Not the Best President, Not the Worst President

Portrait of James Madison (1751-1836), fourth President of the United States of America.
Portrait of James Madison (1751-1836), fourth President of the United States of America.

An article at the U.S. Air Force web site, titled "Leadership not defined by shapes, sizes," caught my attention.

Upon reading "Short in stature at 5 feet 4 inches, not particularly handsome, a bookworm and not exactly the life of the party," I became very hopeful that the subject of this essay was going to be yours truly. But when I read something about "his brilliant mind and leadership skills," my hopes were dashed.


The writer, Col. Jerry Wizda, was in fact writing about our fourth president, James Madison, telling us:

Short in stature at 5 feet 4 inches, not particularly handsome, a bookworm and not exactly the life of the party, James Madison does not fit some perceptions of a leader.

In today's world, he probably would have been perceived as a nerd. But, his brilliant mind and leadership skills now have historians re-embracing Madison's presidency and his leadership.

The words "re-embracing Madison's presidency" captured my attention once more as, on the occasion of the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, many have been re-embracing George W. Bush's presidency or, perhaps more accurately, have been trying to put their arms around a very shaky, questionable legacy.

To be fair, some academics and historians are lamenting that other academics and historians are rushing to pre- and misjudge the 43rd president and hoping that when all is said and done Bush may be regarded at least as a mediocre president. Many point to recent opinion polls where the views of Bush's presidential performance seem to have mellowed somewhat -- at least to get him out of the presidential cellar.

On the other hand, there are those who claim that "Bush's legacy keeps getting worse." Then, there is always the eternal optimist and revisionist, Carl Rove, who has saved the day for Bush supporters by declaring "But yeah, I'd put him up there." Up there with the "greats," you know, "George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, FDR..."

Curious to see where the subject of Col. Wizda's essay ranks among our 44 presidents, I did a quick and unscientific survey of several polls and rankings.

While some scholarly and not-so-scholarly polls or rankings have Madison among the top 10 to 15 presidents -- for example, Madison comes out fifth in this one -- most polls place Madison pretty much in the middle of the pack. A presidential rankings survey of 65 historians and professional observers of the presidency done by C-SPAN, ranking each president by leadership attributes, ranked James Madison in 18th place in 2000 and in 20th place in 2009.

By the way, the same survey, in 2009, placed George W. Bush towards the bottom of the pack -- Nr. 36 -- "outdone" only by Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin D. Pierce, Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan.

And by the way, again, other surveys show George W. Bush and Richard Nixon slipping in and out of the bottom ten "worst presidents," depending on when, by whom, why and how the rankings were done.

Generally, the following former presidents seem to have found a solid, comfortable place in a cellar that hosts the "worst U.S. presidents": James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, William Harrison, and Ulysses S. Grant.

To those who are distressed that so many have prematurely judged George W. Bush's presidency to be the worst in U.S. history, I would offer as consolation that an almost equal number of Americans have already judged President Obama to be the worst president "ever." Thus, the debate continues, and will continue for as long as we have such a divided nation..

But back to James Madison.

After recalling how Madison's "Virginia Plan" became the basis for our Constitution and how Madison led "an infant nation against the greatest naval power in the world and won," Wizda asks, "So what personal attributes made this man an unlikely leader, and what can you take from the story of President Madison and apply to today's world to make you a leader?"

Addressing his words mainly to aspiring Air Force leaders, Wizda lists three qualities that Madison excelled at: "Always believe in yourself and never doubt your abilities," "Stay true to yourself and stand by your convictions" and "Know when to stay and know when to run."

Wizda concludes, again addressing members of the U.S. Air Force, with advice that we can all use:

Not all of us will become president, but each in our own way, can be a successful leader. Every day we make decisions that affect our families, the Air Force and its Airmen, and our country. Many of these decisions are simple, and many can be life-altering. If we embrace the lessons of our forefathers, we are sure to become successful Airmen and leaders in our own right

Not bad advice, and not bad for a "middle-of-the-pack" president -- especially one short in stature and not particularly handsome.

Please read more of Col. Wizda's essay here.

Image: Courtesy DOD