The rating of American presidents says as much about our standards for judging as it does about the relative performance of the men we would judge.
This is true whether the rating is done by a panel of 32 eminent historians and politicians, as in the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. poll in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, or the casual rating of model or un-model White House performance by Every Citizen, or you and my barber.
Among 20th-century presidents, only FDR is rated, with Washington and Lincoln, as "great." T. Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman are placed with Jefferson, Polk, and Jackson as "near great." Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ are "high average." Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton are rated "low average." Coolidge is "below average," and Harding, Hoover, and Nixon are rated "failure."
The raters were given no criteria for judging the presidents. And so one must assume the rating gets more subjective the closer one gets to evaluating the presidents of our lifetime and the present. Kennedy rates high among the population at large, although his term was brief. LBJ, Nixon, Bush, and Carter had quite different successes in foreign and domestic endeavors. Eisenhower steadily rises in the estimation of historians as time passes and the remembrance of his press conference garbles diminishes. Reagan gets seven near-great votes from the panel, and Nixon and Clinton get two.
Washington, Lincoln, and FDR stand out because they represent the continuity of the idea of the American democracy at the moments of inception, challenge, and change. There are elements of heroism in their stories; only one survived the harrows of hatred and war to retirement.
Perhaps a CD-ROM version of all the presidencies will one day be published, in the manner of the state histories first produced during the 1930s in book form and then repeated in a new series during the 1976 bicentennial, so more Americans can judge the careers of their chief executives for themselves. We are already getting a series of television biographies of some of the more notable leaders, like Teddy Roosevelt. But the historical studies to run, say, in the year 2000 should be consistently structured and revised every decade or so to take account of changing criteria.
How would our presidents be rated by playwrights? By complexity of character. By fascination with power. By tragic flaws offset by great energy and aspiration. One fine opera, "Nixon in China," has already been written on Richard Nixon. "L.B.J. and Vietnam" and "L.B.J. and civil rights" seem to describe two different presidencies. A study on "Reagan the Movie" has already been written by one political scientist on Reagan's pop culture roots.
Which presidents affect the national consciousness? Seeking the safety of the middle of the road, which Clinton is now described as doing, is hardly a course to lasting impression. This may not be fair to Clinton. If he does not mess up the economy, if he can work toward a balanced budget, if he can help secure the daily life and health of the growing numbers of seniors as impatience with Social Security sets in, if he actively safeguards individual rights, he will do much.
Presidents start out average. Perhaps only the tragic presidents set out to be great. Modest goals may be better for a Clinton, unless big trouble comes.
What about post-presidency contentment? Washington, Truman, Ford seemed to finish in good psychological shape. Carter has set a new standard for continuing good civic works. Clinton stands to have a long public life after office. He will have to live a long while with decisions that defined who he was.
Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.