The 7 Coolest Presidents In American History

Sep 7, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 2:34 pm

When former President Bill Clinton referred to present President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention as "cool on the outside," Clinton was underscoring the notion that Obama is, well, cool.

Since Obama was elected, much has been made of his coolitude. He listens to an iPod. He slow jams the news with late-night comic Jimmy Fallon. He wears shades, drinks beer, taps into social media and sings Al Green now and then. The New Yorker referred to Obama as Mr. Cool.

Which got us to thinking — and asking historians — who are the seven coolest presidents in American history?

1) Bill Clinton. After all, it takes a cool guy to know a cool guy. "Obviously Bill Clinton," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. During the 1992 election, Clinton explored new ways to reach voters, like appearing on MTV and playing the saxophone on a late night talk show. Clinton's popularity, Zelizer says, "even in the middle of impeachment, demonstrated a kind of admiration many had for his personal style."

2) John F. Kennedy. The smoothie from Massachusetts "was certainly cool in terms of charisma and demeanor," Zelizer says. The stark contrast between Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 debates "might have set the standard for what it meant to be cool."

3) Theodore Roosevelt. Though Teddy was "not cool by modern standards," Zelizer says, "clearly the curiosity many Americans had for him as a person — famously with the Teddy bear — signaled that TR was a man of his times."

4) Ronald Reagan. The actor-turned-politician "attracted scads of young voters in the 1980 and 1984 elections," says Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. Reagan "was a rock star when he went to Moscow at the end of his presidency. Young Russians definitely thought him cool." So did many Americans.

5) Thomas Jefferson. The polymath from Virginia "was cool in the early days of the new republic," Whitney says. "He broke with the aristocratic formalities of his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, and introduced the revolutionary republican greeting from France — the hand shake — to welcome guests to Monticello and the White House. Quite hip in his day, he was a renowned musician and elegant dancer with whom women fell in love."

Cool, of course, can have more than one definition, according to Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette University. On one hand, presidential cool can refer to a president's ability to charm others, defy convention and appear hip — exemplified by Clinton's saxophone playing and Kennedy's movie-grade glamour. But it also can refer to a president's unflappable and seemingly detached manner.

In presidential politics, Azari says, the two definitions are often at odds. The first definition "sets the president up as a celebrity, but also speaks to the intimacy of his connection with not only the people but also popular, 'low' culture."

The second definition, she says, "positions the president as above the fray, impervious to petty political criticism. This is a key quality to cultivate during times when presidents have to make difficult political decisions."

6) Franklin D. Roosevelt. Using the second definition, Azari says, "I would add FDR to the list. He told critics he 'welcomed their hatred.' " He was "unflappable and in control, calm in a crisis."

7) George W. Bush. Using the first definition, "I'd add George W. Bush," Azari says. "Everyone wanted to have a beer with him. Too bad he doesn't drink." That likability quality seemed to serve Bush well politically, she adds, "at least in the short term."

On a closing note, Azari says, "I think a few presidents have suffered from a seeming lack of cool — in the sense of both hipness and unflappability: Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter."

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