Successful Presidents Are the Exception

SOME to think of it, I've not seen many highly successful presidents in my lifetime. The first president I was aware of was Harding, most definitely not a giant among those who have occupied the White House. Then came Coolidge, with a don't-shake-the-boat approach that, indeed, caused no waves. Next was Hoover who, I think, was better than he was accounted to be. But who can argue with history?

Then, in succession, came three winners - Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. The first two are being ranked near the top of our nation's best, and more-recent assessments of Ike have moved him into the top fifth.

Next, Jack Kennedy lit up the sky. But his tenure was of too short a duration to earn him a presidential ranking, though some have claimed it for him. He was an inspiring president. But the Bay of Pigs episode was seen as a failure, even by him. And there is emerging evidence that his "standing up to Khruschev" during the Cuban missile crisis may not have been quite as heroic as it was viewed at the time.

Then came Lyndon Johnson, who stained his otherwise successful career as president by engulfing the United States in the Vietnam War. No need to discuss Richard Nixon. Whatever else he did was overshadowed by Watergate. He exited a dishonored president.

Jerry Ford was able to bring back credibility to the presidency, but the voters didn't want to keep him on.

Similarly, the voters fired Jimmy Carter, and now they have done the same to George Bush. I happen to think that they both deserved better treatment. But the verdict was clear. The people weren't satisfied with the way they were doing their jobs.

In between, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who probably will not be ranked very high simply because liberal Democrats among historians - of whom there are many - are already marking him up as an "accident," someone who used his acting ability to attract people to his side regardless of his performance in office. According to this assessment, the country suffered from this lazy, inattentive president.

But Mr. Reagan's defense buildup brought about the first major melting of the cold war, forcing Soviet leaders to conclude they simply couldn't keep up the arms race and had to tend to economic problems at home.

Whatever history does with Reagan (and I think he will be upgraded from the low spot he seems to be headed toward now), I doubt he will be accounted a highly successful president.

So there we have it: just FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower as recent presidents whose stays in the White House can be rated "outstanding."

The worst indignity for a president is rejection by the voters. Some, like Mr. Carter, take defeat badly. He stayed out of sight until the inaugural; the few friends he saw got the impression he felt the world had turned against him. Even many Democrats came to consider Carter a failure as president. But revisionists are already at work upgrading the Carter years, finding a lot to praise in his performance.

Will the same happen to President Bush? At first, he, too, took November's verdict personally. You could read the hurt on his face and Mrs. Bush's. But he didn't retreat to his tent. For the last few weeks he has been about as active as a president can possibly be.

Here's Bush wearing Marine battle fatigues as he tours Somalia. Here he is visiting Francois Mitterrand in Paris. Here he is in Moscow with Boris Yeltsin signing a historic nuclear-arms reduction pact. And here he is again, in what could be a final confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

In Washington, Bush has shown what a good loser he is as he cooperates with the incoming president and warmly receives the Clintons. Mrs. Bush even won the "good manners" award of the year for the gracious way she has treated Hillary Clinton.

Bush, like Carter, is being whacked hard for the economic woes that marred his administration. Perhaps assessments of what he accomplished will improve with the years and with new perspectives. I hope so. I'd like to think that nice guys - and even many of his opponents concede George Bush is a nice guy - can do well, too.

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