As the federal Presidents' Day holiday is upon us, it is fitting that we reflect upon the men who have occupied the office and the qualities that distinguish them. In a recent Washington Post online poll, readers were asked to make a case for who they thought to be the most underrated U. S. president. There were a couple of ground rules: limit arguments to 75 words; and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were all off-limits.

As the federal Presidents’ Day holiday is upon us, it is fitting that we reflect upon the men who have occupied the office and the qualities that distinguish them. In a recent Washington Post online poll, readers were asked to make a case for who they thought to be the most underrated U. S. president. There were a couple of ground rules: limit arguments to 75 words; and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were all off-limits.

The names that emerged, while interesting were not the most evocative part of the exercise. Rather, the criteria by which people formed their estimations was. In short, one person’s declaration of greatness was anathema to another. The very reason one individual cites as evidence of superior presidential performance is taken by others as indicia of gross failure. Even more complicating is the fact that most presidential terms are a mixed bag of triumphs and travesty. While it’s by no means a scientific sample, the readers’ posts shed light onto those things that we take to be important, even if we can’t agree which way they should be interpreted.

Chief among these, readers seem to prefer obvious decisiveness. The particular president at issue did something notable to influence a situation: Truman moved to desegregate the military; Chester A. Arthur ushered in civil service reform; James Monroe’s decree of his now eponymous “Doctrine”; Gerald Ford’s politically suicidal pardon of Richard Nixon. In short, they were all “doers.” Of course each of the aforementioned acts brought with them great critique and criticism. The dialog also had a strong tincture of “yes, but…”

For instance, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was a domestic success, but his quagmire in southeast Asia is equally memorable. Truman’s desegregation is praiseworthy. Whereas, the decision to use atomic weapons continues as a point of debate. Herbert Hoover did more for criminal justice and regulatory reform than any president prior. Even so, he is saddled with the yoke of the Great Depression and failed Prohibition policy — both of which could more properly be laid at the feet of Calvin Coolidge. One of the most interesting cases regards a president’s capacity to advance goals. To this, an intrepid reader offered James K. Polk. Seriously, when is the last time you thought about Polk?

As the reader reminds us, Polk made a rather eloquent statement of his perspective on the office: “It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens.” Another reader chimed in that Polk was known to have worked 18-hour days, accomplished all of his broadly stated goals and was dead within months of leaving office.

Presidents of more recent vintage may wear the mantle of office heavily, but most have managed long into post-presidency. Indeed, several have done some of their best work after leaving office. William Howard Taft as a Supreme Court Justice and Jimmy Carter as an unofficial envoy of peace and humanitarian causes, both quickly to mind. All of this gets to a point that our present world of immediate information betrays: greatness is more often than not a matter of perspective. Perspective takes reflection.

Reflection requires distance and time. For the truly great, these things solidify their place in the pantheon. For the less accomplished, it serves a similar, albeit less historically incising purpose.