HISTORIANS and journalists like to rank ex-presidents, as...

May 02, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HISTORIANS and journalists like to rank ex-presidents, as was discussed here last Thursday. It's neither scholarship nor journalism. It's a parlor game.

For one thing, virtually no student of the presidency really is enough of an expert on all the very different American eras to be able to fairly judge in context all the 40 men who held the job before Bill Clinton.

For another, more important thing in my view, even if one knew everything there was to know about the 204 years from from 1789 to 1993, comparisons would be misleading if not meaningless, because the roles of the presidents were so different from one era to another.

You can't compare what a James Knox Polk did and didn't do in the 1840s to Grover Cleveland's decisions 50 years later. You can't compare either of them to a Franklin Roosevelt or any of his successors.

My list ranking the ex-presidents includes only the last 10. That's because I believe only the 10 men from FDR through George Bush held comparable jobs. I also have more confidence in my understanding of American politics and government of the past 60 years than I do of the previous 144. Also, I've seen nine of these 10 men in the flesh, and I wrote a book about the tenth (FDR).

Not till Roosevelt was the U.S. the world power. World War II, the Cold War and now the Hot Peace, or whatever it's called, were American-led adventures.

As for the domestic role of the president and his government, consider this: In 1932, the year of FDR's first election, there were 603,000 federal employees; today there are 2,152,000. That's civilian only. The armed services have massively increased. The federal budget has risen from $4.6 billion to $1.52 trillion. (Lincoln's first budget was $66.5 million.) Almost everything a president does today affects almost every citizen in some way.

So it seems silly to me to compare and rank others with these presidents: FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Everybody else was minor league.

I rank based on subjective criteria, mine and yours. By "yours" I mean the average Gallup Poll "approval rating" for each president's full tenure in office. In a nation like ours, being liked, respected and trusted by the public is an important presidential responsibility (and asset). JFK's average was 70, FDR's 68, Ike's 66, Bush's 60, Reagan's 55, LBJ's 54, Nixon's 48, Carter's 47 and Harry's and Ford's 46.

My other criteria were impact on current events, impact on history, good things done, damage done, world standing, relative prosperity, integrity and luck. A single crowning achievement (say Camp David, the Civil Rights Act, the Gulf War) was less of a plus than a single horrible debacle (Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, 21 percent prime rate) was a minus.

Adding it all up here is my ranking: FDR, Ike, Reagan, JFK, Bush, LBJ, Truman, Carter, Nixon, Ford.

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.