American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

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Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.

Of Men and Ideas

Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.

It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.

So what is Trump-ism?

You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.

Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:

“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.

Yes.

People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”

I love it.

When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.

We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.

So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.

So here’s the idea in his words.

America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”

Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.

If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…

That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.

It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.

That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.

First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.

You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.

Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.

It pretty simple for me.  If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.

So let the debate begin.

Longing and Hope

Dwight Eisenhower usually didn’t vote.  When he did, he never told anyone about what or who he voted for.  For years, people speculated about his political leanings. He was old school Army.  His didn’t lean- he served.  In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, offered him a crack at the vice presidency.  Ike declined.  In 1952,  18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden for a rally organized by a citizen’s committee for Ike.  The event included messages from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable, all urging him to run for office.  It ended in Irving Berlin leading a rendition of God Bless America. In his book Ike’s Bluff, author Evan Thomas detailed his response.  To a friend, he wrote “I can’t tell you what an emotional upset it is for one to realize suddenly that he himself may be the symbol of that longing and hope.”

The next day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (retired), tentatively accepted the invitation to run for the office of president-as a Republican.

Less than a decade after he led the largest invasion in the history of mankind to defeat the most dangerous enemy in the history of mankind, Ike was sworn in as our 34th president.   He assumed office during the war with Korea and ended it within a hundred days.

Ike hated politicians-Democrats and Republicans alike.  He disliked the military brass at the Pentagon too.  “I know better than any of you fellows about waste at the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut-because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time” he told an adviser.  He hated grand-standers and “desk pounders”-having once worked for General Douglas MacArthur, the great grand-stander and desk pounder of American military history.  He knew them when he saw them and he had no patience for it.

Ironically, Ike hated war.  Not the way someone who didn’t know war hates war-out of fear or misunderstanding.  He hated it because of his familiarity with it.  As president, he avoided small military conflicts because he understood that whether or not a small conflict became a big one was really just a matter of chance.  In the new world of nuclear power,  our greatest adversary was taking territory and building ballistic missiles, launching polished satellites that flew over America, reflecting the sun’s light down for naked American eyes to see as they passed over head.  Peace wasn’t just a goal.  It was survival.

In his farewell speech, he warned of our industrial military complex, growing at an unsustainable rate-yet sadly, he understood why.  “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.  Happily, I can say that war has been avoided.” he finished.   He suffered the burden of the insurmountable stress of keeping the peace during the first time in the history of mankind when a failure to do so would have resulted in the end of civilization.   It took it’s toll.  He suffered a heart attack in 1955. And a stroke in 1957.  He labored through constant, severe gastrointestinal pain.  By the end, when he left office, escorted by a lone secret service car back to his home in Gettysburg, he was a shadow of the man he once was. He had given more to his country than anyone really knew. He was duty bound to hide it-the servant leader and soldier to the end.

Not since George Washington, had a president been demanded into office by the American people the way Ike was. And not since Washington, was a president’s greatest accomplishment navigating the catastrophically delicate waters of global piece the way Ike had. Ike’s resolve to maintain peace was the fulcrum that lifted the world from the edge of destruction.  And he knew it.

Today, a day after another terrorist attack has successfully evoked a response from those seeking to fill the office Ike once filled, it’s fair to ask, which of them is worthy of his role.  Is it the one that urges us to use religion as a means to identify areas for proactive policing?  Is it the one that tells us that we need to wall America off from the outside and torture our enemies to keep us safe. Is it any of them that didn’t serve-not one day collectively-in uniform.  When we look back through history at our truly great presidential behavior, it’s fair to be disappointed with our options.  Because we’ve lost something in our search for our next leader-the notion of service.

There’s a generation just over the horizon with different values formed by different burdens though.  One, like Ike’s, defined by war and conflict-less sensitive to the populous demagoguery common to those not grounded by the selfless principles of service.  One that understands that the pursuit of power should be tempered by its purpose to aid our fellow man.  One that has seen up close and personal the toll that torture, authoritarianism and reckless hate have on the human soul.  Something happens to you when you see it.  The way Ike did. The way we did.

This too will pass.  And quietly if we’re smart. We’re struggling through the death spasms of a tired time where people who haven’t experienced the problems of today’s world are arguing the principles of a political debate that’s been dead for a generation.  But change will come.  Until then, heed Ike’s warning.  “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”  Wherever this goes, be wary and watchful of where we place our power.  If you can’t get it right, it’s best not to get it too wrong.

 

The Executive

The American political debate predates the political parties that have gone on to organize  the centuries of scripted opposition that we have been conditioned to believe are required for successful government.  It wasn’t always that way-almost, but not always.  For part of one brief administration, we stood united as one political party, aligned in the celebration of our new found self governing zeal.  Our days of unity were numbered though.  The forces of division had already begun. The embryo of political opposition had embedded itself within the cabinet of our first president by way of two men whose collective ideas would chart the course for the first 50 years of our nation’s government.  Tempered, they were critical to responsible governing.  Un-tempered, they would have destroyed us.

The first Secretaries of State and the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton respectively found themselves at irreconcilable odds.  They weren’t at odds because their political parties required them to be or their special interest groups funded them to be.  They were at odds because they believed very different things about government at a time when the pavement of the walk that was our government was still wet.  And the thoughts that would guide the path that would leave their footprints for all time to follow were important.  Jefferson believed fiercely in the democratic republic who’s ideals he so clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  He was the voice of our Revolution and the voice of the enlightened government it gave birth to.  Hamilton, on the other hand,  advocated for a government much more similar to the British form we had just cast off.   We were in uncharted territory at the time.  And many, like Hamilton believed that our new form would not work.  They viewed Jefferson as an ideologue who’s vision and philosophy lacked practical application. We were new Americans at the time. Some believed in Hamilton’s view.  Others, Jefferson. But those on both sides believed something else though.  Something much more tangible than a philosophy of government. They believed in a man. They believed in George Washington.

George Washington was better than everyone at everything he did.  At least it seemed that way.  At 6’2 he was a giant for colonial America.  He was the best horseman anyone who ever rode with him had ever seen, which for the day was the most important thing that a man could do well in the eyes of other men.   He survived smallpox in his youth-forever inoculating him from the disease.  He walked fearlessly among the sick, giving him an air of immortality. There were stories of his invincibility in battle as well, having had four holes shot in his red coat and several horses shot out from under him as a captain fighting as a Brit in the French and Indian War.

His daring conquests against the British Army had made him the most famous man in the new world.  After being beaten out of New York and across New Jersey, losing half of his Army against the same British he once served, he launched one last resolute attack across the icy Delaware River from Philadelphia into Trenton, giving the colonials a daring victory to feed the spirit of our revolution for the winter of 1776 into 1777.   He had every reason to retreat and regroup.  He did not.  He had bested the most powerful army the world had ever seen and won our freedom.  He had rode out as president, the only president to ever do so, with an Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.   He was the human embodiment of our executive branch.  And though he allowed his cabinet to explore the left and right limits of progress as a nation, mostly in the form of Hamilton and Jefferson’s bickering, Washington ensured that the footprints in the pavement that dried behind them would, at all times, be traveling forward.  Writing to Jefferson in 1792, Washington rebuked,

“How unfortunate and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with a avowed enemies and insidious friends that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals. I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or to keep the parts of it together for if instead of laying our shoulders to the machine in which measures are decided on.  One pulls this way and the other pulls that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried it must inevitably be torn asunder and in my opinion the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man will be lost, perhaps forever. “

This was Washington telling Jefferson to quit his partisan bickering and keep his eyes on the prize. It was not given nor received as a request. It was an order.

It was this resolve that the American people assigned their fates to.  And in all things, it was Washington who they trusted.   He begrudgingly signed on for a second term to see the thing through lest all that they work for be “torn asunder”.  But even for him the politics and outcries of our national discourse would grow, and his second term, found him more open to criticism, yet stoic and resolved as ever to lead his people to stability, all be it miserable and exhausted.  Jefferson would resign as Secretary of State the following year and run for president unsuccessfully at the end of Washington’s term and then successfully four years later.  Hamilton would be killed in an 1804 a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr at the age 49.  Within two decades, the Federalist party he founded, which advocated for a strong executive and a national bank, would be gone.  The debate moved on to other issues.

Throughout our history, America has had great variance in our experience with the heads of our government.   The one’s we remember well, tend to come in two flavors. Some serve, by chance, at a time of great significance and their character, intellect and executive savvy serve as the fulcrum for which the American people lift themselves from crisis or pivot towards social change. This is Lincoln. This is FDR. This is JFK. These are men defined by crisis and change whose will and guidance have preserved our nation when perhaps our future was not so certain. Others we remember are the great leaders, above the political fray, whose astute judgement moved us forward, away from crisis and on to a stronger future. This is Jefferson, Jackson, Eisenhower and of course Washington. Though many of these men lived through crisis prior to taking office, something about their experience enabled them to wield power effortlessly with an unquestioning obedience from the American people and in turn from their government. What they had is what we so desperately crave now-the unwavering trust and allegiance of the American people.

As we assemble to pick our new head of state this next year, we must measure our options wisely, though I fear we’ve already lost this contest to the same forces of dissent present in Washington’s cabinet 230 years ago.   The great leaders of crisis mean hard times, death and war.   Those are the leaders you can’t and hope never to choose.   So in our hearts we long for the transcendent leader who can stay above the fray and unite us in our march forward towards continued peace and prosperity.  The leader who, though forces at work move to pull the very fabric of our discourse apart, stands silently above it, holding watch over our government and our people, as Washington did when Jefferson and Hamilton had their  earthly squabbles.  This is what we long for.  And for those of us not imprisoned by the dangerous vigor of blind ideology, this is what we vote for.

There’s a problem though.  And it’s not going to fix itself over the next 12 months. The fray today is too big.  Our political factions are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War, arguing with great passion, things that simply don’t matter any more.   Our all powerful media knows no other way than to fan the flames of outrage and discontent, providing heat and oxygen to a flame that, if it were up to the people alone, would have long died out.   And those who might rise above it, the great men and women of our day, understandably, aren’t interested.

Things look dim.  We are hungering for someone, anyone, who isn’t poisoned by the sickness of our political discourse.  We want it so badly that we’re clinging to candidates, the “anti-establishment” ones on both sides, that are comically unsuited for the title of leader of the free world just to stave off accepting that we are exactly where we are.  We are stuck.

Though I commend our current administration for driving needed progress in narrow, long overdue areas, I also regret that the division in our nation has grown.  Our executives over the past 30 years have operated within the fray, not above it.  Which leaves us where we are.  For four more years at least, bumping along the seabed of our potential through the irrelevant debate of the last 50 years.  For the last ten elections, there has been a Bush or a Clinton on the general or primary election ticket for President of the United States in nine of them.   We are stuck in not just an ideological loop, but a literal one.  One that, because of its incessant focus on “shrink vs grow government” leaves us paralyzed and incapable of addressing the critical problems of our government insolvency, entitlement reform and urban decay.   We are incapable of addressing the impact our transition from manufacturing to services and technology  has had on our workforce-a change that started 40 years ago.  We’ve been flatfooted for decades. Now the sickness has seeped into our foreign policy, an impassable barrier that once stood to ensure we faced our external problems as a united front of American will.  Head’s of state now address our congress without the consent of the president.  Things are dim.  But fear not.  There’s a light on the horizon of our long, dark political night.  Change is on its way.

The 2012 Presidential election was the first one, by law, that my generation would have been able to participate in, as a running member.  My generation, the one that had internet in college.  The one that was too young to care about the color of people’s skin or their sexual orientation.  The one that spent all of our 20’s and most of our 30’s fighting the longest war our country has ever seen, only to likely have to fight it again in our 40’s.   The generation whose social security checks won’t be there when we retire at the trajectory we’re going.  My generation who will live to watch our children grow up in the global climate impacted by three hundred years of industrial growth. My generation who has participated in a workforce whose wages haven’t increased since we’ve been in it. My generation is coming.  It may be a bit.  But our votes count.  And soon we will be there with more than our votes.   Not those of us who rushed into the political life because we were drawn to it as a vocation.  They’re already there, driving the churn of the irrelevant debate.  But those of us tried by something else.  Tried by the crisis and failure of those that came before us.  Tried by decades of war and economic struggle. We are coming.  And real change will come with us.

The American Presidents….By the Numbers

In 1948, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger conducted a poll of 75 historians asking them to answer the question, who are our greatest American presidents?  Since then, and probably before, it’s been a pretty popular debate.

Though previous attempts to rank our presidents have been based on observation and opinion, the names at the top and the bottom of the lists are pretty consistent; Lincoln, Washington, FDR at the top. Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Warren G. Harding are at the bottom. When you actually think about it though, it’s really an impossible question. Is Washington better than Lincoln? Probably not at winning the Civil War at least.  He owned slaves and had a penchant for leading uprisings against his government. Washington probably isn’t your guy in 1861. We’ll never know what speech Millard Filmore would have given the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of us will never know anything Millard Filmore said. I promise you though, he was our 13th president.

Circumstance plays a big part of it and so it becomes an illogical discussion.  So why do we do it?  Partially because debate is an inescapable function of the human condition. It’s what we do. We argue about just about anything we can compare. There is another reason though. A more practical one. We debate who our great American presidents are because we are bench-marking our current prospects. We are looking at the greats of the past to see the potential in our future and so we find value in the debate. Because we find value in the debate doesn’t mean that we are having the right debate though.

A more effective question is what makes a great president? And if we were to look at how we’ve evaluated them in the past the answer is clear. For the most part, it’s crisis.  The true great ones, Lincoln, FDR, Washington, led through periods of dire crisis.  Which begs the next question.  Do we really want the next great president? It probably sounds counter-intuitive but I hope I never live to see our next great American president.  I hope that great American presidents are over.  Great American presidents mean war, suffering, economic catastrophe and death.   So when we talk about great president’s, might we have the debate differently? Shouldn’t we shy away from desiring a great president and instead focusing on desiring a great presidency?  That’s what I’m rooting for.

With that in mind, we took a shot at looking back at our presidents through that lens.  We built an algorithm to see what the data says and then compared it to what history says.  The results were interesting.

The good news is that this is actually pretty easy.  Because you can  measure prosperity, progress and opportunity, things we would likely agree make for a “great presidency” by observing patterns in economic data, scope and scale of war, territorial expansion and Constitutional legislation.   So that’s what we did. The table below illustrates the rankings of American presidents by using an algorithm incorporating historically collected data.  The table compares the outcomes of the algorithm to the aggregated results of a dozen or so polls of historians regarding presidential rankings.   As you might expect, the data tells a different tale then the anecdote.

Score Algorithm Ranking Historical Ranking
100 George Washington 1 3
74 Ulysses S. Grant 2 37
73 Thomas Jefferson 3 4
69 Andrew Jackson 4 8
67 James Monroe 5 14
65 Bill Clinton 6 21
63 Ronald Reagan 7 17
63 James Madison 8 13
62 Franklin D. Roosevelt 9 2
61 Grover Cleveland 10 19
60 Rutheford B. Hayes 11 25
58 Dwight D. Eisenhower 12 9
57 Theodore Roosevelt 13 5
57 John Adams 14 18
57 William McKinley 15 20
52 Harry Truman 16 7
52 Andrew Johnson 17 41
52 James K. Polk 18 10
51 John Tyler 19 36
51 Barrack Obama 20 16
50 Lyndon B. Johnson 21 15
50 Woodrow Wilson 22 6
49 John Quincy Adams 23 18
48 Millard Fillmore 24 39
47 James E. Carter 25 27
47 George W. Bush 26 33
47 Calvin Coolidge 27 31
46 William Taft 28 22
45 George H.W. Bush 29 23
43 Franklin Pierce 30 40
42 Martin Van Buren 31 24
40 Chester A. Arthur 32 28
40 Richard M. Nixon 33 32
39 James Buchanan 34 42
37 Warren G. Harding 35 43
37 Benjamin Harrison 36 38
36 Gerald R. Ford 37 26
35 John F. Kennedy 38 11
22 Herbert Hoover 39 30
22 Abraham Lincoln 40 1
19 Zachary Taylor 41 35
17 William H. Harrison 42 38
14 James. A. Garfield 43 29

The data behind the comparison shows several things.  First, the algorithm and the historian polling are moderately correlated, meaning that the two lists are not entirely at odds with each other.  Immediately, some clear differences jump out at us though.  Here are some of the more glaring insights.

Where’s Lincoln? 

I challenge you to find a historian that does not include Lincoln in their top three on their index of presidential greatness. This algorithm, however, does not measure personal greatness.  It measures outcomes relative to the quality of life of the people being governed. Lincoln’s presidency was marked by unprecedented carnage through war, national crisis and ultimately assassination. It’s safe to say if we could have avoided it, we would have.  The numbers clearly show that, giving him the most significant historical overvaluation relative to the data.

There’s something else interesting though. You can’t really capture, through data, the accomplishment of paying off the debt of overdue societal progress. Which tells us that ignoring required change, like abolishing slavery, ultimately results in really lousy outcomes for the people who actually put their foot down to change it.  And though history treats them well, the lives of the American people, as they lived them, were miserable.  So if you can, change things before you have to.

Was Washington really that great?

Was Washington really worthy of the title father of our country?  The data says so.  He had the highest average economic growth of any two term president outside of FDR.  Despite our fledgling status as a nation and our relative inability to defend ourselves against foreign enemies, Washington managed to steer us clear of war.   He signed just under half of all Constitutional Amendments ever passed and he expanded the territorial holdings of our country from nothing to something.  The first eight years of our country’s existence could have gone terribly wrong but it did quite the opposite.  Washington oversaw prosperity, stability, growth and progress on a scale not duplicated by any president since.

Did we really get Grant that wrong?

Grant was a great general, but a bad president.  That is what I was taught in history class growing up and obviously what our historians voted as they ranked him the 37th ranked president out of 43.  The data shows something different.

Though recession hit during the latter years of his two terms, the recovery and post-Civil War boom actually show that America experienced 5% GDP growth annually during Grant’s two terms. This ranks him fourth among all two term presidents behind FDR, Washington, and Jackson for economic growth.  As a modern frame of reference, Reagan and Clinton, both uniformly considered to be fiscal successes as presidents, were both about 4.1%.

President Grant also governed during a period of relatively stable peace and even ratified the 15th Amendment providing the right to vote to African Americans, a significant political debate of the time. So why is history down on Grant? The headlines point towards corruption and the eventual recession of the mid 1870s. Data doesn’t measure corruptions.  Just outcomes, but it does raise an interesting question.  Should we care about corruption if it doesn’t hurt us?  I think we do but perhaps the lens is that it is more of a long term problem.  We shouldn’t tolerate corruption, even in an environment of prosperity because it erodes the fabric of our political discourse. And ultimately it breaks down.  Site Bill Clinton and the damage his character issues did to the perception of trust in our politicians.  More on him later though.

There’s something else interesting in the data relative to Grant. If you look a little deeper, we begin to see indications of what may have been influencing our historians in their selections. Of the presidents that have the largest historic undervaluation relative to the algorithm, the top two, Grant and Andrew Johnson immediately followed Lincoln.  Rutherford B. Hayes, who followed Grant, also cracked the top 6 of undervalued presidents. This group who ushered in the era of those labeled the “forgetful presidents” has been much maligned by history.  But they actually governed during a period of unprecedented growth and stability.  But we know growth and stability isn’t what we remember. We remember the other stuff.  It’s safe to say that Grant, along with Andrew Johnson and Hayes suffered mainly from a case of not being Abraham Lincoln.  History has never really gotten over the fact that America was robbed of being led through post-Civil War reconstruction by the hero that delivered us from near destruction as a nation.

What gets a president noticed?

James Garfield spent 200 days in office.  Despite that, historians have him ranked as the 29th greatest president.  That means, despite being in office for about as long as a single Major League Baseball season, Garfield is considered a more effective president than 14 other men by historical opinion.  Only two of those 14 also served for under a year. Which means Garfield, having done nothing at all, in a literal sense, is considered more effective than 12 other presidents who served in office for years. This includes two term Presidents Grant and George W. Bush.

How is that possible?  The pattern in the data is very clear.  Of the four most overvalued historic presidents, three were assassinated.  Lincoln, Kennedy and Garfield were all killed while in office.The fourth most overvalued president, Woodrow Wilson, was a war time president.   If you want the American people to remember you fondly, get killed in office or go to war. Both things, most would agree would be outcomes to avoid, if we could.

 

What about the new guys?

The algorithm doesn’t care about how recently you were president. Reagan and Clinton are both ranked in the top ten, having served two peaceful terms of economic prosperity within the last 40 years. Both also crack the top eight undervalued presidencies. Historians tend to need some water under the bridge before they feel justified in giving due credit. After all, they are historians.  The data says that President Obama is ranked 20, just four rungs below where our historians forecast his placement.  The data behind his predecessor, George W. Bush, hands him the title for the lowest ranking full two term president at 26. I have some particularly leftward leaning friends who wonder regularly how “W” got two terms. The data supports their concerns. To keep this discussion data driven and bi-partisan, the outcome of the “Hope and Change” promised by Candidate Obama has him looking up at President John Tyler. From a data perspective, Tyler had a more effective presidency despite his somewhat less inspiring campaign slogan of “Tipecanoe and Tyler too…”

So what?

In the end, the data is just another way to debate the question.  It’s an algorithm that was built by a person, which means it is subject to its own biases and inadequacies. What it does show is that there are patterns to our bias that data and analysis can point out. It also shows that data, while important, often misses the qualitative aspects of measurement, like the gross injustice of slavery that mandated Lincoln’s great national and personal sacrifice.  Or the scandal and clear instances of dishonesty of the Clinton era and the long term erosion of the confidence in government.  But the data does serve to offer a different perspective. It’s why we use data in business.  It’s why we use it in sports.  And now, more than ever before, data is how we make sense of our past and the world around us.

For me it brings our two critical insights.  And the first is that presidential performance is outlived by societal impact.  You can change, for good or bad, things that long outlive your term.  The second is that change is easiest before its needed.  And though we celebrate the presidents who force it under dire circumstance, the lives of Americans who lived through it are largely miserable.  So change things before you absolutely must.  Think social security, climate change etc.  If you don’t and you rely on the “great man” to do it for you, the fee is high for that service.

In the end, it’s data.  And data helps start the discussion.  If it ends there, it’s less useful.  But if you ignore it, you tend to start in the wrong spaces.