Since this is a federal holiday, I will be following a relatively light posting schedule here today, which means it will only be slightly more intensive than most sites are on normal days.
As you probably know, Presidents Day (or as some spell it, Presidents’ Day) was originally (and still is, according to the federal government) Washington’s Birthday. The more generic term came into popular use in part because the holiday is no longer celebrated on GW’s actual birthday, as it once was, and in part because in some parts of the country it is utilized to honor other presidents along with the first one–usually Abraham Lincoln, whose own birthday was and remains a separate holiday in a number of states.
In anticipating Presidents Day over the weekend, I did something I hadn’t really done before and took a collective looks at the presidents who have served in my lifetime. I was shocked to realize there had been a dozen: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama. Half were Democrats and half were Republicans. Half were either born in or were elected to office in one of the states of the former Confederacy. Half went either to Ivy League colleges or to military academies. All of them with the arguable exception of Carter prosecuted military actions. Four fought in World War II, five sent or maintained troops in Vietnam, two invaded Iraq. Their warlike gestures ranged in intensity from Reagan’s playhouse invasion of Granada to Truman’s order to drop nuclear weapons on Japan.
Five lost re-election bids (if you assume Truman wanted to run in 1952 but withdrew after losing the New Hampshire primary). Three (Ike, Nixon and Reagan) were re-elected by landslides; one (Clinton) by a comfortable margin; and a third (G.W. Bush) by an eyelash.
Several had difficult second terms. One resigned under the threat of impeachment and another survived an impeachment trial.
Only two (JFK and Reagan) were immediately succeeded by their vice presidents, although in four other cases (Nixon, Humphrey, Mondale and Gore) the last Veep won his party’s next presidential nomination.
While all these presidents have had their defenders among professional and amateur historians alike, and Truman and LBJ in particular have achieved relatively high rankings, only two of the twelve achieved what you might call hagiographical status after their presidencies: JFK and Reagan–the former because of his tragic death, and the potential, personal and national, he represented, and the latter as the increasingly dominant ideological lodestar of contemporary conservatism, despite his own heresies.
Most readers doubtless have their own memories and reflections on the presidents of their own lifetimes; feel free to share them in the comment thread.