The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By JAMES PIERESON
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When the results of the two polls are compared, one finds some clear areas of agreement. Both panels, for example, were nearly unanimous in ranking Washington and Lincoln as "great" presidents. In the ISI study, all 38 panelists judged Washington "great," and 29 gave Lincoln the same rating (though two panelists thought Lincoln a failure). It is encouraging to see that, despite all the historical revisionism that has taken place since the 1960s, both of these great men have emerged with their reputations intact among historians and politicial scientists of different points of view.

The consensus extends from the founding of the Republic down to the First World War. For example, the two panels were in agreement in ranking Jefferson, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt in the "near great" category, just below Washington and Lincoln. The reputations of almost all of our other presidents from 1789 to 1914 also appear to be quite settled.

But the consensus breaks down when it comes to 20th-century presidents starting with Wilson. Understandably, the most recent presidents are those whose reputations are most in dispute. In addition, however, the debate over the modern presidents mirrors the national argument over the role of the federal government in our society, a philosophical and political contest that has been waged between the parties for the greater part of this century.

This explains some of the differences between the Schlesinger and the ISI panels. The ISI study, as noted earlier, demotes FDR from "great" to "near great" and Wilson and Truman from "near great" to "high average." Kennedy is similarly reduced from "high average" to "below average," and Lyndon Johnson, rated "high average" in the Schlesinger study, is judged a "failure" by the ISI panel. Reagan and Eisenhower, on the other hand, are elevated to the " near great" category.

It is worth emphasizing, however, that despite their reservations about FDR the ISI panelists acknowledge his lasting influence and historical importance. If Roosevelt is judged somewhat more harshly in the ISI study, it is because his legacy, which seemed secure just a few years ago, now seems less steady, with the partial unraveling of the American welfare state. As historian William McClay wrote, "FDR redefined the presidency in ways that need to be revisited. But there were elements of greatness in him, especially in foreign policy and in his persona."

During the 28 years from 1933 to 1961, the United States had just three presidents -- FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower -- who led the nation through the depression, World War II, and the early and most dangerous years of the Cold War. Each was reelected, served at least two terms in office, and (at least in the cases of FDR and Eisenhower) ended his presidency on good terms with the American people. All three, moreover, continue to be admired by historials and by the public generally.

In the 36 years since 1961, by contrast, we have had eight presidents, none of whom faced challenges as difficult as those confronted by Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Of these eight, one was assassinated (Kennedy), two were driven from office (Johnson and Nixon), and three were defeated for reelection (Ford, Carter, and Bush). Only Reagan was reelected and served two full terms, though Clinton may do so as well.

In the judgment of the ISI historians, Ronald Reagan was the only genuinely successful president in this entire period. As panelist James Nuechterlein noted, Reagan "recreated his party and reinvigorated the office. [He was] a magnificent personality and the most successful "public" president of all time. His only flaw was a too frequent dissociation from policy formation and process." Several other panelists emphasized Reagan's role in building up America's defenses -- over the united opposition of Democrats and intellectuals -- and thus helping bring the Cold War to an end.

What of Bill Clinton? How will historians judge him in the future? He reportedly discussed his place in history with his advisers during the 1996 presidential campaign, speculating that historians might rank him in the same class as Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt if he had a successful second term. But, of course, greatness cannot be conferred by historians, pollsters, or even the voters.