The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians
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In November 1948, Life magazine published an innovative article by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., a noted scholar of his time and father of later historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger’s piece presented the first academic survey in the White House Rating Game and set in motion the ongoing discussion of presidential performance that has come down to our own time. Schlesinger polled fifty-five experts, mostly historians but also some journalists and political scientists, and asked them to place the presidents in one of five categories – Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure. William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield were left out because of the brevity of their presidential tenures. The professor instructed his respondents: “The test in each case is performance in office, omitting everything done before or after.” Beyond that, Schlesinger left all criteria of judgment to the respondents.
The Schlesinger poll ranked the presidents based on the number of votes they received for each category. Lincoln, the only president to be rated unanimously as Great, emerged at the top of the presidential list. The other Greats, in descending order, were George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The Near Great category included (in rank order) Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, John Adams, and James K. Polk. The Failure category consisted of Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding. The other presidents were scattered throughout the Average and Below Average categories.
The Schlesinger poll immediately demonstrated America’s fascination with its presidents. It generated extensive discourse centered not just on the rankings themselves but on questions of the soundness of the Schlesinger methodology and even whether there was any particular value in such polling initiatives. Many Republicans questioned the high standing of Franklin Roosevelt, then still widely despised by his political opponents. Schlesinger Sr. never suggested his poll results represented any kind of definitive judgment on the presidents but rather were merely a “highly informed opinion” by a collection of worthy historical experts. Nevertheless, the 1948 Life article proved highly influential, and soon Schlesinger’s poll was cited by many as a conclusive historical assessment.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert W. Merry
Review by Sanford Levinson
Every four years, we both celebrate the Summer Olympics and elect American presidents. Both athletes and candidates are well aware of the current record holders and each desire to set new records. Robert W. Merry, a longtime Washington journalist and biographer of James K. Polk, offers an insightful overview of the presidential “rating game” by which our now 44 presidents are sorted into bins ranging from “Great” to “Failures.” He emphasizes two ways that presidents are rated. One of them involves professional historians and academics who have, since 1948 (most recently in 2005), regularly rated the presidents. The other concerns the verdicts of the electorate: Did they re-elect the president in question and, just as importantly, according to Merry, reward the president for a successful two terms by electing as his successor a member of the president’s own party?
Based on these two criteria, supplemented by his own observations on American political history, Merry also sorts the presidents into suitable boxes, beginning with his six “Leaders of Destiny,” the greatest of our presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. As one might expect, he adds relatively little to the way we think about these presidents, given that they are the subjects of countless biographies and, particularly in the case of Lincoln and FDR (who, with Washington, head every one of the academics’ ratings over the years), endless discussion. Merry does note that Jackson’s ratings have fluctuated downward as more attention has been paid to his truly awful policies concerning Native Americans.
Merry is more interesting on the remainder of the presidents, as he explains why he believes that some, including Warren Harding and Dwight Eisenhower, have been underrated and Woodrow Wilson, in particular, greatly overrated. Merry writes in the style of a good conversationalist, inviting both appreciative assent and, at times, disagreement. I believe, for example, that Lyndon B. Johnson was far more than a man “obsessed with the accumulation and exercise of political power for its own sake and for personal glory.” This simply does not explain why Johnson was quite self-consciously willing to destroy the Democratic Party as he knew it in order to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote throughout America, and otherwise begin cashing what Martin Luther King termed the “promissory note” included within the Fourteenth Amendment added to the Constitution in the aftermath of Civil War.
Political buffs share certain traits with sports buffs. The latter can argue vigorously about the comparative merits of Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, and contemporary candidates for the Hall of Fame. Just as with even very good ballplayers who will properly be excluded from the Hall of Fame, so will most American presidents, even quite good ones, be found wanting when compared with the true Greats, even as we hope, every four years, that perhaps this time we will be electing a potential Hall of Famer. Merry offers food for thought as we enter the quadrennial presidential games and decide whom to root (and vote) for.
Hardcover Book : 320 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. ( June 19, 2012 )
Item #: 13-528908
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 0.8inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)