaths that elected officials swear to uphold throughout their terms of office. They don’t recognize insurrection when it happens live before their very eyes. And they don’t understand the history or vital importance of the original, true free press in keeping our elected officials honest.
Trump may prove to have been the right guy at the right time to rectify the things I mention above.
Lots of people are brushing up on their civics knowledge. Many parents are questioning the curricula in their school districts to see what their kids are being taught about the mechanics of American government. Some of us are taking the time to offer our kids and grandkids age-appropriate information (not to be confused with party propaganda) about our current lawmakers.
Had Trump not been such an abysmal failure as Commander-in-Chief (again, that is my personal opinion), there wouldn’t be a rush to fill the gaps in our collective civics knowledge. And this is a very good thing.
When viewed in the larger picture, it seems to me that there is for everything a season, and a time to every purpose…whether under Heaven or just in Washington, D.C.