Monday, June 14, 2004Okay, I've calmed down a bit from yesterday. Maybe I can be a bit more rational now.
The first thing to question from the McLaughlin group is that their survey of presidential greatness was conducted by the Federalist Society, so I might be a little suspicious, but most of the results seem consistent with previous research.
What standards should we use for grading a President? I think that a number of things enter into Presidential success. Popularity is certainly one of those things, but it is more than just being well-liked. Instead, great leaders can embody and enunciate the deeply held aspirations of their constituents. Other key features are domestic success (did they pass their agenda?), foreign policy credentials (maintaining U.S. security, particularly if they fought a successful war), did they strengthen their political party, were they an effective administrator, and most importantly, did they strengthen democratic institutions. This all sums up into whether they left the country stronger than they found it (or at least stronger than it otherwise would have been).
Greatness is a notoriously slippery concept. It can just mean influential, but that means that people like Hitler are very great world figures (though bad for their country). If we say that someone had a positive effect, it opens up a historical can of worms, because this frequently causes us to project our current political disputes onto the past. This is why history is "an argument without end."
So just for fun, let's rank the President's using the usual typology: great, near great, above average, average, below average, failure. Great Presidents are indispensible men, near great had a major positive impact, above average somewhat extended or preserved the country, average Presidents are unexceptionable, below average had little major impact, and failures were positive banes.
So here you go:
Great: Washington (the indispensable man for the founding)
FDR (saved capitalism, american democracy, and the world)
Lincoln (saved the country and freed the slaves)
Near Great: Polk (doubled the size of the country)
Wilson (implemented Progressive agenda, won WWI, defined U.S. foreign policy)
Truman (Marshall Plan, Cold War)
Above Average: Teddy Roosevelt (conservation, trust-busting)
Lyndon Johnson (civil rights act, great society)
Andrew Jackson (championed popular participation)
Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase, symbolic importance)
Average: James Madison
John Quincy Adams
George H.W. Bush
Below Average: Martin Van Buren
Rutherford B. Hayes
Richard Nixon (if it weren't for watergate, he would be above average)
Failure: U.S. Grant
Remember, this ranking is based on what someone did IN the Presidency, hence the lower than expected rankings for Jefferson, Adams, Van Buren, Madison. Also, there are figures that had a dramatic effect on our history that were never elected President. I'll talk about them tomorrow.
So why do I rank Reagan so low? His positives are that he did evince American optimism, opened up to Gorbachev, and did change the nature of political debate. These successes are mitigated by several major foreign policy blunders (lebanon), coddling dictators, and running up a gigantic deficit, which is sort of the opposite of being a good steward. The thing that really pulls him down though is his effect on our politics. His central message is that government is illegitimate. I can't see how this is positive.
And Jefferson? His major accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase, which was sort of dumped in his lap. He was a good symbolic leader, but like Reagan he taught us that any government action was a threat to our liberty, cleverly sweeping under the table the ability of states to violate rights. His foreign policy was a big fat joke.
Please tell me what you think. I can take it.