Rating our presidents

With Watergate and Richard Nixon again in the headlines, I thought I'd look at the disgraced president through the eyes of the scholars who provide the historical assessments and ratings.

I know of no poll findings on this subject that are more highly regarded than those put together in 1996 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. [Editor's note: Editor's note: The original version incorrectly dated the poll.]

Mr. Schlesinger's father, the famous historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, 40 years a professor at Harvard, had, in 1948, polled 55 scholars on how they rated the nation's chief executives. He repeated this poll in 1962. Both polls did much to fix in the minds of academia how our presidents rank.

So it seemed only natural that Schlesinger's equally famous son, Arthur, Jr., would, on the request of The New York Times, run his own poll on where our presidents rank.

So how about President Nixon? In his response to the Schlesinger poll, Columbia University's Alan Brinkley wrote: "There are presidents who could be considered both Failures and Great or Near Great (e.g., Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon)." James MacGregor Burns, then on the faculty of the University of Maryland, added this observation about Nixon: "How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant, and so morally lacking? So I guess to average him out he would be Average."

But in the overall rating of this polled group, Nixon was put in the "Failure" category, the opinion among most of the 32 respondents being that Nixon's Watergate misdeeds outweighed his achievements in foreign affairs.

I looked hard at this poll to find evidence of the "liberal bias" of which those in academia who rate our presidents are often accused. Would Nixon get a better rating in another kind of forum - say, the leaders of the business community? Perhaps.

But the Watergate disclosures drove Nixon's approval ratings down into the low 20th percentile as the public generally was disgusted with his immoral and illegal acts. This negative feeling about Nixon and the disgrace he brought to our nation still is widely held by the public as well as by those who talk or write about him.

And how about Schlesinger having played an important role in the Kennedy administration? Wouldn't that enter into his poll assessment? Well, it isn't unusual to hear leading Democrats praise Kennedy to the skies, calling him a "Great" among presidents. But in my view, the Schlesinger poll has made tough, objective judgments about both Democratic and Republican chief executives - even though I may not agree with them all.

And so it is that Kennedy finds himself in an Average (high) category, along with Lyndon Johnson and Eisenhower, among others. And Jimmy Carter is put in the Average (low) group along with Reagan, George Bush (the father), Bill Clinton, and Gerald Ford, among others.

Schlesinger, writing of these findings, said his poll showed a high degree of scholarly consensus: Lincoln, with a unanimous Great vote, comes in first; Washington and F.D.R., as usual, are next; each has one Near Great vote. The Big Three were followed, as usual, by the Near Greats - Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman.

"Most presidents," Schlesinger points out here, "fall in the Average class."

I wouldn't be surprised if Schlesinger conducts another assessment right after George W. Bush leaves office. And where will he rank?

As Bush pushes ahead with his objectives - abroad and at home - he's let us know he keeps his attention fully focused on what he's trying to do and that he'll let history decide how well he has done.

If George W. is as single-minded as he portrays himself, we'll never be sure. But he should be concerned over the big drop in public support for his freedom-spreading vision for the Middle East and for his domestic legislative agenda, particularly his Social Security plan.

There are those who believe that Bush has already made quite a mark as president. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, is quoted by The New York Times's Richard W. Stevenson: "He [Bush] has gained power both informally and permanently for the next person in office, and he has done it more than any president since LBJ." Thurber also told Mr. Stevenson that Bush in his first term had the best record of getting his initiatives through Congress of any president since Johnson.

Bush did surprisingly well in his first term. But I think the historical verdict on how he did as president rests with what comes next - how he fares with the war in Iraq and whether he is able to build on legislative success with more success.

Godfrey Sperling, Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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