The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By JAMES PIERESON
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Last winter, the New York Times Magazine pubished a study ranking the American presidents. Authored by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the study represented the latest chapter in a project started by his father, the respected Harvard historian, 50 years ago.

For the recent poll, Schlesinger selected a jury of 32 scholars, nearly all of them liberal historians or political scientists, such as James MacGregor Burns, Alan Brinkley, Walter Dean Burnham, Eric Foner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, William Leuchtenburg, and Henry Graff. Also on the panel were two politicians known more for their liberal politics than for historical scholarship -- former New York governor Mario Cuomo and former Illinois senator Paul Simon -- included presumably because both had written books on Abraham Lincoln. Their presence gave the reader a clear sense of the jury's ideological disposition.

It hardly came as a surprise, then, when the results of the study fell along predictable ideological lines. Among 20th-century presidents, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was ranked as "great," and his fellow Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who sought to extend FDR's achievements, were rated "high average." By contrast, Ronald Reagan, our most conservative president and the one who did the most to undo those achievements, was rated "low average" -- the same as Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was a failure by any objective measure. The study rated President Clinton "average" through his first term, though Schlesinger noted that Clinton could easily move up if in his second term he promoted liberal causes, including campaign-finance reform, more spending on urban problems and infrastructure, health-care reform, and environmental activism.

Rather than a reliable ranking of presidents, the study was in fact just one more elaboration of the central assumptions of modern liberalism -- namely, that progress can only be achieved through an interventionist federal government that sponsors programs to redistribute income and promote equality. Liberal presidents who promoted such policies were therefore rewarded with high rankings (FDR, JFK, and LBJ), while conservatives who contradicted them were punished with low rankings (Ronald Reagan), regardless of their actual accomplishments.

Now, however, a new study has appeared that offers a strikingly different perspective on our presidents. Recently the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an educational organization that promotes traditional approaches to the liberal arts and American history and government, surveyed 38 scholars with a broad range of expertise in American history, the presidency, and the Constitution. They included historians Donald Kagan of Yale, Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama (also a panelist in the Schlesinger study), and Aileen Kraditor of Boston University, political scientists Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College, and constitutional scholar Betsy McCaughey Ross, lieutenant governor of New York.  * The ISI study was supervised by political scientist Gary Gregg, author of The Presidential Republic.

* The other members of the ISI Panel are: William B. Allen, Michigan State University; Martin Anderson, Hoover Institution; Larry Arnn, Claremont Institute; Ryan J. Barilleaux, Miami University of Ohio; Herman Belz, University of Maryland; Richard S. Brookhiser, National Review; George W Carey, Georgetown University; James Ceaser, University of Virginia; Marshall L. DeRosa, Florida Atlantic University; Charles W. Dunn, Clemson University; Burton Folsom, Mackinac Center for Public Policy; Paul Gottfried, Elizabethtown College; Phillip G. Henderson, Catholic University of America; Robert David Johnson, Williams College; Stephen M. Krason, Franciscan University of Steubenville; Peter Augustine Lawlet, Berry College; Leonard Liggio, Atlas Economic Research Foundation; Wilfred McClay, Tulane University; Walter A. McDougall, University of Pennsylvania; Sidney M. Milkis, Brandeis University; James Nuechterlein, First Things; John Pafford, Northwood University; Paul A. Rahe, University of Tulsa; Ellis Sandoz, Louisiana State University; Peter W. Schramm, Ashbrook Center; Barry Alan Shain, Colgate University; Edward S. Shapiro, Seton Hall University; Bernard Sheehan, Indiana University; C. Bradley Thompson, Ashbrook Center; Bradford Wilson, National Association of Scholars;Jay David Woodward, Clemson University.

As in the Schlesinger study, the panelists were asked to place each of the presidents in one of six categories from "great" to "failure." Presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were excluded from both studies because both men died shortly after taking office, leaving 39 presidents to be evaluated.