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Editor's Note - Great presidents

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By Tom McDonald

Really, President’s Day is a second-tier holiday — most of us don’t even get to take off work for this national holiday.

Still, I’ve decided to use the day as fodder for today’s column, beginning with a single question: Who was the greatest U.S. president of all time?

Maybe it’s because I recently saw the movie “Lincoln,” which I found to be both entertaining and instructive, but I’d have to give the Great Emancipator the nod. After all, he kept the nation from splitting in two, and he put an end to slavery in these United States.

Until I saw Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, I’d never really thought about the work it took to pass the 13th Amendment, the one that abolished slavery, but the movie really brought that out for me. After the movie, I even googled the amendment, as well as some of the historic characters portrayed in the movie, just to satisfy some lingering curiosities.

Of course, it’s certainly debatable as to whether Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president. It would be easy to name George Washington instead, given that he was the nation’s first president. He set the standard for presidential behavior. And even though he could have secured for himself great powers, perhaps even the status of American royalty, his dedication to the new republic was far greater than his personal ambition. He truly was the “father of our country.”

Then there was Franklin D. Roosevelt, America’s longest serving president (after breaking with the two-term tradition that Washington had set). FDR led the nation through two of its biggest crises ever — the Great Depression and World War II, both of which ripped at the very fabric of American society. It may be difficult to imagine now, but a third of the American workforce was jobless during the height of the depression (it barely topped 10 percent during the Great Recession of 2008-09), while the war was an all-out national effort that resulted in rationing, women into the workforce as never before, and more than 400,000 U.S. fatalities. Amazingly, America emerged from 15 years of depression and war much, much stronger than it had ever been before.

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I’ve heard it said, and I believe it’s true, that a president needs to govern during a big crisis to go down in history as a truly “great” president. That’s why one of my favorite presidents, Bill Clinton, probably won’t be placed among the elites. The 1990s were a time of tremendous change, with the dot.com boom, but the crises were kept to a minimal.

On the other hand, George W. Bush was president when 9/11 came down on America, but he’ll never be considered one of the great ones. Not even close. I’ve often wondered, how would Al Gore, who lost to Dubya by one Supreme Court vote, have fared as president? Personally, I think he would have been one of the greats.

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Of course, “great” is a relative term — there’s good “great” and bad “great.” Andrew Jackson, for example, was definitely an above-average president — he was the first “commoner” elected to the position and was, in many ways, larger than life during his time — but he was also a brutal racist who led genocides while also instituting a corrupt spoils system in state government.

And Thomas Jefferson, while great in his advocacy for the better tenants of our national ideals, like freedom and equality, often contradicted his own positions, personally and as president. On one significant front, he believed in a small and restrained federal government, but when faced with the land deal of the century, he used the power at his disposal to double the size of this nation with a single Louisiana Purchase.

As for one of Las Vegas’ favorite presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect he was great because of the strength of his personality — which actually resurrected some of the strength of the presidency itself.

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Then there’s our current president, Barack Obama. The verdict is still out as to whether he will be one of the great ones, but this much is certain: His election, and his re-election, were turning points in this nation’s march toward full inclusion and true equality.

How great is that?

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.