Active presidents top the polls

September 25, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- It seems to be time once again for academia to rate the presidents, a phenomenon that occurs every decade or so.

Like a hatch of 17-year locusts, historians and political scientists are suddenly emerging, each with a new and authoritative assessment of presidential performance.

Much as his father did in 1948, Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. assembled a collection of 32 eminences some months ago to pronounce their version of the verdict of history.

Most were historians or political scientists, including such durable stars as James MacGregor Burns and Doris Kearns Goodwin, but there was a politician or two in the group.

This particular jury was politically liberal in its outlook, and expressed itself as such.

More recently, the more conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed an equally eminent group of 38, including Donald Kagan of Yale, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and Herman Belz of the University of Maryland.

Common ground

Perhaps surprisingly, the two politically distinct panels managed to find a lot of common ground, especially concerning presidents whose eras are well past.

Their sharpest differences of opinion were over some of the presidents whose administrations are still remembered by living Americans.

Respondents to each survey could place a president in one of six categories: Great, Near-Great, High Average, Low Average, Below Average, and Failure.

Both groups agreed that Washington and Lincoln were great, that Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were near-great, and that Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant and Harding were failures.

Both groups also agreed that John Adams, Monroe, Cleveland and McKinley were high average presidents, that Madison, Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Ford and Bush were low average, and that Tyler and Fillmore were below average. But that's where the agreement ended.

The liberals thought Franklin Roosevelt great, the conservatives thought him only near-great.

The conservatives thought Reagan near-great and Wilson below average; the liberals almost reversed that, although they graded Reagan low rather than below average.

The conservatives called Carter, Clinton (perhaps precipitously) and Lyndon Johnson failures; the liberals called the first two low average, and Johnson high average. Kennedy was a high average president to the liberals, below average to the conservatives.

As was the case with their ratings of Franklin Roosevelt, the liberals and conservatives were only one level apart -- almost a token distinction -- in their assessments of Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon.

The liberals called Hoover and Nixon failures, the conservatives called them below average. The conservatives called Truman near-great and Eisenhower high average, and the liberals reversed that.

What does all this mean? One thing it demonstrates is that whether they're leftish or rightish, academics believe strongly in the presidency as an institution, and tend to like active presidents rather than passive ones.

But whether this is an accurate expression of the overall American mood is quite another question.

Not all Americans are enchanted with the imperial machine the modern presidency has become, and there may well be considerable numbers of them who, if pressed, would give William Henry Harrison as their favorite president, on the grounds that he died a month after taking office.

There are even those, and not just in the South, who have reservations about Lincoln's greatness -- most particularly his willingness to pay any price, in blood and in treasure, and to abandon long-established democratic principles, in order to save the Union.

By the same token, some of the presidents rated by both liberals and conservatives as total failures distinguished themselves, in their day, in ways hard to appreciate a century or more later.

James Buchanan believed in the sovereignty of the united American states, and believed too (as did Lincoln, earlier in his career) that those states had the right to secede. This was a legitimate political viewpoint in those days, but Buchanan is remembered now only as Lincoln's predecessor.

Andrew Johnson tried to soften the punitive edge of the post-war Southern occupation, a courageous stand in a time when retribution was on many minds, but he is remembered only for his impeachment.

Gold standard

Ulysses Grant restored the gold standard, which Richard Nixon would later abandon; that's long forgotten, and his administration is known today only for its scandals.

President Clinton, it's been reported, mused a year or so ago about his place in history, and dared to hope that he might reach the near-great niche, along with Jefferson and Jackson and the first Roosevelt.

And it's a fact that he'll probably be the first Democrat since FDR to win two presidential elections and complete both terms.

It's also a fact that at least so far, while he has been in office the economy has been healthy and there have been no major wars.

Those are big pluses. But even discounting such minor distractions as the Whitewater matter, campaign finance, Travelgate, Webster Hubbell, the late Vincent Foster, Paula Jones, Mochtar and James Riady, cattle futures, the Mena airport, Craig Livingstone, John Huang, the Lippo Group, the Hillarycare debacle, the Rose Law Firm billing records, Jim Guy Tucker and Charlie Trie, any Clintonian aspiration to a near-great ranking seems more than a little delusional.

Yet you never know. Years from now, Bill Clinton may seem an important transitional figure.

Remember the Eisenhower administration? People gently mocked it at the time, but in the light of what was to follow in the next 20 years, it looks to history like a very benign time indeed.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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