Saying of Richard Nixon, "let history...


April 28, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

EVERYBODY KEEPS saying of Richard Nixon, "let history judge." It already has. At least, historians have.

In 1981, David L. Porter of William Penn College asked 41 fellow historians of American government to rate all the 36 presidents except Ronald Reagan, the then incumbent. The result was a listing from "great" through "near great," "average," "below average" and "failure."

Nixon was 34th, one of three "failures," just ahead of James Buchanan and Warren Harding.

Nixon's contemporaries in the post-war world did much better. Harry Truman was rated 8th, or "near great." Three rungs below him at 11th, also in the "near great" category, was Lyndon Johnson. Dwight Eisenhower was 12th, top of the "average" category. John F. Kennedy was 14th, also "average." Jimmy Carter was near the bottom of the "average" pile, 23rd. Gerald Ford was the very last "average," 27th.

A year later Steve Neal of the Chicago Tribune got into the act. He asked 49 historians and scholars who had written presidential biographies or similar works (Neal is an Eisenhower biographer) to rate ex-presidents two ways. One, rate each on a 0 to 5 scale in several categories (accomplishments, appointments, character, etc.) and two, list the "10 best" and "10 worst."

Nixon came in 33rd on the basis of the first measurement and 2nd on the "10 worst" measurement (35th best). On the 0-5 list, Truman was 8th, Ike 9th, LBJ 12th, JFK 14th, Ford 23rd and Carter 27th.

Polls of such small numbers of respondents are hardly scientific, even social scientific. So in 1982 Robert K. Murray and Tim H. Blessing of Penn State sent out questionnaires to all 1,997 Ph.D-holding historians at or above the assistant professor level listed by the American Historical Association. They got 970 responses. There were 180 questions on the questionnaire.

Some questions categorized the professors, not the presidents. But on the basis of questions calling for ranking the presidents and categorizing them (with the familiar "great" . . . "failure"), they rated Nixon a "failure," 34th of the 36, ahead of only Harding and U. S. Grant. Truman was 8th, LBJ 10th, Ike 11th, JFK 13th, Ford 24th, Carter 25th.

This survey also looked at how professors who were "liberal" and "conservative" on socio-economic issues differed, and how those who were "most aggressive" and "least aggressive" on foreign policy did. Surprisingly, not too much. Nixon was 35th on the liberals' list, 31st on the conservatives'. He was 36th on the least aggressives' list, 31st on the most aggressives'.

Truman was 8th, 7th, 8th and 11th. Other modern presidents were also rated in a relative narrow range.

In response to the Penn State results, one citizen wrote Blessing that Calvin Coolidge was the "best" president. Another said, "Nixon is the only man among them."

Ranking presidents is a great game, and anyone can play.

Monday: Theo's List.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.