This has been a very productive month here at the Northumbrian Countdown.  To those of you have just begun your visit to this online monastery of historical and pop cultural thought, we finished the president ranking project just a couple of weeks ago, and today, another project, the ranking of Walt Disney World attractions, draws to a close.  If you wish to see earlier entries, just click the #ranktherides hashtag on the bottom; it should take you there.

These final five attractions are, in my judgment, the pinnacle of Imagineering and theme park presentation.  Each of these is a testament to how an attraction can do far more than amuse or entertain: it can instill wonder, it can inspire optimism, and it can give us important perspectives or insights into the human condition.  Given this lofty criteria, is it any wonder that 4 of these top 5 are Epcot attractions?

5.  Soarin’ (Epcot, 2004-present):  Imported from Disneyland, Soarin’ debuted in The Land, suddenly turning one of the quainter pavilions known mostly for its restaurants into the home of Epcot’s most popular attraction.  In doing so, this ride might be a bit incongruous: The Land has, traditionally, been a clearinghouse for the topics of agriculture, nutrition, and environmentalism, rather than physical or human geography.  On the whole, though, I think it works.  With a mechanical design inspired by one imagineer’s Erector set, riders feel the sensation of gently flying above a number of key Golden State monuments and natural settings.  The result is an experience that is not precisely a thrill ride, but is thrilling nevertheless.  It provides a sense of immersion from the IMAX-style screen, coordinated smells such as when you glide over orange groves, and probably the best soundtrack of any Disney attraction, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s breezy orchestration.  A pleasant tone is also set by an excellent safety video starring a droll Patrick Warburton. The result leaves one feeling refreshed and elevated, a delightful and more wholesome change from the adrenaline rush that comes from most thrill rides that wreck havoc upon the body for the remainder of the day.  As a quick postscript, at the D23 convention, it was announced that Soarin’ will soon become Soarin’ Around the World with a third theatre and footage from a wider array of vistas from across the globe.  I can’t wait to see it.

4.  Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present):  What exactly is a space mountain anyway?  The concept seems baffling if viewed literally: mountains cannot exist in the vacuum of space, they are bound to planetary geography and the shifting of tectonic plates.  Instead, I think it is best to view Space Mountain as a piece of historical futurism, the stuff from which ambient 1970s planetariums and ethereal “space music” are made.  If someone let Brian Eno design a roller coaster, it might look like this.  The ride itself is great fun- a dark (though not as dark as it was before) jaunt on a wild-mouse style coaster that disorients the senses.  For me, though–and maybe I am a bit odd here–the queue was always the real attraction, and one great disappointment of the Fastpass line is having to walk through it so quickly.  Along the way, you get cool lighting with the ride’s sanitary white color scheme interacting with vibrant, pulsing blue neons that suggest that you are descending into a very different place as you descend out of visual contact with the rest of Tomorrowland.  You get to see cool holograms, and now, even get to play some interesting games, while the tension for the ride begins to build up.  Finally, you make it past the control booth, and you can hear the screams in the distance- along with projections of meteors, and the eerie synthesizer tones evocative of the ponderous vacuum of space. For me, it has never been a space mountain, but a space station whose existence, whose purpose, is never explained, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps.  It is a hopeful vision of the future tied to 1970s aesthetics; we may never get a clean, optimistic interpretation of space travel like that again.

3.  Spaceship Earth (Epcot, 1982-present):  This is the highest ranking ride still in existence in a more or less recognizable form; #1 closed up shop long ago, and #2 became a travesty of its original greatness.  Spaceship Earth occupies the greatest real estate in Walt Disney World- it greets you immediately as you enter Epcot, it looms over a futuristic and welcoming landscape, and you can see it virtually anywhere in the park.  A ride situated thusly, a sphere boldly resting thirty feet above ground, its silver-grey isosceles triangles reflecting the Florida sun, had better be good.  And boy, was it ever.  As you may have noticed, the ability of attractions to immerse, inspire, and instill wonder are crucial factors in my rankings.  Spaceship Earth did this every step of the way, with a great deal of gravitas, to tell the greatest story in the annals of humankind: our never-ending quest to communicate with one another.  Cleverly, the ride ascends and ascends up the robust sphere, suggesting a teleological upward trajectory for mankind: an ascent from ground level to Cro-Magnon man, to Rome burning with ashen embers, to the Renaissance, and into a “bold new era” of fiber-optics where physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication.  Along the way, the attention to detail is immaculate, lessons carried over from Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion; the Greeks recite Oedipus Rex, and authentic period-specific Bibles are used during the monastery scene.  And then, finally, my single favorite moment in any Disney park: we see a starfield, and Earth from the distance of the moon; we see our common humanity and our mutual interdependence on one another.  To this day, when I ride, I involuntarily take off my hat at the ride’s climax in a show of respect, and I might or might not wipe a tear away.  It feels like a holy moment in a holy place.

One final note: Spaceship Earth has undergone four distinct incarnations: Vic Perrin (1982-86), Walter Cronkite (1986-94). Jeremy Irons (1994-2007), and Dame Judi Dench (2007-present).    I think the Cronkite and Irons versions are tied for the best.  I love Irons’ moody narration rather than Cronkite’s somewhat telegraphic style, but on the other hand, the “Tomorrow’s Child” finale during the Cronkite years was a better conclusion.  They need to get rid of the silly Jetsons-style cartoons from the end of the present ride which doesn’t fit tonally with the ride and merely disguises the fact that there are just black drapes on the descent covering what were once functional sets.

2.  Journey Into Imagination (Epcot, 1983-1998): When I was younger, and my family called Lake Buena Vista to make reservations for our trip- often several months in advance- it began a season of patience and anticipation.  I would wait for the clock to run down as we hit the six month mark, the one-month mark, the one-week mark, and the single thing I most looked forward to in my youth was another round on Journey Into Imagination.  It was the most stimulating and evocative aspect of an always stimulating and evocative trip to Disney World.  I couldn’t wait to hear the theme song, to smell the rose petal fragrance in the entrance, and tool around the Image Works exhibits afterward.  Unlike its later incarnations, the ride praised imagination by showing us what it looked like: from the fanciful machine the Dreamfinder used to capture ideas that inspire, to tableaux showing the power of the visual arts, to representations of mild horror in thriller novels.  It was riddled with groundbreaking special effects and rewarded multiple viewings more than any other Disney attraction.  Even today, I still find new elements in the ride I’ve never noticed before when I indulge nostalgia and view it on youtube.  If Spaceship Earth is about the triumph of civilization, Journey Into Imagination is a tribute to the process of interior thought and the intangible qualities human creativity can evoke.  Three qualities to list before we move onto #1 in explaining the attraction’s appeal.  1) the innovative use of a turntable for a two-minute scene which appears stationary but actually moves along with us.  It sets up the ride’s narrative very brilliantly, 2) a cheerful song by the Sherman brothers, and recorded with pure 80s futuristic cheese.  3) the voice acting is really lovely, just the right balance of heartfelt and cartoonish, with Chuck McCann as the Dreamfinder, and the late Billy Barty as Figment.

For years, it was the second most popular attraction in Epcot after Spaceship Earth, but an expiring contract with Kodak, the popularity of neighboring Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and the need for some refurbishment ended up gutting the ride, and replacing it “Journey Into Your Imagination,” a sad, uninspired attraction with a minuscule budget, an absence of Figment, and, alas, almost no imagination.

1. Horizons (Epcot, 1983-1999):  So, let’s rehash our top three: Spaceship Earth is about the accomplishments of human civilization and a reminder that we stand on great shoulders, while Journey Into Imagination is about the untapped potential of the human mind.  Horizons completes this trifecta as a testament to hope for the future.  It is, therefore, the Epcot attraction most in line with its governing philosophy, even moreso than marquee ride Spaceship Earth.  While much of Epcot is corporate and technical, Horizons won me over with its warmth and its humanity, and especially, its cooperative spirit.  The narration emphasizes ‘us’ and ‘we’: “we’re just around the corner from…”,  “we’ve found lots of good things in our oceans,” especially in its mantra, “if we can dream it, we can do it.”  That emphasis of participation is embedded into the very ride sequence itself.  Years before “interactivity” became Disney Imagineering’s watchword, guests could choose which future vista they wished to see, and enjoy a jaunt in sea, space, or the desert.  Horizons showed us the future, not in cold or condescending or sterile forms, but in warm, relatable, and deeply humanistic tones.  We see a family (a very heteronormative family, but still…) enjoying the blessings of new technologies that allow for fulfilling job opportunities, a food supply that meets all humanity’s needs, new forms of leisure.   And above all, these technologies allow the family to remain closer; a video conference call is one of the last scenes of the attraction, where disparate relatives come together to sing “Happy Birthday” to little Davey.

It was a glorious mishmash that could never be duplicated again: a number of scenes from a very different ride about how people in the past viewed the future, an IMAX presentation on new technologies, a cool ride system that had us looking forward and allowed for more detailed scenery from our angle.  The ride had its budget slashed multiple times during its conception and construction, and the people who built it kept throwing new and better solutions at the problems it faced in development hell.  New imagineers like Tom Fitzgerald took bold risks and gave audiences a slow, but immensely satisfying experience.  Horizons elevated the mind, stimulated the spirit, and made me want to participate in a better future and help unlock humanity’s potential.  Not bad for a 14-minute ride in a central Florida vacation destination.

This concludes our countdown of the greatest Walt Disney World attractions of all time.  I hope this has been a useful read for Disney vacationers and the many hardcore Disney fans out there.  Please remember: I only ranked attractions I personally experienced, so some inevitably fell outside the bounds of this project due to their closing before I was born or simply my lack of interest in seeing them.  These include (but are not limited to): Flight to the Moon, Magic Carpet ‘Round the World, Swan Boats, Tom Sawyer Island, Triceratops Spin, Superstar Television, Mickey Mouse Revue, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Toy Story Mania, Mike Fink Keelboats, If You Had Wings, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Magic Journeys, and Legend of the Lion King.  My definition of “attractions” also eliminated corporate exhibitions (Innoventions, Transcenter), playgrounds (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, Image Works), walk-throughs (Maharajah Jungle Trek), and arcades (Frontierland Shooting Gallery, Penny Arcade).

And finally, always remember: “if we can dream it, we can do it.  And that’s the most exciting part.”

The presidency has been conquered!  I have to admit that I feel a certain sense of relief on finishing what is easily the most challenging project I have attempted on this blog, my ranking of United States presidents.  This amounted to 41 posts, one for each president I covered, plus two introductory passages explaining my ranking system and methodology, and a checkup post when I hit the halfway mark.  Altogether, that’s 45 posts including this one, or almost fully 25% of this blog’s content (as this is my 194th post on the Northumbrian Countdown.)

I hope that this project has been useful in some way to everyone who has been reading along- a group that includes old grad school friends, random people I met on the internet, to strangers who find this site by simply typing in the correct keywords.  (A weirdly large number of people come to this site by googling “top ten eulogies”, “Jeb Bush’s running mate.”)  It has certainly helped me sort out how one evaluates leadership, and in particular, how one accounts for making comparisons over time, as well as making sense of context and circumstance.  It is assuredly difficult to compare George Washington, someone who had to invent the presidency as he went along during a time when some cabinet departments only had a few dozen employees, to our more recent presidents whose leadership has global consequences and assuredly a different set of expectations.

Perhaps my most loyal reader, Jared, suggested that I give myself a do-over ranking, or allow myself one big change, when I am finished.  I’d rather not; partly because I worked too hard on my present ranking to begin altering it now.  But while I am very satisfied with the finished product, a few presidents would be ranked differently.  I put John Tyler way too high, for example.  I was trying to make the reader reconsider what constituted a successful presidency, and was probably too enamored of my own research into his career as an undergraduate.  (Actually, if William & Mary had accepted my application to their Ph.D. program back in 2005, I very well might have become a John Tyler historian, rather than a George McGovern historian.)  There are a few presidents I’d change if I had to do it over: Reagan (too high), Cleveland (way too high), John Quincy Adams (too low), and Obama (a spot or three too low; in trying to be appear neutral and objective, I blunted my judgment.)

To wrap things up, here are what I believe to have been, in my judgment, the five most effective and least effective write-ups I did for the project.  Let me know if you agree in the comments!

Five Most Effective:

#35.  Calvin Coolidge:  A cold-blooded demolition of minimalist governing.

#31: Warren Harding: This post got the most encouraging feedback out of all of them–which was nice, given my unconventional argument.  Harding’s petty graft and poor judgment of character should not place him in the bottom ten, let alone in last place, given more serious crimes against humanity some of our presidents were responsible for.

#9: George H. W. Bush: In contrast, this piece earned the most animus and “are you out of your mind?” emails.  Yet, I stand by its argument: Bush was a realistic, thoughtful statesman who was the most competent president of my lifetime.

#24: Herbert Hoover: Much better than popular memory allows.  Hoover worked his ass off to relieve the Depression, and while it wasn’t enough, many of his ideas pointed in the right direction, and his broad strategy of encouraging cooperation and neighborliness had plenty of merit.

#16: Rutherford B. Hayes: A sober essay on how politics is the art of the possible.  “If history turned out the way I wanted it to, Rutherford Hayes’s write-up would go like this: “Despite losing the popular vote and winning election under dubious circumstances, Rutherford Hayes owned the presidency like a boss.  Despite bargains made in good faith, Hayes ruled the Reconstructed South like a bearded, midwestern Hannibal, restoring freedman rule, smashing down every “Restorationist” attempt to put ex-Confederates in power.  Hayes confiscated each planation in Dixie, distributing a fair share to each former slave, and shot down any Johnny Reb that resisted, earning the sobriquet “Ruthless Rutherford.”  Having spent four years maxing out his power as commander-in-chief to subdue all vestiges of systemic racism, Hayes relaxed and sipped a refreshing mint julep, served in Jefferson Davis’s skull.”

Five Least Effective:

#4: James Monroe: I was really hoping to do something special here, and establish Monroe’s vision of America as a modern, wholesale nation, not a confederacy of states, as a transformative element in U.S. history.  It didn’t work.

#21: John Quincy Adams: This was the first one I wrote, and I was still finding my legs.  It was too bogged down in policy and missed the two big takeaways: Adams’s program for internal improvements- not just canals, but universities and observatories, was decades ahead of its time, and he was the only president before Lincoln who could truly be classified as anti-slavery.

#1: Abraham Lincoln: I bunted in the last inning of a big game.  In my defense, I had just finished a book manuscript and my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.

#26: Zachary Taylor: Intrinsically challenging.  What do you say about a guy who was president for less than two years?

#11: Dwight Eisenhower: Not bad, but I wrote it when I didn’t have access to many of my notes on postwar U.S. history.  And so, I fudge a bit and distract from my lack of details.

At last, we have cracked the top ten in my all-time ranking of Walt Disney World attractions.  Every one of these last ten is on some level a masterpiece of Imagineering.  Each is thrilling, immersive, engaging, and a feast for the senses.  And I would have admonished you had you visited WDW while any of these rides were in operation and did not go on them.  We start with…

10.  Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom, 1992-present):  I am not sure that this ride could be made today.  It is, after all, based on Song of the South, a rather problematic film that idealizes plantation life (as opposed to slavery itself; the film keeps it ambiguous as to whether Uncle Remus and company are living in an antebellum state of bondage or a post-Civil War sharecropping system.  But either way, everything is not satisfactual in Dixie.)  Disney wants us to forget that the film was ever made, and if it weren’t for a read-along cassette of the Br’er Rabbit story that the company published in the 1980s, I wouldn’t have been familiar with it at all.    Given the young audience’s distance from the story, there is a lot of exposition that needs to happen.  What follows is a ride that hits all of its bases with expert precision.  The animatronics were clearly a new, more fluid update to the first-generation Epcot rides, and the stagecraft brilliantly used poses and positioning to establish the characters in a three-dimension way and like the best Disney rides, rewarded the observant guest.  It creates a backwoods environment of anthropomorphic animals that slowly builds suspense  as riders know the big drop is coming.  The track teases us with smaller flumes along the way, delivers with an intense drop, and sends us off with a grand finale using some of the biggest animatronic tableaux ever devised.  What could have been a simple flume ride became a quintessential Disney experience.

9.  Delta Dreamflight/Take Flight (Magic Kingdom, 1989-1998): There were not many Disney attractions that wore their corporate sponsorship so heavily as Delta Dreamflight.  The airline’s involvement heavily hawked the product that they were selling, but I think, to great effect.  Dreamflight is the direct descendent of If You Had Wings/If You Could Fly (in fact, a ride that explored the possibilities of aviation had been part of Tomorrowland since nearly opening day), but improves on it immensely.  If You Had Wings was built on the cheap, relying on music and back-lit projections to tell its story, in a way that anticipated the cost-cutting time-filler El Rio del Tiempo.  Dreamflight, in contrast, really made the wonder of flying, and the possibilities of where you could go in an airplane, stand out.  It was captivating in a number of different ways- a queue once described as “Xanadu-ish” in its 80s translucent neon decor.  Some elements were really great fun, particularly the disorienting effect of spinning thanks to what I believe was a rotating strobe light of some kind and a fun tunnel-projection, similar to what was used in World of Motion, through a futuristic city.   With a cartoonish first half (with cardboard cut-outs in lieu of animatronics), the ride never took itself entirely seriously, but in terms of impressing nine-year-old me, this has to rank near the top.  It was the quintessential slow-moving dark ride that took you to amazing places.

8.  Impressions de France (Epcot, 1982-present):  I’ll bet you weren’t expecting a World Showcase film to crack the top ten, were you?  While I am skeptical toward films in Disney parks that could, in principal, be shown anywhere, Impressions de France is a perfect marriage of film-making and film-setting.  It helps that the French pavilion is by nearly any measure, one of the most beautifully and lovingly constructed in the World Showcase; someone needs to put a historic preservation marker outside the beautiful Belle Epoque theatre that houses this film.  The movie works largely because you already feel like you are in France by the time you step into the screening room.  Once inside, you get a nice, wide-screened (but not quite circle-vision) film that lets you rest your feet; appropriate to the leisurely pace of Impressions de France.  What follows is a decidedly selective but evocative view of France.  Of course, the expected vistas of the Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel Tower are there.  But it is augmented by contemplative boat rides down rivers, panoramic treatments of mountaintops, and lengthy stops at small towns for an extended scene of a wedding reception.  That is what surprised me the most: how rustic its vision of France turned out to be, how it avoids the temptation to focus on elegant high culture to explore intimate corners of provincial life. The redoubtable Foxfurr writes, “The film has a poetic, musical flow which transcends time and a willingness to stop for a quiet moment which the other Disney films often fail to do.” Exactly!  It’s a masterfully done film, reminiscent of the time when the World Showcase was the most grown-up part of the most grown-up park, and Imagineering trusted the audience to maintain their attention and patience in order to see something beautiful develop, rather than watch something thrilling or amusing transpire.  Another reason why I think so highly of this film?  It’s the only Epcot attraction from opening day, 1982, that remains almost entirely intact and untouched.

7.  Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Hollywood Studios, 1994-present):  What does it mean when we say that an attraction is “thrilling?”  Part of it is pure sensation, but most of it is the build-up, the anticipation, the setting.  That is what makes the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror the highest ranked MGM/Hollywood Studios attraction on this list.  The freefall itself is one of the most striking sensations most guests will experience in Disney World; a moment of pure fear, even for those who have ridden it multiple times.  But that is what makes Disney rides so much more experiential than their counterparts elsewhere.  Disney took the time to build a makeshift 1930s film noir hotel, stock it with antique books and telephone equipment, and build a boiler room where guests can feel their anticipation build.  Even better, Disney made a conscientious effort to make the ride stick to the park’s theme by digitally resurrecting Rod Serling for a Twilight Zone introduction, when a lazier approach might have still resulted in a popular ride.  It is also one of the few attractions to really improve with age: new technology allows for a more randomized experience, with varying numbers and depths of drops.

6.  Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  It is appropriate that the Tower of Terror is edged on this list by one of its principal inspirations in the Disney pantheon.  But while Tower of Terror leads up to a climactic plummet, Haunted Mansion offers no such culminating release.  Instead, its rewards are in its rich visual culture, its elaborate detail, and its special effects which still mezmerize nearly 45 years after its construction.  For years, Haunted Mansion had been a mainstay of almost every trip I took to Disney World.  But it wasn’t until my last trip in January of last year that I realized that it wasn’t just a good attraction, it was a great one.  What I missed was how immersive this ride was; how it actually engulfed you into its little macabre microcosm, with surly cast members opening the door for you, a frightening pre-show that definitely removed you from daylight-Disney.  As with Tower of Terror, this could have been a hastily constructed thrill house with random shit popping up and frightening you, along the lines of Snow White’s Scary Adventures.  Instead, it intrigues and suggests- holograms of candles float.  A hand reaches out of a coffin, but you can’t see the entire body.  There’s a ghostly bride in a wedding dress, but nobody is quite sure why.  It offers the rider the chance to make the ride as scary or as whimsical as they wish to interpret it.

Well, it looks like we are almost finished and your time machine vehicle is rotating backwards for your return to earth.  Tune in next time for the conclusion of my ranking of Walt Disney World attractions.

#1: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Category: Social Justice Champion

Term in Office: 16th president, 1861-1865

Party: Republican

Home State: Illinois

At long last, we have clawed our way to the conclusion of this countdown, which I began almost exactly two years ago today with an assessment of the man at the exact middle of my rankings, John Quincy Adams.  You might have guessed, perhaps by process of elimination, that Abraham Lincoln would rest at the top of the list.  It is not the most original choice I could have made, but I believe it is the soundest.

Given that this is the summation and conclusion of this project, I feel the need to demonstrate how Lincoln was not just a great president, but points toward the a kind of model of what a good president might look like.  You might have noticed that our six or seven top presidents in my ranking broadly shared certain sets of qualities: they chose good subordinates, they mixed self-awareness with a willingness to listen and change their mind when necessary, they played a long game, and they were willing to consider novel ways of solving a problem, and they had some measure of sympathy toward the less fortunate and a sense of obligation to help them.  Conversely, Lincoln also averred and renounced many of the qualities we see in the very worst presidents in our countdown: the malice of Jackson, the callousness of Coolidge, the “true neutral” ethics of Buchanan.  So, let’s look at some of the elements that made Lincoln stand out from the pack.

The first quality, I think, has to be moral vision.  Lincoln had the self-possession to commit to a couple of major goals: the preservation of the Union, and the idea of free labor.  While deeply opposed to slavery on a personal level, his principal goal was to merely limit its expansion westward, where it might interfere with those free labor prerogatives of white settlers.  To wit, much of Lincoln’s conduct as president might be seen as a battle between his civic certainty of union and his moral certainty of slavery’s wrongness.  In the end, as we will see, he was able to reconcile these two very different goals.  The point of this is simply that Lincoln had humanitarian principles that stood as the cornerstone of his worldview–in fact, they were so important to him that he was willing to use cheap parliamentary tricks and test the limits of his constitutional authority to see them through.

A willingness to learn.  Lincoln came into office with a relatively meager curriculum vitae.  Aside from deep ties to Illinois state politics, he served a grand total of one term in the Congress as an anti-war legislator.  (Is this sounding like anyone else you might know?)  His military career was limited to six-weeks of militia service in the Black Hawk War that he often characterized as a farcical exploit in later years.  While in some ways, this lack of establishment ties gave Lincoln the freedom and creativity to search out other solutions, he knew he still needed education in some of the essentials and made himself into an expert on military tactics over the course of the war.  Often, it was a matter of planting his butt down and reading books on the subject for hours on end.

A desire to improve his country.  As much as Lincoln’s presidency must rightly center around the Civil War that engulfed nearly all of it, we must also recognize his singular role in the development of the United States with respect to internal improvements and western settlements.  It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that he was the Henry Clay presidency that we never had.  Like a good Whig, he saw better education, better infrastructure, creating greater opportunities rather than exerting Jeffersonian minimalism in government.  He thought the Whig program he adored in his young adulthood was the ticket to a more egalitarian upward mobility.  And as president, he signed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, the cornerstone for all those great midwestern state universities.  We can name more accomplishments in this vein: the creation of the Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act which helped populate the West under the auspices of free labor, and the Pacific Railway Act that envisioned a railroad spanning the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

These grandiose plans were able to coexist with his humility.  The histories of Doris Kearns Goodwin are well-loved by the public, even as most historians view them skeptically due to multiple instances of plagiarism and the relatively little time that she spent in the archives.  She was correct, however, in honing in on (and indeed, writing the voluminous Team of Rivals about) Lincoln’s decision to incorporate his rivals into his cabinet. There was William Seward, the first Republican governor of a big state and the man most people expected the Republicans to nominate in 1860.  There was moralistic Salmon Chase, corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and his sneaky successor Edwin Stanton.  Abe cleverly played these personalities- each of which thought they deserved the presidency more than Lincoln- off of each other and his willingness to have cabinet secretaries with higher star wattage than himself helped keep his new and fractious party together.  Remember that the Republican Party was barely six years old when Lincoln took office and was still comprised of ex-Democrats, former Whigs, disaffected Free Soilers, and some Know-Nothing flotsam.  People who are fundamentally full of themselves and enamored of their own greatness make poor presidents and poor presidential candidates, as a certain former reality television star may discover.

Lincoln also stands out for his sense of mercy.  He repeatedly offered deals by which the South could enter the Union, or might achieve a less exacting reconstruction.  One plan that he considered offering would have called for a gradual emancipation of slavery by the year 1900.  But he was also inclined toward mercy on a smaller scale, often commuting the sentences of soldiers who had been tried for cowardice or desertion; he was able to see that a momentary fear in the face of death did not warrant extreme punishment.  The president, Navy secretary Gideon Welles once complained, “is always disposed to mitigate punishment, and to grant favors.”  These small acts of kindness not only showed a mature understanding of human nature, but built up reservoirs of goodwill and trust.

Ultimately, Lincoln has been parsed and picked apart more than any other figure in American history.  In fact, one historian has called him “everybody’s grandfather” and a wide array of philosophies have forged their own Lincolns to fit their ideologies: Lincoln the Christ figure, Lincoln the Tyrant, Lincoln the Vampire Hunter, Homoerotic Lincoln, Racist Lincoln, Egalitarian Lincoln, Lincoln the Ur-Socialist.  None of this is wrong as such (although some of those interpretations have more evidentiary merit than others), but there is still an undeniable tendency to remake Honest Abe into our own image.

Perhaps my own interpretation is similarly tinted by these accidental biases.  But for my part, I’m still willing to sign off on Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president.  At frightful cost, he kept the Union together when many would have let it become Balkanized, and he expanded freedom- true freedom- to more Americans than any president before or since.  His most masterful stroke was seeing that those twin goals- union and abolition- could be used in tandem.  By signing the Emancipation Proclamation and, as Spielberg’s recent Lincoln film has shown, passing the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide, Lincoln achieved these two goals.  In doing so, he helped set the USA apart from the Confederate States, and in so doing cost the CSA crucial help from abolitionist Britain and France.  Much more substantively, Lincoln helped the United States come closer to fulfilling its self-understanding as a place where freedom reigned.  Even if his motives and his methods were complicated, he was the culmination of a larger movement that loosed the bonds of slavery and hopelessness and pointed us toward a rough-hewn equality.  We’re still trying to get there today.

Back in May, I posted my preliminary slate of predictions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominees, in anticipation of the Rock Hall’s choices being revealed in early autumn.  The winners among these nominees will probably be published in December, and those artists will eventually be inducted as the Class of 2016.  What follows is essentially a reblogging of my earlier post, adding some new considerations where relevant, taking out some extraneous comments, and changing two of my fifteen picks.

Since my original post, we’ve had a couple of high-profile deaths in the Rock world, some of which impact my choices, but even more substantively, there has been a major overhaul within the Nominating Committee.  It seems as though around 16 members of the Nominating Committee were let go, leaving a core of perhaps 28 members.  My fellow Rock Hall watchers, especially Charles Crossley, Jr. and Neil Walls, did some great investigative work to piece together who was cut, including Bob Hilburn, Arthur Levy, Claudia Perry, and Roy Trakin.  The initial journalism on this development suggested that the committee on early rock and roll was decimated.  Certainly, those who were let go are older, whiter, and less institutionally tied to the Rolling Stone magazine hierarchy that dominates the induction process.  It isn’t unreasonable to guess that we will see even fewer 50s and early 60s acts than before, and the recent tilt toward 80s and 90s acts that dominated last year’s ballot will probably continue unimpeded.  Roger Friedman believes that Jann Werner wants to trim down the eligibility from 25 to 20 years after an artist’s release, but given Friedman’s slapdash journalism style, as well as the logistical problems of Tupac, Smashing Pumpkins, Mariah Carey, Beck, Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, Biggie, and Pearl Jam all becoming eligible at once, makes me very skeptical.  For now, I have to assume that the autumn slate of nominees will be, as customary, 15 artists, all of whom released their first record at least 25 years ago.

1.  Nine Inch Nails:  NIN made it on the ballot during their first year of eligibility.  Lots of people thought they would get in, and they even placed second in the Rock Hall’s online fan ballot.  And yet, they didn’t make it; interestingly, out of the five winners on the fan ballot, they were the only ones who fell short among the actual voting committee.  It is likely that they will make a return appearance.

2.  Deep Purple: Many people were shocked when Deep Purple wasn’t on last years’ ballot, since they made it each of the two years prior.  If they had been nominated, they very well might have gotten in, spared from having to compete with popular hard rock acts Heart (2013) and KISS (2014).   We’ve arrived at a point where Deep Purple needs to get into Cleveland pronto.  The “Not in the Hall of Fame” site lists them as the single biggest Rock Hall snub, and there is an immense backlog of hard rock acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that probably won’t have a realistic shot until Deep Purple is in.  Robert Hilburn is a known opponent of Deep Purple, so his dismissal from the Nom Com could help their chances.

3.  Yes: So, my theory last year that they had actually gotten voted in for the Class of 2014 but could not attend because of touring commitments was probably spectacularly wrong. But that doesn’t make Yes any less deserving.  Sadly, Chris Squire, the workmanlike bassist who was the only consistent member of the Yes lineup through their 45+ year history, died earlier this summer after a battle with leukemia.  It’s a shame; Squire deserved to see his band inducted while living.  Hopefully, Yes (one of my father-in-law’s favorite bands) will be able to reunite for a great tribute performance in Squire’s honor if nominated and voted in.

4.  The Meters:  This funky New Orleans outfit is unknown to many casual rock and roll fans, but their respect in the music industry is resolute and enduring.  They have appeared on the ballot four times before, including twice in the last three years.  Clearly, some influential folks are pulling strings for the Neville brothers and their cohorts.  Out of all the picks, this is the one I’m most iffy about- this spot could just as easily have gone to War.  Their appearance here is more of a reflection of my pessimistic belief that the ballot will include a few acts that just shouldn’t be in.  But R&B and/or funk will be represented.  You can count on it.

5.  Sonic Youth: The Rock Hall has really been struggling with an amorphous category that one might call post-punk or proto-alternative acts: edgier Gen-X mood music that dwells on disillusionment and eschewing melody for authenticity.  Someone from that world shows up on just about every ballot, but ends up falling short.  Last time, it was The Smiths.  The year before The Replacements, and a couple years earlier The Cure.  My own opinion is that The Cure are best qualified to take this spot, but my guess is that the Nom Com will finally settle on Sonic Youth, a name that’s been batted around for years.  Sonic Youth was only slightly less significant than The Cure, and was the hip 15-year-old babysitter to a lot of alternative acts when they were little kids, if that metaphor makes sense.  The Hall will be under (well-warranted) pressure to induct more women, and Kim Gordon’s presence will parry this criticism.  Gordon’s recent book, Girl In A Band, will also generate some chatter that will help them.

6.  Warren Zevon: Come on now, we know this routine.  There’s a singer-songwriter every year, and on his or her merits, it seems like their case for induction is shaky.  But they always make it in the end somehow.  (I’m sure you’ve met the last several models: Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman, Donovan, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro…)  While I’d like to see Carole King get this spot, Zevon has a strong chance this year.  Retiring late night host David Letterman has expressed his wish to see one of his favorite guests in the Hall, and where Letterman goes, Paul Shaffer is never far behind.

7.  NWA:  It’s clear that Toure and Questlove are committed to getting NWA in.  Last year, a lot of folks- including myself- thought they would pull it off, but it was not to be.  With a biopic of the group out in the theatres, and the ceremony in 2016 held in L.A. (within drive-by shooting distance of Compton), it is tough to see how NWA doesn’t make it back onto the ballot.  I am not a fan of their violence and misogyny (two social problems that are by no means limited to rap music; go listen to Nugent sometime if you doubt me.)    But with continuing police violence and discrimination against the black community dominating the news daily, “F— The Police” will keep resonating with the public.  Recently, Dr. Dre has started making some new music, and rumors of a reunion tour are starting to spread, adding to the buzz around their name.

8.  Chic: I feel so bad for Chic.  They have now been nominated nine times for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, more than any other artist except for soul legend Solomon Burke.  Nile Rodgers’ battle with cancer couldn’t muster enough sympathy to take them over the edge, nor could the spectacular success of Rodgers-produced “Get Lucky.”  Chic- or rather, Rodgers and assorted friends- have some new music out this year, but whether this will be enough remains anybody’s guess.  Chic is also a band more well loved by music historians than the general public: they earned less than 2% of the votes in the Hall’s official online fan ballot.

9.  J. Geils Band:  It took four tries, but Jann Werner finally shoe-horned the Paul Butterfield Blues Band into the Hall of Fame last year.  I don’t wish PBBB ill, but I think they leapfrogged over many more deserving and widely respected acts.  My guess is that PBBB’s successful induction will only encourage the Nom Com’s bad habits, and they will pick another Werner-sanctioned blues outfit filled with white boys.  (Rest assured that they will be nominated on the grounds of their earlier blues efforts, not 80s hits like “Centerfold.”)  The fact that Peter Wolf inducted PBBB this year is a pretty straightforward signal that we could see J. Geils Band return to the ballot for the fourth time after a few years’ absence.

10.  The Spinners: I originally had Big Star at this spot; Holly George-Warren is on the committee and recently wrote a biography of their tragic frontman, Alex Chilton.  Instead, I’m playing it safe.  The Spinners have been on two of the last three ballots, and several of their partisans survived the culling, including Questlove, Metallica manager Cliff Burnstein, and Dave Marsh.  (Read Marsh’s book of Rock Lists where he pontificates on the best records released each year.  There’s a Spinners single listed nearly annually throughout the 1970s.)

11.  Wille Nelson:  On the Dan Patrick Show, Rock Hall president Greg Harris was asked which uninducted artists deserved to be in the Hall.  Harris demured at first and dodged around the question, but the hosts kept badgering him.  The closest Harris got to an answer was an offhand mention of Willie Nelson.  Additionally, Seymour Stein has led a push for more country artists in the Hall.  Nelson has been racking up the accolades this year, with a heavy presence at the Grammys and a well-received autobiography.  There is precedent for the Hall putting in country artists who were often duet partners and collaborators with rock and rollers; just look at Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt.  And temperamentally, the Red Headed Stranger’s outlaw persona, Farm Aid activism, and egregious use of pot make him a good fit with the qualities the Rock Hall values; he has always been a figure more at home in Woodstock than the Opry.  There will be pressure to induct the 81-year-old singer while he is still among the living, and he’s never had a better chance to make the Rock Hall than this year.

12.  Ben E. King:   Ben E. King or Joe Cocker?  They are probably the two biggest solo artists to have died in the past year.  I doubt both will get nominated.  I’m pretty sure one of them will.  While my gut says “Joe Cocker,” all the tangible evidence points to King.  Springsteen and U2 performed “Stand By Me” in the wake of his death, and they have direct lifelines to the Nominating Committee.  The older guys on the Nom Com will remember his career fondly, and the younger folks will still be familiar enough with his catalog to give some sympathy-support.  Besides, King wrote at least some of his hit songs, and Cocker didn’t.  In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2003 and the Righteous Brothers to find the last time a white male interpretive singer (e.g. someone who didn’t generally write his/their own material) was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  And between Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, all four Beatles, and all four members of CSNY among many others, heaven knows that the Rock Hall loves having new members into its so-called Clyde McPhatter Club of multiple inductees.  (Like McPhatter, King is already inducted as a member of the Drifters.)

13.  Smashing Pumpkins: This is my second change to my original post: an artist who became eligible for the first time this year, and displaces MC5 on my list.  Smashing Pumpkins were just too big in the 1990s and too influential to ignore.  The Rock Hall tends to pick at least one first-year-eligible act every year, and Smashing Pumpkins takes that crown, beating out Mariah Carey, Alice in Chains, and A Tribe Called Quest.  They don’t have ~quite~ the same historical significance as other acts honored with a nomination their first year out, which tend to be in the conversation for “100 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists Ever” (think Nirvana or Green Day or or Guns N Roses or even The Beastie Boys for recent examples.)  But given the Nominating Committee’s statistically younger demographics, and the undeniable trend toward shepherding 90s acts into the Hall, I am persuaded to include them on my list.

14.  Peter, Paul & Mary:  And now, finally, we come to- quite appropriately- my “Hail Mary” prediction, the most far-fetched selection on my list.  When Bob Dylan gave a speech at Musi-cares on his career, he singled out the trio for characteristically back-handed praise: “I didn’t usually think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen. And it couldn’t have happened with a better group. They took a song of mine that I’d recorded before that was buried on one of my early records (‘Blowin’ in the Wind’), and they turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it. I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.”  Tom Morello was a performer at the event, so hopefully, he was paying attention to Dylan’s sage words.  But more than this, PP&M have been getting some high-profile attention lately.  In 2014, a two-years-behind-schedule retrospective for their 50th anniversary was published, with no less a figure than Secretary of State John Kerry writing the foreword.  What’s more, the Rock Hall summer film series is showing Festival!, a documentary on the great folk festivals of the 1960s, and the description of the film gives special attention to Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as Joan Baez (another artist I considered.)  To continue the momentum in their favor, the recent series of 50th anniversaries from the Freedom Struggle reminds us all of the courage and commitment the three of them showed, having performed at the March on Washington, and later speaking out against the Vietnam War and Apartheid.  And for most Rock Hall voters, left-wing activism never hurt anyone’s chances.  If I am reading these tea leaves correctly, all this amounts to the clearest chance a pure 60s folk act has had in a long time.

15.  Janet Jackson:  So far, we are missing one thing: a showstopper, a headliner.  No Rock Hall induction ceremony is complete without one, especially now that there is an expensive contract with HBO to honor.  It’s got to be Janet’s year.  My friends over at the Induct Janet social media campaign have continued to fight the good fight.  They have made sound arguments and politely but persistently lobbied musical critics and Nom Com members to recognize Miss Jackson’s contributions to 80s and 90s R&B and dance music.  Given how most online campaigns to induct certain artists are angry, barely literate screeds in ALL CAPS about the Nom Com’s bias and ignorance, their tact and dignity stand out.  Jackson’s chances are given a boost by her recent announcement that a new album and tour are in the works; this will be no nostalgia nomination, but a pick for an active, working artist.  Janet deserves to be in, and at any rate, it is really weird that Tito Jackson is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Janet is not.

— Unfortunately, there were some compelling choices I had to leave off, including the aforementioned Big Star, Joe Cocker, and MC5.  The Eurythmics have a good chance, especially given Annie Lennox’s standout performance at the Grammys.  And the removal of several old fogeys makes a second rap or hip-hop artist likely, probably L.L. Cool J or De La Soul.  In an effort to get more deserving women into the Hall, Joan Baez could be the folk nominee and perhaps recent Kennedy Center honoree Carole King could be nominated as a performer.  If so, King could become the first person inducted into the Hall in two separate categories, since she’s already in as a non-performing songwriter.

So, there’s my 15 picks.  This covers most of the bases, in terms of sub-genres of rock and roll, different eras, and racial representation.  Funk, folk, dance, singer-songwriter, R&B, classic rock, prog, alternative, country, and the blues are all represented here.  Given this excellent infographic on how few women are in the Rock Hall, my list includes five artists with at least one woman on board: Janet Jackson; Peter, Paul & Mary (Mary Travers), Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon), Smashing Pumpkins (D’Arcy Wretsky), and Chic (the various female singers they’ve employed over the years.)  6 of the 15 are artists of color.  9 have been nominated before, although this honor ranges from Ben E. King (last nominated during the Reagan administration) and Nine Inch Nails (nominated during their/Reznor’s first year of eligibility in the fall of 2014.)  5 of the 15 peaked artistically after 1980, though, a number that seems too low to me and has me worried that my own list is too indebted to the 1970s.  Another problem I foresee is that my choices smell a bit like a funeral parlor: between Ben E. King, Warren Zevon, Chris Squire, Mary Travers, Bernard Edwards, Easy E, and most of the Spinners, there’s plenty of great musicians who didn’t live long enough to take part in their induction.  The Hall may opt for more living artists.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section!  I’d be curious to know: which 5 artists would you vote for if this was the actual ballot?  If it were me, I’d say: Janet Jackson; Peter Paul & Mary; Deep Purple; Chic; and either Yes or The Spinners for that fifth spot.  Eh, probably Yes, if only to pave the way for the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull next year.

20131012134431!Franklin-roosevelt Category: Social Justice Champion

 Term in Office: 32nd president, 1933-1945

 Party: Democratic

 Home State: New York

The social contract had changed.  You wouldn’t know it from the lack of constitutional conventions, or the absence of revolutionary rhetoric, but the tacit agreement that bound the government and the governed had been altered, and there were countless subterranean signs to that effect for anyone who cared to look.  The Great Depression had devastated the country, turning proud workers into supplicants, CEOs into dishwashers, and Ozark farmers into nomads with little more than a vague hope to make it to California.  The massive extent of the wreckage made many Americans rethink their relationship to the state and demanded that its government do something (and a very inchoate something) to fix the economy and bring relief to the destitute masses.  The Depression killed the earlier Jeffersonian consensus that the government that governs least governs best.

The single most important factor of FDR’s presidency is that he recognized this tectonic shift and took large-scale measures to accommodate it.  His solution was called the New Deal.  Think of the New Deal as a three-legged stool of reform, recovery, and relief built to support an ailing economy- so, a collection of short-term help with long-term structural change.  There are too many programs to cover all of them, but the most important include the Glass-Steagall Act (bifurcating commercial banking from investment banking), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FERA relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps (which put 2 million men to work, helped conserve some beautiful parts of our country), the Civil Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Act (if you live in North Dakota and can read this, thank FDR) and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation.  Not all of these took effect immediately, but their psychological impact in restoring hope is incalculable.  Half a million Americans wrote letters to FDR within weeks of his inaugural, and saw his dynamic First 100 Days as a signal that things were finally moving in the right direction after the hapless Hoover administration.

FDR was also a landmark president because of how he communicated with the wider public.  He took McKinley’s innovations to the next level, and used radio as a tool to not only reach voters, but to persuade, cajole, calm, and reassure them.  He added, in other words, a personal or human dimension to the presidency that stands out baldly when you juxtapose a fireside chat to a stilted Wilson or Hoover address.

The New Deal, and Roosevelt’s presidency more generally, was also marked by experimentation and innovation.  Sometimes it didn’t work, but when it did, the results were staggering.  Roosevelt was the first president to have a female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins of the Labor Department at a time when women in positions of leadership were suspect.  He attempted sundry programs his Brain Trust came with them, and had the pragmatism to reject what didn’t work.  “I have no intention of making a hit every time I come up to bat,” he once explained.  “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”  All this shows that creativity, considering options nobody else has tried yet, is an essential ingredient to presidential success.  He was also a canny information monger, often setting aides against one another to see who could deliver crucial news-bites and rumors to him first, and through almost sheer force of personality was able to impose order on an increasingly expanding federal bureaucracy.

In terms of character, FDR had an ingredient that helped him succeed at this high level: empathy.  He might have been just another Hudson aristocrat dabbling in politics as sport, but his crippling battle with polio gave him insight into lack of opportunity and allowed him to better perceive that many Americans, not through lack of work but through bad luck and circumstances out of their control, needed a helping hand.  This trait went double for my favorite component of the FDR presidency: Eleanor.  The First Lady was a crucial help to the best, most compassionate, elements of the FDR administration–always needling him to remember the destitute, or to be more proactive on civil rights.  Although the solutions to the dilemmas of the 30s and 40s were often complex, byzantine, and highly overmanaged, there was always a beating heart behind them and a human concern for others that sets it apart from the “Screw you, you’re on your own” attitude of, say, Coolidge.  But FDR was also creative, mischievous, curious, childlike; the joy of the presidency stayed with him.

He also fixed a few endemic problems in the political process along the way.  For one thing, the Democrats had a self-immolating rule that required that their nominee have 2/3rds of the vote at their convention.  This led to a number of terrible compromise nominees over the years (John W. Davis, James Cox, Alton Parker) and prevented stronger Democratic candidates who had a small, devoted corps of enemies from winning the nomination.  In accepting  renomination in 1936, FDR demanded that the number be reduced to a simple majority as a condition of his acceptance.  He also began the tradition of a candidate personally selecting his running mate, ending the days of back-room wrangling for the vice-presidency.  But not all innovations and fixes were equally wise.  Many people recognize (correctly, I think) that his attempt to pack the Supreme Court was a badly conceived move, and gave those who claimed that FDR was a totalitarian power-grabber all the ammo that they needed.  However, it is important to remember that the number of Supreme Court justices is not set at nine permanently; the constitution allows for Congress to change the number of justices, and it did fluctuate many times during the early 19th century.  It wasn’t an illegal plan, or a sinister plan, but it was a plan that was poorly considered, and if carried out, would have compromised the Supreme Court’s independence.  Still, the Court was packed with minimalists and strict constructionists during FDR’s early years, including recalcitrant justices from the Harding, Wilson, and even Taft years.  They struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, a New York minimum wage law, and other measures, proceeding from the Lochner era philosophies that such measures curtailed freedom of contract.  Fundamentally, the Court did not realize what FDR did: that the living, dynamic, social contract had changed, and it had changed in ways that a strict-constructionist or corporatist worldview could not perceive, could not accommodate, and ignored at its own peril.  Eventually, with a bit of patience, time did what the court-packing plan could not; by FDR’s death, he had appointed eight out of the nine justices and a more progressive jurisprudence prevailed.

All of this led Franklin Roosevelt to succeed as no other president had done.  He won election four times, and each one was a landslide.  In 1936, he won every state in the country except Vermont and Maine, two disproportionately rural areas filled with old-fashioned Yankee Republicans.  And even in 1944, his closest election, he still won states that had  been considered monolithically Republican just a generation earlier like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Utah, and New Hampshire.  He remade American politics with the so-called New Deal Coalition of inner-city workers, poor farmers, Appalachians, Southerners, and even black Americans (the FDR years were the first time when African-Americans began to abandon the Party of Lincoln.)  His impact was so deep and enduring that in 1967, Time columnist Hugh Sidney wrote, “You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon…and look out over the faces of the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington.  His ideas prevailed.  His men endured.  The government that functioned now was his creation perhaps more than any other single man.”

I categorized Franklin Roosevelt a “Champion of Justice” and in some ways that is true.  For generations afterward, Appalachian hill folk and trade unionists looked to him as a hero and many even kept a portrait of the man in a prominent place in their house.  He was also perhaps the first president who actively worked in partnership with organized labor, and did not see trade unionists as quasi-socialists out to turn America toward Bolshevism.  With his help, more Americans enjoyed weekends, holidays, safer working conditions, and the ability to bargain collectively than ever before.   In other ways, however, FDR fell short of this heroism, particularly with respect to America’s most vulnerable citizens.  Black Americans, especially, benefitted from New Deal reforms less fully; traditionally black jobs were kept out of the Social Security Program, blacks generally weren’t hired as part of the CCC or CWA, and of course, the odious practice of redlining kept the African-American community from enjoying the blessings of middle-class home ownership.  With Southern Democrats in charge of nearly all the important committees, FDR was at their mercy to pass his legislation through.  Of course, more egregious than this–something most people would consider to be a serious human rights violation–was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  Every semester that I teach in Singapore, I assign a chapter from George Takei’s autobiography where he discusses his earliest memories in an Arkansas camp for Japanese-Americans, and the sense of guilt and shame (as well as the loss of property and dignity) that came from the experience.  While this wasn’t a concentration camp, and efforts were made to make this experience bearable, it was without question a bad move, and for me, it single-handedly killed any chance for FDR to make it to the top of my rankings.  Whatever else he may have done to improve the spirit and health of the nation, that was an unforgivable act of race prejudice and an abrogation of personal rights.

Looking at the whole picture, think of the various pressures on republics and democracies during the tumultuous 1930s across the world, many of which thrived on the uncertainty created by the Depression.  In those kinds of environments, fascism, viable communist parties, the genial antisemitism of Father Coughlin, and the personality cult surrounding Huey Long all found sympathetic listeners.   Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Oswald…all of these movements responded to the crises of the 1930s by threatening to tear down capitalism, or democracy, or decorum.  Under Franklin Roosevelt, capitalism and democracy survived, and even thrived, by tweaking its excesses, sharing its blessings more equitably, and fostering a robust and gainfully-employed middle-class out of the ashes of Depression.  If an odd conservative managed to find his way to my blog, and believes that Franklin Roosevelt was capitalism’s greatest enemy in American history,  I submit to the contrary that he saved it from itself.

Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was long, complex, and very difficult to evaluate.  No president who served for that long and through not one, but two major paradigm-shifting moments–Depression and War–could hold office without making not just mistakes, but serious mistakes along the way.  But what is success on a presidential level?  I take a humanitarian approach: the best presidents govern well and wisely, but ultimately work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, give hope to those in despair.  Ultimately, I’m a social democrat with a strong footing in the prophetic strand of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And since I’m the one making the rankings, I’ll conclude: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president–full stop.


Hi everybody.  Thank you for bearing with me during a period of low output on this blog.  I realize that I have not been posting often, but for a good reason: my book on George McGovern and Progressive Christianity is just about done, and I am getting ready to send it to the University of Massachusetts Press within a week’s time.

Once that happens, I’ll need to start working more on preparing the coming year’s classes that I will teach in Singapore.  However, I am excited to wrap up two longstanding projects on the blog: my presidential ranking (only two posts left) and my countdown of the greatest rides in Walt Disney World (similarly only two posts left).  I also expect to post my final predictions for the next Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, and weigh in on the state of the 2016 elections, perhaps updating my lists of prospective running mates.

As always, thank you for spending some time at the monastery.


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