But what is it that presidential historians use to rank our presidents, and why do some of our Chief Executives get high grades and others terrible ones? Eric Foner gives us the historians' perspective over at the wapo this weekend.
More often, however, the rankings display a remarkable year-to-year uniformity. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt always figure in the "great" category. Most presidents are ranked "average" or, to put it less charitably, mediocre. Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Richard M. Nixon occupy the bottom rung, and now President Bush is a leading contender to join them. A look at history, as well as Bush's policies, explains why.Rather than just poking sticks at Bush 43, Foner takes a detailed look at the specific complaints which put some of the previous basement dwellers of presidential rankings down near the bottom.
At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight years preceding the Civil War, and Johnson, who followed it, were simply not up to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces (in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). Even after being repudiated in the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies.Ummm... sound familiar?
Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption of their years in office (1921-23 and 1923-29, respectively) and for channeling money and favors to big business. They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported employers' campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen.Wait. Stop. My head is starting to spin here.
Despite some notable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, Nixon is mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. Nixon considered himself above the law.Did I wander into a VH1 Flashback Machine while typing this?
One other president bears comparison to Bush: James K. Polk. Some historians admire him, in part because he made their job easier by keeping a detailed diary during his administration, which spanned the years of the Mexican-American War. But Polk should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.Ok... enough. There's more to read if you click through the jump and it will be worth your time to do so.
You know, if you had told me back in 1998 that eight years later I would be looking back fondly on Bill Clinton's presidency, I'd have laughed in your face. I was never a huge Clinton supporter, though I came to see that he was an effective and competent leader in retrospect. But I took issue with many of his actions and decisions. But now?
Oh, man. It almost makes you kind of miss Monica, doesn't it? In fact, sometimes I kind of wish she'd stop by and pay the current President a visit. I mean, if nothing else he would probably be in a better mood. And people who are happy tend to be less likely to do mean, aggressive, violent things. Heck, Bill always seemed pretty chipper.
I also remember occasionally thinking that Bill was a bit too wimpy on foreign policy. The ton of bricks worth of perspective we've gained since then make me feel pretty silly. And the economy? Things were going pretty well, particularly toward the end, but I still felt that Clinton could have pushed programs to build domestic job bases more aggressively and take more of an "America First" stance. Looking around today, apparently he was a genius. The sneaky bastard even managed to balance the budget and come up with a surplus by his last year. Yet I complained about him. What was I thinking?
Presidential historians are very useful for keeping one eye on the long view. At this point, I'd almost rather just close my eyes.