What Makes a President Great?
Scholars finally begin giving Reagan his due.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, June 10, 2004
Ronald Reagan has had a hard time getting his due from scholars. In 1996 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. conducted a poll of historians asking them to rank the presidents, and Mr. Reagan came in 25th out of 39, putting him in the "low average" category. The Gipper had done only slightly better in a Siena College survey two years earlier, finishing 20th out of 41--below Bill Clinton (16th), who had been in office less than two years, and well below Lyndon B. Johnson (13th). It's hard to agree that the president who won the Cold War was less successful than the one who escalated the Vietnam War.
The flaw in these studies is obvious. Because academics tend to be far to the left of the general population, conservative presidents, especially recent ones, usually get short shrift. (A C-Span survey in 1999, which included "professional presidential experts" as well as historians, did rank Mr. Reagan 11th.)
Public opinion polls tell a different story. In February 2001 Gallup asked Americans who was the greatest president in history. Mr. Reagan finished first, with 18%. Yet while Gallup's results are ideologically balanced, they also reflect a lack of historical perspective. When the firm asked the same question in May 2003, 51% of respondents named a post-1960 president. Among Democrats, 46% picked either John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, while 41% of Republicans chose either Mr. Reagan or George W. Bush. Whatever the merits of these four men, it seems premature at best to declare them greater than the likes of Washington and Lincoln.
In 2000 the Federalist Society came up with a way to remedy the flaws in both types of surveys. It asked 78 scholars in history, law and politics to rate the presidents on a five-point scale. "We tried to choose approximately equal numbers of scholars who lean to the left and to the right," explains Northwestern University's James Lindgren, who analyzed the data. "Another way to express this is that we sought to mirror what scholarly opinion might be on the counterfactual assumption that the academy was politically representative of the society in which we live and work."
Mr. Lindgren averaged the ratings for each of the 39 presidents (George W. Bush was not yet elected, and William Henry Harrison and James Garfield were omitted because they died shortly after taking office) and divided them into six categories: great, near great, above average, average, below average and failure. The results appeared in November 2000 on OpinionJournal.com and have just been published as a Wall Street Journal book, "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House," which also includes an essay on each president and several thematic chapters on presidential leadership. (For excerpts, click here.) Some highlights:
Three presidents made the cut as "great": George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are the top three finishers in most surveys of scholars.
Eight presidents were judged "near great," including Mr. Reagan, who finished eighth. Among them only James K. Polk (10th) served just one term.
Among recent presidents, only Mr. Reagan ranked as "near great." JFK (18th) and LBJ (17th) were "above average," George H.W. Bush (21st) and Bill Clinton (24th) "average," and Richard Nixon (33rd), Gerald Ford (28th) and Jimmy Carter (30th) "below average."
Mr. Clinton was the most controversial president--that is, the scholars' rankings of him diverged more sharply than for anyone else. Woodrow Wilson, who finished 11th overall, was the second most controversial president, but the next three were all among the post-1960 group: Mr. Reagan, Nixon and LBJ.
Four presidents rated as failures: Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding and James Buchanan. Buchanan finished dead last.
An obvious question is how the current President Bush would fare if such a survey were conducted today. Arguably, it's too early to take the measure of Mr. Bush's presidency, since its success or failure will largely be determined by what happens in Iraq and whether he is re-elected in November.
But if liberal and conservative scholars mirror the nation's partisan divide, one may surmise that he would be very controversial--perhaps even more so than his predecessor. His admirers and detractors would perhaps cancel each other out, leaving him somewhere near the middle of the pack. Yet partisan passions have a way of fading with time. Lincoln and FDR both today rank as great, even though both, like Mr. Bush, faced bitter partisan opposition while in office (and FDR still has his critics).
George W. Bush could eventually end up joining the ranks of the greats. The three great presidents have three things in common: All faced unprecedented challenges, all responded to them boldly, and all ultimately were successful. Mr. Bush so far meets two of these criteria: History dealt him an unprecedented challenge in the form of the 9/11 attacks, and no one can deny that he answered it with boldness. If he is able to overcome the current troubles in Iraq, and if he succeeds in his mission of combating Islamist terror by promoting democracy in the Middle East, history will be far kinder to him than are his contemporary critics.
Should this happen, the reputations of his predecessors are likely to suffer, for they will come to be seen as having failed to address the problems that came to a head on 9/11. Both Lincoln and FDR were preceded by a series of presidents who today are held in low esteem: Zachary Taylor (who ranks 31st), Millard Fillmore (35th), Franklin Pierce (37th) and James Buchanan (39th); and Warren Harding (37th, tied with Pierce), Calvin Coolidge (25th) and Herbert Hoover (29th). The former group allowed the issue of slavery to fester until it nearly destroyed the nation; the latter, fairly or not, are blamed for the Depression.
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are likely to bear the brunt for not dealing decisively with the gathering terrorist threat. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan can also be faulted here, but Mr. Reagan's reputation is probably secure, since it rests on other accomplishments, and Mr. Carter doesn't have much farther to fall.
Those who believe that history runs in cycles will be interested to note that the three great presidents took office at 72-year intervals--Washington in 1789, Lincoln in 1861 and FDR in 1933--and that this November it will have been exactly 72 years since the election of our last great president.
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