Monday, February 18, 2008

February 18, 2008

I've seen a few polls this President's Day weekend about who our greatest presidents have been. One of them listed our current president, George W. Bush, as the 10th best ever, another had him third best. What have these samples been smoking? I'm no expert on James Polk or Millard Fillmore, but I'd put them way ahead of this guy, who comes near the bottom of my own personal list. Pollsters explain that recency matters in polls like these; voters give you the names they've heard lately. That would also explain why Bill Clinton was in the top ten, a choice which otherwise be a huge puzzle to me--average, okay, but one of the best? Come on.

No argument, though, about the man both polls picked as our best: Abraham Lincoln. You can make a a case, of course, for George Washington (everything he did was a precedent) or Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Roosevelt, who led the country through a huge depression and a huge war. But it's hard to argue with Lincoln.

For one thing, he had a way with words: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that man's consent." Or, "...we here highly resolve...that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Oh, yes, a way with words.

One of the two finalists in this year's Democratic presidential race is a pretty good speaker too. Not in Lincoln's class, of course, but Barack Obama does bring crowds to their feet, chanting, "Yes we can!" and "Ready to go!" and things like that. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, lacks that gift. Her speeches are earnest and informative--she's very good on the specifics on various programs--but they don't pull listeners out of their chairs the way his do.

Mrs. Clinton tends to cite her experience, and she certainly has more of it--more time in the Senate, eight years as First Lady for whatever that's worth--than he does. But then there's Lincoln again. His Washington experience was less than Obama's: two years in the House of Representatives.

My own feeling is that the job tests presidents in unexpected ways. Experience may not help much. Character--think of Lincoln again--can help a president navigate unfamiliar waters and character is what we voters have to try to judge.

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