PRESIDENTIAL RANKINGS SUBJECT TO WHIMS OF TIME
- PRESIDENTIAL RANKINGS SUBJECT TO WHIMS OF TIME, VIEWPOINT By David M.
Sat Sep 17, 8:06 PM ET
Around this time in every presidency, there begins a great reckoning -
- or, more precisely, a great conversation about a great reckoning.
In the West Wing, in the Oval Office and even in the private
residential quarters, the subject is unavoidable: How is history
going to rate the president?
There is only one reliable answer: Often.
Historians, columnists and politicians are obsessed with presidential
rankings, maybe because it is one of the very few areas where there
is no reliable answer and where the verdict changes with the times.
More than a half-century ago, for example, a group of scholars ranked
Andrew Johnson 19th best. The latest rankings, just out, put him at
37th. (I'd rank him below 40th, if you're keeping score at home.)
What happened in the last 50 years to explain the precipitous drop in
the way the first President Johnson is viewed? Maybe the thousands of
books about the Civil War and Reconstruction, maybe the civil rights
movement. And in the end, it may not matter a whole lot whether
Franklin Pierce, who bungled the run-up to the Civil War, or Andrew
Johnson, who bungled the period just after the war, was a worse
president. They were both execrable.
For years conservatives complained that presidential rankings were
dominated by the very liberals who controlled the universities and
the news media, and thus Americans were looking at their history, and
choosing their heroes, through pink-colored lenses. So The Wall
Street Journal and the Federalist Society, no avatars of liberalism,
engaged James T. Lindgren of the Northwestern University Law School
to conduct his own poll -- one which strived to balance liberals and
conservatives and give an average ranking.
Lindgren's poll, a survey of 85 historians, political scientists,
economics and law professors chosen to ensure ideological balance,
produced a ranking -- at least at the top, where the heroes are made -
- that isn't all that different from the ratings developed by that
symbol of liberalism, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, in 1948. The
top three in the Schlesinger rankings were Abraham Lincoln, George
Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The top three in the Lindgren rankings were Washington, Lincoln and
So at the very least we can agree that Americans have settled on
something of a trinity, and if you think about it you may conclude
that the top three have a number of things in common. They all
presided over times of great change. They all governed in periods of
great threat. They all saved the country at a time when it was not
completely clear that the country could be saved.
Bill Clinton (ranked No. 22 in the new survey) spent more time than
any recent president worrying about how he'd be viewed in the future,
and he came to what was, for him, a gloomy conclusion. Serve in a
White House where the challenges aren't great, and the chances aren't
great that you'll be remembered as great. As proof, you might
consider Benjamin Harrison, ranked at No. 30.
The president who gives the lie to that calculus is Dwight D.
Eisenhower, who turns up as No. 8 (two ahead of Andrew Jackson) in
the new survey. A generation ago, you couldn't find many votes for
Ike as a great president, but recent scholarship has determined that
there was more meaning to his mumble than anyone believed at the
time. His revival is one of the great posthumous achievements in
American history -- and a redemption of the final line of
the "Checkers speech," made by Richard Nixon -- who at No. 32 in the
new rankings, is still awaiting his own revival: "Folks, he is a
great man, and a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what is good for
One of the curiosities of these rankings is how the second president
has fared. The conventional wisdom on the street (maybe not on the
street, but surely in the stacks or in the lounges of the great
history departments in America) is that the popular historian David
McCullough single-handedly has rediscovered John Adams and, in a book
that sold a million copies in hardcover, performed the miracle act of
reviving his reputation. Maybe not.
The 1948 rankings by Schlesinger, so often derided as tinged with pro-
liberal bias, put the president who signed the Alien and Sedition
Acts, so hated by liberals, at No. 9. The new rankings produced for
The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society find him resting
comfortably at 13.
Let's not buy the argument that passions have cooled on Herbert
Hoover. In 1948, only two decades from the onset of the Great
Depression, the Great Engineer was ranked No. 20. The new rankings,
based on a survey earlier this year, put him at 31. Since nine
presidents who served since the original Schlesinger reckoning
outrank him, Hoover has made essentially no progress.
Professor Schlesinger's son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., repeated his
father's exercise in 1996 and found Ronald Reagan in 25th place. The
new ratings place him at No. 6; even Democrats placed him in 14th
place. The current President Bush ranks 19th, just below Lyndon B.
Johnson, but would have placed higher had it not been for the votes
of economists, even conservatives, who gave him low ratings.
"This is something more than a parlor game and something less than a
good evaluation of presidents," says Lindgren. "It helps the general
public understand where the academic consensus is moving. And for
helps to remind them to reconsider some presidents."
Some of this reconsideration is well under way, and the prime example
is Ulysses S. Grant. The 1948 survey placed him fourth from the
bottom. The new survey ranks him at No. 29. What changed? A new
regard for Grant's economic policies, perhaps, or a new understanding
of his open-mindedness on civil rights. Maybe it is just a new
appreciation, even at this distance, of his role in the Civil War.
The past doesn't change. Our view of it is always changing.
> is Ulysses S. Grant. The 1948 survey placed him fourth from theThe year was 1948. The New Deal academia was still rather socially
> bottom. The new survey ranks him at No. 29. What changed? A new
> regard for Grant's economic policies, perhaps, or a new understanding
> of his open-mindedness on civil rights. Maybe it is just a new
> appreciation, even at this distance, of his role in the Civil War.
conservative, wasn't it? The Schlesinger poll put Woodrow Wilson at
#4, that says a lot about the racial lens of the historians back then.