May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Normally, the most overrated President would be James Madison, who let the British turn the White House into a barbecue pit. But in the wake of the end-of-century lists, the award must go to Franklin Roosevelt, hailed as the “savior of capitalism,” a flatulent phrase that is doubly wrong.
Saved it from whom? The Depression-era radicals—communists, socialists, Father Coughlin—were annoyances, whose candidates never got much more than 2 percent of the popular vote in a presidential election during the 1930s. Huey Long was a regional figure who would have flamed out if he had not been shot.
Saved it how? The mixture of improvisation and failure that was the New Deal kept the economy limping, until war production revived it. Roosevelt (and Hoover) took a recession and made it a catastrophe.
There remains the x factor of FDR’s spirits. Churchill said that meeting him was like opening one’s first bottle of champagne. But that only makes a bad domestic record mixed.
Normally, the most underrated President would be Warren Harding, who ended the paranoia and oppression of the Wilson years. But, once again in compensation for the failures of end-of-century lists, the most underrated must be Ronald Reagan. In his case the reason is not domestic policy but war. Reagan won a world war without a Somme or a Stalingrad. Truman laid the groundwork, and Bush was in at the death, but Reagan begat perestroika, which led to the swiftest collapse of a hostile superpower in history.