Note: I actually wrote the following in the weeks following Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration and it has sat in my draft bin ever since. I decided to shelve it and wanted to give some time for Trump’s presidency to actually have some history behind it, feeling that while I graded the new president low scores even after just one month, I had hopes they’d improve–I guess more of an early progress report than a semester grade.
Following innumerable crises and jolts to our system, let alone in just the last 12 months an impeachment, a pandemic, nation-wide protests against inequity and finally the terrifying events at the capital on Wednesday January 6, 2021 I remembered to take another look at this post–as the nation was jolted into a Washington-version of a school shooting with our leaders hiding under furniture and behind barricaded doors.
Perhaps the best summary of assessing a student I ever heard was from one of my favorite history teachers who said, ‘If that kid were stock, I’d invest in him right now.” So for those who continue to support Donald Trump despite so much evidence against him, I’d ask them to do three things:
- Work for him for one full year
- Liquidate your savings for Trump to invest in one of his casinos
- Let him drive your teenage daughter home from babysitting
— Jan 30, 2016
**Warning: Big-time subjectivity below! But like all teaching, you need to blend objective rubrics with subjective observations.
Wrapping up my own report cards this week, I couldn’t help but wonder about giving our leaders the same litmus test.
The universally awkward tension at a wedding of watching the drunk best-man stumble to the microphone–that’s our president in front of a camera. You’re three times as nervous about how he’s going to say something than what he’s going to say.
On January 20th, I had the inauguration playing in my classroom–the fifth different president being sworn in since I started teaching 30 years ago. During my speech class a few hours later I replayed part of his 16 minute address and one student noted, “Dude, don’t you think it would be awkward to rip on all the past presidents with them sitting right behind you?” It was awkward for me anyway–but I always cringe in movies when the couple having the affair is discovered by the spouse, too.
When one student asked how many presidents I’d seen inaugurated in my lifetime I realized that Donald Trump was the tenth. I have a fuzzy third-grader’s memory of Gerald Ford’s indoor ceremony and was able to find its modest footage on YouTube…
Another student then asked me which president was my favorite. Without needing to give it too much thought, I replied choking up a bit, “Obama.” And I knew the next question. “How come?”
“Well, selfishly if all ten were students of mine at one time or another, he’d be the one I’d want to stay in touch with the most after graduation–or at least friend on Facebook.”
As a class reunion-organizer and family tree scrounger, joining Facebook was a gift. Former students that I hadn’t heard from in 20 years appeared magically in front of me. Many (and some, happily, surprisingly) had successful careers, beautiful families and thoughtful postings. Prior to that day, graduation was very funeral-like for me, knowing that students I had seen every day for four years would vanish from my life–except for the occasional hello at the mall or on a golf course–fondly remembering a 36 year-old Ian yelling to me across a fairway, “Mr. Walsh! Sorry I was such a jerk in your class!”
So after President Trump’s aggressive inaugural address, after extended family and friends joined one million women marching for fairness, justice and the right to be human beings–and trying to convince myself that those events lost in the cyclone of bad news since was just over five months ago–I’ve been thinking about my lifetime’s nine previous presidents and how I’d rate them.
Like teachers are supposed to do (and some districts still require administrators to do), it’s only right to give someone a rubric so Donald knows how he’s being scored.
I’m going to steal from my first grade report card…
- Completes Assignments
- Works well with others
And I’ll add my favorite barometer of a trustworthy student…
- I’d trust them to substitute for me–and dog-sit.
I put them all in a spreadsheet, scored them from 1-5 and tried to eliminate my personal agendas as well as I could. After all, most teachers can probably give a pretty good estimate on day 3 what a student’s grade will probably be–but thankfully, there are always pleasant surprises. Like Citizen Kane, which constantly gets the best cumulative score for influential films, here’s how I’d rank my 10 presidents (if I wanted them in my classroom)…
Best Cumulative Score
- Overcame the most obstacles, particularly with a Senate sworn to never work with him
- Passed health care legislation
- Killed Osama Bin Laden
- Restored stability and trust in presidency
- Continues to take the high road in everything he does
- Great family man and respectable human in general
George H.W. Bush
- Honorable WWII veteran
- Led worldwide coalition in first Gulf War and most importantly, delivered on his promise to end the war when Iraq left Kuwait
- Stood as his own man when he was president, not Reagan’s guy
And heading to the detention hall…
- Watergate scandal that could have been was nullified quickly without the coverup–and a lot less hubris with his already prickly personality
George W. Bush
- Terribly under-qualified emotionally and mentally, leading to an unnecessary war and the squandering of worldwide good-will following 9-11 attacks
- Despite amazing headway in social and civil rights reforms, could not get America out of Vietnam leading to chasm of generational dysfunction.
The sortable chart below allows the report card to be viewed according to any category. Some highlights follow.
|President||Citizenship (1-5)||Completes Assignments (1-5)||Works with Others (1-5)||Trust to Sub (1-5)||Total|
|45. Donald Trump||1||2||1||0||4|
|44. Barack Obama||5||4||5||5||19|
|43. George W. Bush||3||2||3||2||10|
|42. Bill Clinton||3||4||4||4||15|
|41. George H. W. Bush||4||5||5||3||17|
|40. Ronald Reagan||3||4||4||4||15|
|39. Jimmy Carter||5||3||5||5||18|
|38. Gerald Ford||5||3||4||5||17|
|37. Richard Nixon||2||3||2||3||10|
|36. Lyndon Johnson||3||4||4||2||13|
Citizenship – “I cannot tell you that I lied…”
Trump and Nixon have been constantly compared these past few months and their citizenship scores reflect their parity. Like Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal that hobbled his last two years in office–arguably the greatest period of economic growth in our nation’s history–really can’t be forgiven. His lying under oath alone should have led to his resignation and an easy re-election bid for Al Gore.
But Nixon, Trump and Clinton are unable to admit mistakes. Even Ronald Reagan’s folksy humor was unable to save him during his “I don’t recall” testimony about the Iran-Contra scandal–whether he truly didn’t know or was lying, lost him plenty of citizenship points.
Completion of Assignments
Granted it’s early to grade Trump on completion of assignments–particularly as he’s been mired in scandal and arguing with the media since his oath of office. But he does get an extra point above the bottom score for completing his agenda–dismantling as many of Obama’s accomplishments as he can via the executive orders he scorned nearly as much as his predecessor’s golf games. Even if he’s impeached and out of office next week, many conservatives will consider his mission accomplished because he filled the stolen Supreme Court seat empty for the final 10 months of Obama’s presidency and stymied by McConnell and company. (Imagine the howls of protest if a Democratic senate would have done the same to either Bush or Reagan.) 2020 Note: Ironic, considering the express-lane speed of the December 2020 confirmation following Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death.
Other low-scoring citizens include George W. for his ill-founded war ending with a hundred thousand dead and creating a vacuum in the middle east. Nixon ended Vietnam and made in-roads with China but his general disdain for the law dropped him a few points. To be fair, Gerald Ford also didn’t have much time to do anything beyond guiding the battered ship of Nixon’s remaining term into harbor, so he gets an “average.”
Works Well with Others
Trump’s confusing tactic of offending the pope, our NATO allies, women and minorities while smirking with the Saudis and praising North Korea’s leader is the same kid I’ve seen a dozen times in classroom who borrows money for lunch from the same kid he then beats up by the bike rack. The most masochist move on day #2 in office was not only offending the intelligence community but the press as well–two groups of folks most would never want on their bad-side.
Nixon and W also found it difficult to work well with others–but at least George #2 was the guy “you could have a beer with.” This charming non-swamp-dwelling quality convinced my own state of Michigan that rather than vote for the experienced, intelligent option they’d put their middle-class lives in the hands of a billionaire with a history of breaking his word with contractors and rare casino bankruptcies who claims to be a self-made man–after his father floated him a millions in seed money.
On the plus-side of this category I give top marks to Carter and Clinton (until he lied under oath). Regardless of the GOP claims that Obama refused to come over to capitol hill and schmooze them, he extended the olive branch dozens of time, particularly during the health care passage, only to have that branch smacking his wrist–with the promise of “one-term president” playing as a soundtrack.