Top 5 Greatest Presidents Term Paper

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¶ … Presidents

The top five great United States Presidents are Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Presidential greatness, like charisma, is a broad construct, and has led to numerous studies and writings on the subject. In his article that appeared in a 2001 issue of "Administrative Science Quarterly," Howard Garland reviewed several studies that attempt to define presidential greatness. One study, by Murray and Blessing, which asked 846 American historians to rate Presidents Washington through Carter on a great to failure continuum, found that background characteristics such as age, education, appearance, religion, occupation, and prior political experience appeared unrelated to greatness. The majority of the historians wrote that they considered "presidential personality and character" to be critical requisites, although there was much variation among the personalities of who the historians listed as "great." However, when the researchers examined the major roles undertaken by the presidents, they discovered that the role of symbolic spokesman for the nation rivaled foreign policy planner and domestic policy initiator. In other words, what mattered most in the historians' estimations was "the president's ability to set the national agenda and then point the public in that direction through the skillful use of imagery and rhetoric was often the first step along the road to ensuring himself a solid place in history."

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This ability to establish a vision and persuade the public to work with him in order to enact the vision was echoed in Smith's 2000 study of presidential greatness, that asked 58 historians to rate Presidents Washington through Clinton on ten dimensions, including public persuasion and vision/agenda setting.

Together, these two studies of presidential greatness suggest that the skillful use of imagery and rhetoric is critical to a president's ability to persuade the nation's citizens to help enact his vision.

Term Paper on Top 5 Greatest Presidents Assignment

To demonstrate the power of imagery, Martin Luther King, Jr. could have stated, "I have an idea," however, he proclaimed, "I have a dream," and that imagery made all the difference on the impact of his speech. Examples such as this underscore the basic premise that leaders who choose words that evoke pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations tap more directly into the average citizens' life experiences than leaders who use words that appeal only to intellects. By engaging not only their followers' minds, but their senses, leaders make their messages more immediate, real and appealing, thus they are able to rally the public behind them.

In the book, "Hail to the Chief. The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," author Robert Dallek concludes the five characteristics found in the most effective presidents are vision, pragmatism, consensus, charisma, and credibility. According to Dallek, certain presidents are always judged successful while others are deemed unsuccessful, regardless of the poll, because there seems to exist a broad consensus concerning which presidents deserve praise and which ones should be condemned. Although Dallek recognizes that there is no true formula to measure presidential greatness, he does believe that the five characteristics reflect performance, stating, "What seems most striking is the extent to which each of these elements have been present and absent in the leadership of the most and the least effective chiefs."

Dallek believes that throughout the history of the United States, these five qualities have been constants in the presidents who have been most effective in office. First, every successful president has had vision, insight, and a clear idea of where he wanted to lead the nation to attain a better future, and regardless of how illusory some of the dreams have been, whether for simply a harmonious nation or for America's Manifest Destiny, "a clear and comprehensible grand design has been central to every significant presidential advance." Second, the most successful presidents have been great realists or pragmatists who understood that politics was the art of the possible and that effective leadership was achieved through sensible opportunism or flexibility to changing conditions at home and abroad. Third, Dallek says that presidential gains have depended on the consent of the governed and without a national consensus for major policies courts defeat.

Fourth, the best presidents have always recognized that effective leadership required a personal connection to the nation's citizens, that his power rests to a large degree on the affections of the country. For example, from Washington to Lincoln to the two Roosevelts and even Reagan, the force of presidential personality has played a major role in determining a president's fate. And fifth, "a corollary to conditions three and four, presidents need credibility - presidents who are unable to earn the trust of their countrymen are governors who cannot govern and lead." Each of these political practices connects to and builds upon the other, because no president has distinguished himself by simply being visionary, or a good politician, or charming or trustworthy.

Dallek points out that the White House today is as removed from Washington's day as space travel is from the horse and buggy, and that the global responsibilities a president faces today actually dwarf those his counterpart encountered in the 1790's, as well as the president's impact on the economic and social life of the country. Because of nuclear weapons, electronic communications, and national and international responsibilities, presidents today are forced to think and act differently than earlier predecessors, however, the elements of compelling leadership have remained unchanged through the years.

Harry S. Truman was president from 1945-1953. The Employment Act of 1946 created the Council of Economic Advisers to help Truman formulate economic policy and to extend the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which monitored discrimination against African-Americans in hiring practices of government agencies and defense industries, to enlarge the Social Security System and establish a national health insurance system. Truman took a stand on civil rights and was the first President to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, saying, "The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character," and his report title, "To Secure These Rights" was a detailed and unabashed brief for civil rights legislation. In his 1948 State of the Union address, Truman again called for civil rights legislation, national health insurance, a housing program, and a higher minimum wage. His "Fair Deal," called for economic controls, an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of the Social Security program, a housing bill, national health insurance, development projects, liberalized immigration laws, and ambitious civil rights legislation for African-Americans.

John F. Kennedy was President from 1960 to 1963. Kennedy's most daunting domestic issue was the tension between African-Americans demanding equal treatment under the Constitution and segregationists refusing to end the South's system of apartheid, and he tried to ease the problem with executive actions that expanded black voting, job opportunities and access to public housing. When the civil rights crisis broke out in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, it is reported that the television and newspaper images of a dog lunging to bite a black teenager made him sick. On June 11, Kennedy delivered a televised speech announcing his civil rights bill proposal, saying, "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue...It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution...The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities...this Nation...will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."

On June 19, Kennedy requested the enactment of the most far-reaching civil rights bill in the history of the United States, proposing law that would ensure anyone with a sixth-grade education would have the right to vote, end discrimination in all public places, expand the power for the attorney general to enforce court-ordered school desegregation, end job discrimination, expand funds for job training, and create a federal community relations service, which could work to improve race relations.

The Lyndon Johnson presidency, 1963-1969, marked a vast expansion in the role of the national government in domestic affairs, calling on the nation to move not only toward "the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society," which would "end poverty and racial injustice." The Great Society agenda included bringing aid to the underprivileged, addressing issues of inequality in education with federal aid for elementary and secondary education, particularly remedial services for poorer districts, and establishing a Department of Housing and Urban Development and appointing the first African-American in the cabinet to head it.

William Jefferson Clinton's presidency, 1993-2001, included welfare reform, health care, social security, education and domestic law enforcement. The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act required Congress to abide by the same anti-discrimination workplace rules that apply throughout the country, and the 1996 welfare reform bill limits recipients of welfare benefits and enacts a 'welfare to work' initiative. Clinton also proposed a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" meaning that the military services could not ask about the sexual orientation of service personnel and the personnel would not be required to divulge the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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