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Potus Geeks Summer Reruns: Presidents and Obscurity

Originally posted on February 29, 2016 as a summary of our series on "The Obscure Presidents".

The office of the Presidency should be sufficient honor enough for its occupant to be remembered throughout history, at least until the number of Presidents match the current number of past popes of kings and queens of European nations. Yet some presidents have been quickly forgotten, at in the minds of the general public. Those presidents who remain household names generally have done so on the basis of their part in some great historical event, often a war. Washington is recalled for his leadership in the American Revolution (as well as for being the first occupant of the President's chair), Lincoln for the Civil War (as well as for the Emancipation Proclamation and for his assassination) and Franklin Roosevelt for his leadership in the second world war (as well as for his New Deal and for leading the nation out of the great depression.)

Pez07

Some presidents maintain notoriety through sheer force of personality that seems to dwarf any of their accomplishments. Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan fall into this category. Those Presidents who accomplish firsts, such as Washington or Obama, are destined to be remembered, an accomplishment narrowly missed by Hillary Clinton. Even glaring negative accomplishments can keep presidents in the public memory as Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon have proven.

Assassination does not guarantee perpetual notoriety. While John Kennedy is remembered for how his presidency ended so tragically, his youth and his leadership in the Cuban Missile crisis enhance his fame and familiarity. But James Garfield and William McKinley remain largely forgotten, even though McKinley won two elections and led the nation through a war.

If there are characteristics which destine a president to historical obscurity, perhaps the foremost is a failure to show leadership in a time of crisis. A string of obscure presidents from Van Buren to Buchanan failed to confront the issue of slavery and conflicting regional interests until Abraham Lincoln recognized that "a house divided can not stand". Most of the presidents between Lincoln and McKinley failed to properly address reconstruction, leading to the glaring need for civil rights reform and lasting racial tensions. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter both leave legacies as great humanitarians, but their failure to ease the nation's economic pains will likely relegate them to the ranks of the obscure presidents.

Those presidents who have sacrificed principles for political expediency have almost always found themselves relegated to historical obscurity. Franklin Pierce backed the minority slave interest in the "Bleeding Kansas" struggle instead of the legitimate government that opposed slavery because he thought it would enhance his chances for re-election. Today if he is remembered, it is more for his alcoholism than for his leadership. Martin Van Buren changed his position on a number of issues because he wanted to inherit Andrew Jackson's political support. The public wasn't fooled and Van Buren was a one-term president. John Tyler believed that he didn't need to work with his party and could abandon them when in office. That plan didn't work so well. Similarly, John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter believed that they could accomplish things without working with congress. Their lack of accomplishments will contribute to their obscurity and both achieved their legacy from their post-presidential careers, not for what they did while in the oval office.

If there are lessons learned in the prevention of presidential obscurity, they might be these:

1. Avoiding contentious issues or "kicking the can down the road" is not a good strategy for historic notoriety.
2. Presidents who sacrifice principle for political expediency find themselves relegated to historical obscurity.
3. Frequent flip-flopping makes it difficult to seriously consider the president as a historical giant.
4. Failure to work with Congress or with the president's party makes it difficult for the president to accomplish huge goals, which in turn leads to historic obscurity.

ForgottenPresidents02

Despite earning the label of "obscure presidents", each of the men who have been the subject of this month's profiles have all led interesting lives, filled with meritorious accomplishments and achievements. That they are today largely forgotten makes the accomplishments of those presidents who still have name recognition long after the end of their lives all the more remarkable.
Tags: abraham lincoln, andrew jackson, barack obama, franklin delano roosevelt, franklin pierce, george washington, harry s. truman, herbert hoover, hillary clinton, james garfield, jimmy carter, john f. kennedy, john quincy adams, john tyler, martin van buren, richard nixon, ronald reagan, theodore roosevelt, william mckinley
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