It’s fun playing God—even in the limited form of offering grand historical judgments. My introduction to godlike authority came when the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) recently asked me to be part of a panel commissioned to rank U.S. Presidents.
The idea of ranking Presidents is not a new one. It began a half century ago when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., the eminent Harvard historian, invited fifty-five prominent scholars to join him in rating all the Chief Executives to that time. The results, published in 1948 in Life magazine, generated considerable attention and controversy. The game has been played many times since, most recently in the December 15, 1996 issue of the New York Times Magazine. That poll was presided over, appropriately enough, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a distinguished historian in his own right.
It was the Times’ poll that prompted the ISI to conduct its own ranking. It found the list of scholars on the Schlesinger jury to be ideologically unbalanced (read, mostly liberal), and decided to appoint its own, presumably more evenhanded, panel. (I have no idea who my fellow jurors are.) It is not surprising, of course, that the Schlesinger panel tilted to the left—everything in academia tilts to the left.
It will be interesting to see, when the ISI results are published, how much they differ from earlier polls. Most rankings, following the elder Schlesinger’s original pattern, rate the Presidents as Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, or Failure. As Schlesinger, Jr. notes, “the choice of best and worst Presidents has remained relatively stable through the years.” George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt “are always at the top.” They are regularly followed, in various order, by Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. The Failures are invariably headed up by Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding, with Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Calvin Coolidge normally joining them at or near the bottom. The Schlesinger poll rates Taylor, Fillmore, and Coolidge as merely Below Average and expands the Failure category to include Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon.
Where one ranks Presidents depends, of course, on the criteria employed. The most obvious temptation is to rate them high or low depending on how closely their views correspond to one’s ideological preferences. Thus, for example, a conservative in knee-jerk mode might reverse the conventional wisdom and rate FDR a Failure and Coolidge a Great or Near Great. But that kind of ideological determinism—the kind that led thirteen of Schlesinger’s thirty-two colleagues to rank Ronald Reagan Below Average or Failure—betrays a failure both of historical imagination and of scholarly impartiality.
My three criteria of judgment were: impact on national development, impact on the particular historical moment, and impact on the office of the presidency. If one word would have to do, it would be leadership. I also based my rankings on the individual’s record only while in office: thus Grant, a great general, remains a lousy President.
My Greats, as it turns out, coincide with the scholarly consensus. No one can deny Washington, and only the most die-hard partisan of the Confederacy can deny Lincoln. They remain our national icons, the standards against which all others must be measured. FDR is a harder case, but even conservatives have to concede that he provided compelling leadership in the two greatest national crises of our century”the Depression and World War II—and that he remade the presidential office. One can deplore his philosophical lightmindedness and still agree (swallowing hard) that he has to be included in the national pantheon.
In the Near Great category, I concur with the Schlesinger panel on Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson (though Wilson’s a close call because a combination of illness and stubborn self-righteousness made the last years of his presidency a disaster). But I would demote Polk—it is for good reason that most Americans aren’t quite sure who he was or what he’s doing in this company—and, more controversially, Jefferson and Truman.
Jefferson was a great American but only a middling President. He had a bad conscience about his greatest achievement—the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory—and he maneuvered ineffectually in struggling to maintain American neutrality during the Napoleonic wars. Truman had the good sense to follow the lead of George Marshall, Dean Acheson, (the early) George Kennan, et al. in foreign policy, but his domestic record was a misbegotten disaster. He could be—too often was—petty, doctrinaire, and narrowly partisan, and he held an unseemly but utterly unshakable confidence in his rightness on all things. His approval ratings while in office—the lowest of any modern President save Nixon at the depths of Watergate—reflected the scorn with which most Americans of the time regarded him.
To replace Jefferson and Truman, I would promote both Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower from Average to Near Great status. Whatever one thinks of his ideology, Reagan revitalized his party, reinvigorated the office of President, and redefined the terms of American political discourse—not to mention presiding over the end of the Cold War. He had a magnificent presidential personality, and he conducted the public and ceremonial duties of his office as well as anyone who has held it. Eisenhower, who was far more politically astute than is often thought, led the nation through an unprecedented period of consensus and good feelings. Americans have never thought better of themselves and their nation than they did in the 1950s, and no small part of that was the trust, affection, and admiration they felt for Ike.
I agree with the Schlesinger poll on the Failures, with two exceptions. Hoover was the victim of the Great Depression, not its cause, and while his personality was unsuited to the crisis he faced, he was not at all the do-nothing President the Democrats held him to be. Below Average is judgment enough. As to ranking Nixon, one simply, as with so much else about the man, throws up one’s hands. Watergate brands him a Failure, yet he doesn’t really belong in the company of Grant, Harding, and Buchanan. His considerable successes elsewhere could place him as high as Near Great, and in the end I judge him Average, though he doesn’t really belong there either. Nixon needs his own category.
As to other recent Presidents, the Schlesinger panel places John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush all in the Average category, although JFK and LBJ get better scores than the others. I generally agree, though I think Bush will edge upward over time (almost solely on the basis of the Gulf War) and I would drop Carter to Below Average. He came into office with high popularity and promising opportunities, but he turned out to be an ineffectual moralizer with a distant and disagreeable personality.
Finally, the Schlesinger poll ranks the current incumbent (who, according to reports, frequently muses over his own eventual place in the ratings game) as Average, which seems about right. Bill Clinton is a man of considerable talent who demeans himself by acting as if he were in a perpetual race for Student Senate President. He wants everyone to love him—with the result that no one really trusts him. He is the master of serial sincerity. He displayed his impressive political skills in repositioning himself in the center after 1994 and winning reelection against what seemed heavy odds, but he has yet to persuade most Americans that he possesses an authentic public self.
Presidential reputations, in the end, are the product not of History but of historians’ fallible and shifting judgments. They depend also, to no small extent, on sheer dumb luck. Great critical situations do not by themselves generate great presidencies, but they do seem to be their precondition. Extraordinary leadership is a gift of the gods, but its exercise is often an accident of history. Theodore Roosevelt always regretted that as President he never confronted a crisis severe enough to put his leadership skills fully to the test. But that suggests a cautionary note: for all my admiration for TR, I have always been uneasy with his restless eagerness to press fate in order that he might most dramatically exhibit his charismatic gifts. One is the more in awe of Lincoln, the greatest American, because he accepted as burden rather than gift the terrible occasion of his greatness.