Washington It is said that great events make great leaders. It is also said that great leaders shape great events. Either way, America's four best presidents were George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Notably missing is Abraham Lincoln. Even though the oft-repeated mantra that he freed the slaves and saved the union is correct, the means employed resulted in the most costly war in American history. Interestingly, Kennedy in his best-selling book "Profiles in Courage" gave Lincoln great credit, but when President Kennedy faced an even more daunting challenge the prospect of thermonuclear war he acted in a very different manner than the man he had so profusely praised.
Kennedy was truly the right person at the right time. He began weakly with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but learned. A year later, when the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, he was prepared. His advisers pressed for invasion, just as Lincoln's advisers had a hundred years earlier. But Kennedy chose a blockade, which he euphemistically dubbed a quarantine because blockades are considered to be acts of war.
It is interesting to ponder what might have happened had Lincoln ordered a "quarantine" instead of an invasion. Certainly nothing would have been lost in the attempt, and it is likely that the upper South states North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas which had voted against secession, would have remained in the union. They might have been able to coax the seven seceding states back into the union. And slavery, already a dying institution, was reviled by increasing numbers of people throughout the nation. Lincoln even said that he was willing to keep the slaves in bondage if it would preserve the union.
Kennedy's "quarantine" worked because it bought time and demonstrated seriousness of purpose, while not giving up the option of invasion. Kennedy also instituted his famous tax cut that actually increased revenue to the federal coffers because it was economically stimulative. And it was Kennedy who launched America on the goal of placing a man on the moon, an effort that has led to untold numbers of new, life-changing technologies.
George Washington is on the list because he set precedents that were every bit as important as the law codified in the Constitution. He refused a crown, and he refused to serve a third term. He put down the Whiskey Rebellion with almost no bloodshed by using a show of overwhelming force. He set the standards for the Cabinet and the executive branch, and he avoided foreign entanglements at a time when foreign entanglements were unnecessary to the welfare of the nation.
Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin Roosevelt dramatically improved the American form of democracy, Theodore by bringing those on the top rung of the economic ladder down through trust busting and Franklin by bringing the bottom up through economic safety nets. Franklin Roosevelt's exceptional wartime decisions included authorization of the Manhattan Project that led to development of the atom bomb and his prewar assistance to Great Britain, which was critical to the defeat of Hitler. His "stimulus packages" during the Great Depression were on track but insufficient. It took the giant deficit spending of World War II to end that economic tragedy.
Each of these presidents changed the course of history, not just for America, but also for the world, and the hallmarks of their administrations were restraint, courage and vision. In Theodore Roosevelt's words, they spoke softly and carried big sticks.