Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Greatest American President of All Time

If I am to select a single American president to be the greatest, first I have to examine the very concept of „greatness“. The greatness is of course not an objective, scientific term, that could be reduced to numbers or neutral factual observations. Even though it would be unwise to ignore the facts entirely, since they can form a solid basis for evaluation and serve as a fundamental qualification, the greatness is essentially a matter of subjective values. A man can be „great“ only from a certain perspective and to some person or people. In regards to politics, the greatness is most often judged from the historical, personal and national perspectives. Objectively speaking, these perspectives normally entail significant factors like president’s concrete accomplishments, prosperity of the USA during his term, military victories, magnitude and scope of his vision, his legacy, renown and importance, strength of his character, his charisma and rhetoric skills or his level of patriotism, decisiveness and resolve. I listed these mostly objective factors in no particular order, since their relative importance varies, depending on who is assessing it. At this point, I need to decide, who’s perspective and what measure do I want to adopt.

President’s worth can be judged by many different kinds of observers, but who’s opinion matters the most? The one of the president‘s contemporaries, who were actually there, or that of the people of today, who have the benefit of hindsight? The opinion of the learned experts, historians and scholars, or common people’s „vote“? After all, each president is ultimately one of the people, serving the people. In this regard, the issue of ideology has to be considered as well – should the criteria to judge a president be partisan, coming from either his own party members or the opposing party members, or should the criteria be non-partisan, as unbiased as possible? Since I am neither an American, nor an ideologue, and because I do not live in the past, if it is to be genuinely my perspective, I choose it to be non-partisan and focused on the impact on the present. And while I certainly intend to take expert opinions into account, ultimately I consider the opinions of the ordinary people of America (or the world) to be of at least equal importance and the given president’s impact on the lives and imaginations of said people to be of paramount importance.

Speaking of taking relevant opinions into account, If you cross-reference the picks of the scholars with numerous popular polls conducted throughout the second half of the twentieth century[1], you will find out that only less than twenty presidents of the total 44 appear at least once among the more noteworthy top ten lists of presidential greatness. Furthermore, If you count only those presidents, who have been named both by the scholars and the people, which I would, for I hold their opinions to be of equal merit, the number turns out to be exactly 14 - 8 from the 20th century and 6 from an earlier time period. These 14 all-time favourites are (in order of appearance) George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. For each of these candidates, being in this sample means that they are still cherished in living memory, and that is why, in the end, my choice should be one of these presidents. However, I need to devise additional criteria for their final comparison.

It is difficult, however, to come up with such universal criteria, which would be fair to all the presidents, because each of them had found themselves in a different historical situation, dealing with unique domestic and foreign issues. Moreover, many of the pre-selected presidents differed strongly in their overall philosophies, located anywhere between the abstract extremes of pure pragmatism and pure idealism. While it is easy and unproblematic to say that victory in a war, crisis resolved or economy flourishing are positive and their opposites are negative, it is much harder to appreciate the intrinsic value of the ideals promoted by a president. And last but not least, how much can a single man, albeit very powerful, really make happen all by himself, and how much of any president’s „accomplishments“ are merely the faceless forces of history and society playing out? Giving credit where credit is not due would not be fair at all – many successes or crises are merely inherited.

After carefully weighing all the factors mentioned above, I have chosen John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America, to be the greatest. In terms of specific military achievements, by resolving the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, he succesfully prevented a nuclear war. No American president before or since, or any other world leader for that matter, had to seriously and directly face the threat of that magnitude – possibility of a man made global apocalypse and mass extinction (if you don’t count global warming, which I personally find questionable in some fundamental respects). True, Nazis were a lethal adversary, but they couldn’t actually destroy the world. As for the rest of the „baddies“, the terrorists of today would be lucky to get their hands on a single nuke, larger nuclear powers have since the CMC learned to be careful about the use of nuclear weapons and mostly keep slowly disarming them, and until the WWII the technology didn’t even exist. And JFK never authorised the use of nuclear weapons, despite having the option. And enemies. And the precedent in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki winning a war. Instead, in no small part thanks to JFK, the conflict between the USA and the USSR moved in a constructive direction by increased engangement of the USA in a „space race“ with the (later achieved) goal of sending manned expedition to the Moon.

Apart from getting the closest to actually saving the world, Hollywood style, and laying a foundation for a major scientific progress in the future, JFK managed to become more than just a man through the tragic circumstances of his death in combination with the ideals he stood for in life. A close parallel presents itself in regards to Abraham Lincoln, who also saved the nation, set the USA on the course for future prosperity and then, too, died as a result of an assassination, which only immortalized him as a symbol of American ideals, inspiring all who came after him. What differentiates the two in my opinion is that in the case of JFK, the stakes were higher. I am not saying that the civil war was easy to win or that it didn’t matter, quite the contrary. But what Abraham Lincoln is to America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is to the world. Later, Ronald Reagan has been credited for „winning“ the cold war, but I find that to be the case of an undue credit. The USSR was already defeated long before it ultimately collapsed, in terms of economic efficiency, scientific advancement as well as the appeal of cultural ideals, represented by the competing nations. Not to mention that Reagan‘s influence on the American economy, though bringing the appearance of prosperity for a time, is having detrimental effects in the present, and not only on the American economy.

However, JFK was definitely not a perfect and infallible human being. Human beings simply do not possess these characteristics. I find it therefore much more prudent to judge their intentions and their efforts first, before considering their failings. JFK was maybe the biggest casanova of all the American presidents, allegedly even having an extramarital affair with Marilyn Monroe. Which is something that many of his fellow Americans, and especially catholics and other Christians, find highly contemptible. It is not inconceivable, though, to see it as yet another reason to admire JFK, either. In the military context, JFK sanctioned operations leading to the initial Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco and the eventual American loss in Vietnam. But in the context of the era, what else should the Americans have done? Firstly, however trite and clichéd it may sound, you cannot make an omelete without breaking some eggs, and secondly, the alternative was to simply not oppose the spread of the Soviet influence and return to the prior American isolationism. Which didn’t exactly work out for the rest of the world from one world war to another. If trying to save the world is not a case of ends justifiyng the means, or a good cause to provoke your potential enemies, nothing is.

There were also other less significant missteps in foreign affairs, as well as other minor victories; JFK’s reluctance to address the racial inequality issue, later in his last year of life ballanced by a strong newfound commitment; disparity between the dazzling rhetoric and much more sober reality, nevertheless inspiring current and future American generations to radically transform American society; alleged JFK’s ties to mafia through his campaign funding, but also a decent measure of economic prosperity brought by JFK’s policies, fighting self-serving corporate interests and promoting education. And so I could continue on and on[2]. In many cases the value assigned to a given decision varies based on the beholder’s partisan or personal perspective – for instance, for many people the whole space race was pointless waste of tons of money, while others (including me) cannot disregard the revolutionary technologies it brought and what the exploration of space means for the whole humanity. What is the most striking to me about JFK is that his example demonstrates more than any other, how a single politician, an ordinary man chosen by the people, can have a profound influence on events insurmountably larger than any single man, or even a single nation.

As the JFK’s first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, put it in an interview shortly after JFK’s assassination, the JFK’s „reign“ was „an American Camelot“[3]. The Kennedies were in fact, and still are, considered to be something of an American royal family, which naturally brings just as many negative connotations as positive ones. The un-americanism of royalty in the American political context set aside, the myth of Camelot has a deep significance for the whole English-speaking culture. The legend of Arthur and his knights is not about a monarch lording over his subjects, it is an opposite of that – it is the epitome of the rule of the highest ideals, the ruler being equal to the governed and doing everything for their benefit, full of hope for the improvement of the mankind’s condition. As JFK himself said, demonstrating that he does indeed subscribe to this philosophy (and that he chooses to follow in Lincoln's footsteps), „My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.“ He also said, somewhat prophetically, that a „Man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.“[4]

The bottom line is that JFK’s idealism transcended the „American dream“ beyond mere nationalism of the founding fathers and wartime presidents, just like beyond the mere pursuit and export of material security or prosperity, which was the main agenda of the more pragmatic, peacetime presidents. Thanks to what JFK in his words „made happen“ and made America stand for, everyone in the world wanted to be an American. And that is why, in my humble opinion, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is the greatest president in the history of the United States.


Historical rankings of Presidents of the United States. In: Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia [online]. San Francisco (CA): Wikimedia Foundation, 2001- [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

John F. Kennedy. In: Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia [online]. San Francisco (CA): Wikimedia Foundation, 2001- [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

WALLECHINSKY, David a Irving WALLACE. President John F. Kennedy: Pros of His Presidency. [online]. [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

WALLECHINSKY, David a Irving WALLACE. President John F. Kennedy: Cons of His Presidency. [online]. [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

Tina Sinatra: Mob Ties Aided JFK. CBS. [online]. 2009 [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

Why Is The Kennedy Presidency Called "Camelot"?. [online]. October 26, 2000 [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

John F. Kennedy Quotes. [online]. [cit. 2012-10-12]. Dostupné z:

[1] Wikipedia 2012 A

[2] All the mentioned facts and opinions are surmised for example in Wikipedia 2012 B, A and B and 2009.

[3] 2000.

[4] Quotes are taken from

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