How's He Doing?
Bush is "average," but far from ordinary.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Monday, September 12, 2005
Ask someone to describe the presidency of George W. Bush, and "average" is not a word you're likely to hear. Mr. Bush's detractors treat him with a level of vituperation unseen since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt; some even blame him for bad weather. His admirers don't go so far as to credit him when the sun shines, but their affection for him is palpable.
RANK NAME MEAN GREAT 1 George Washington 4.94 2 Abraham Lincoln 4.67 3 Franklin Roosevelt 4.41 NEAR GREAT 4 Thomas Jefferson 4.23 5 Theodore Roosevelt 4.08 6 Ronald Reagan 4.03 7 Harry Truman 3.95 8 Dwight Eisenhower 3.67 9 James Polk 3.59 10 Andrew Jackson 3.58 ABOVE AVERAGE 11 Woodrow Wilson 3.41 12 Grover Cleveland 3.34 13 John Adams 3.33 14 William McKinley 3.32 15 John Kennedy 3.25 16 James Monroe 3.24 AVERAGE 17 James Madison 3.07 18 Lyndon Johnson 3.05 19 George W. Bush 3.01 20 William Taft 2.97 21 George H.W. Bush 2.95 22 Bill Clinton 2.93 23 Calvin Coolidge 2.77 24 Rutherford Hayes 2.73 BELOW AVERAGE 25 John Quincy Adams 2.66 26 Chester Arthur 2.65 27 Martin Van Buren 2.63 28 Gerald Ford 2.61 29 Ulysses Grant 2.57 30 Benjamin Harrison 2.54 31 Herbert Hoover 2.50 32 Richard Nixon 2.40 33 Zachary Taylor 2.30 34 Jimmy Carter 2.24 35 John Tyler 2.23 FAILURE 36 Millard Fillmore 1.85 37 Andrew Johnson 1.75 38 Franklin Pierce 1.73 39 Warren Harding 1.65 40 James Buchanan 1.31
So it may come as a surprise that in a new survey of scholars ranking the presidents, Mr. Bush finishes almost exactly in the middle of the pack. He ranks No. 19 out of 40, and he rates 3.01 on a 5-point scale, just a hair's breadth above the middlemost possible figure. But this is no gentleman's C. Mr. Bush's rating is average because it is an average, of rankings given by 85 professors of history, politics, law and economics.
Most such scholarly polls have a strong liberal bias, reflecting academia's far-left tilt. But this survey--conducted by James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School for the Federalist Society and The Wall Street Journal--aimed at ideological balance. The scholars were chosen with an eye toward balancing liberals and conservatives, and Mr. Lindgren asked each participant about his political orientation, then adjusted the average to give Democratic- and Republican-leaning scholars equal weight.
Mr. Bush's rating thus reflects the same sharp partisan divide that gave him a shade under 51% of the popular vote last year. GOP-leaning scholars rated Mr. Bush the 6th-best president of all time, while Democratic ones rated him No. 35, or 6th-worst. Even Bill Clinton--13th among Democrats, 34th among Republicans--isn't as controversial.
If this result reflects the passions of the moment, how will history judge George W. Bush? Today's opinion polls are no guide: Warren G. Harding was a lot more popular when he died in office than Harry S. Truman was when he left, yet Harding now rates as a failure and Truman as near great.
Here's one way of thinking about the question: The three great presidents--Washington, Lincoln and FDR--all faced unprecedented challenges, all responded to them boldly, and all succeeded. Mr. Bush has met the first two of these criteria: The 9/11 attacks were his unprecedented challenge; setting out to democratize the Middle East was his bold response. Will he succeed--not just in bringing stability and representative government to Iraq but in beginning a process that spreads freedom throughout the region? That will determine whether he joins the top tiers of presidents.
If he falls short, he may still get credit for trying. The lowest-ranking presidents tend to be not those who aimed high and missed, but those whose administrations were plagued by scandal (Harding, Nixon) or who were passive as crises built (Buchanan, Carter).
If Mr. Bush's vision turns out to have been overambitious, the more salient precedents may be the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both had bold, forward-looking agendas, and both suffered enormous setbacks. Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy, but America instead turned inward, leaving the world decidedly unsafe for democracy until after World War II. Johnson waged war both in Vietnam and on poverty, with one loss and one draw.
Yet neither one is judged a failure in the survey: Wilson is above average at No. 11, and Johnson is average at No. 18. Like Mr. Bush, both are more highly regarded within their own party. Wilson finishes 7th among Democrats and 23rd among Republicans; LBJ, 9th among Democrats and 31st among Republicans.
One thing that is sure to prove irrelevant to Mr. Bush's legacy is the intensity of today's Angry Left. FDR faced an Angry Right in his day, but Republicans in the survey rank him the 5th-best president. Even Ronald Reagan, out of office less than two decades, ranks a respectable 14th among Democrats. Mr. Bush is a polarizing figure today, but if his policies prove successful over time, even his detractors will grudgingly come around.
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