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.
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.
While Clinton could take some comfort from Schlesinger's speculations, which mirrored his own self-assessment, the ISI panel came to a different conclusion. Twenty panelists rated Clinton "below average," and 10 judged him a "failure." The panel's pessimism about the Clinton presidency derives from the avalanche of scandals that has buried his presidency, any one of which might eventually discredit him, as well as his failure so far to take the difficult steps required to keep our old-age entitlement programs solvent. As far as the ISI panel is concerned, Clinton will be hard pressed to achieve even an "average" ranking.
But Clinton, to be sure, can claim some accomplishments. His term has coincided with a generally prosperous economy and a stock market that has more than doubled during his nearly five years in office. Though his health- care scheme went down in flames, he has worked with Congress to reduce the federal budget deficit and to reform the welfare system. By coopting Republican themes (made popular by Reagan) in the areas of crime, welfare, and fiscal responsibility, he has brought the Democratic party nearer to the political center and has sown dissension and confusion in Republican ranks.
Clinton, then, despite his talk of change during the 1992 campaign, has been essentially a status quo president, riding a strong economy and a bull market in stocks and putting off some especially tough issues for his successors. In so doing, he has confirmed and consolidated Ronald Reagan's contribution, while moving his own party toward the center to blunt the advances made by Republicans from 1980 through the congressional elections of 1994.
In this sense, Clinton's main *asks have had less to do with the presidency than with saving his party and its favored programs from destruction at the hands of the Republicans. Though he has so far succeeded in these limited tasks, such a defensive formula does not make for greatness in a president. If Clinton gets through his term without any great debacles, he will in all likelihood be viewed by future historians as an "average" president, like McKinley orTaft, who was fortunate to govern during good times. If he is undone by scandal or a failing economy, he may do worse.
SCHLESINGER VS. ISI SURVEY RANKINGS
Jefferson, Jackson, Polk,
Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan,
T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman
F.D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower
Monroe, Cleveland, McKinley,
J. Adams, J.Q. Adams
Cleveland, McKinley, Taft,
L.B. Johnson, J. Adams
Coolidge, Truman, Polk,
Madison, J.Q. Adams
Madison, Van Buren, Ford,
Van Buren, Hayes,
B. Harrison, Hayes, Garfield
B. Harrison, Taft, Ford,
Carter, Regan, Bush, Clinton
Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore,
Tyler, Fillmore, Wilson
Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover
Pierce, Buchanan, A. Johnson,
Buchanan, Grant, Harding,
Grant, Harding, Hoover, Nixon
L.B. Johnson, Carter,
Clinton, Pierce, A. Johnson
James Piereson is executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation.