History's horse race: presidential greatness

In my early years as a newsman the pundit who stood out above all others was Walter Lippmann. It was, indeed, true: When Lippmann spoke, much of the nation listened.

Lippmann was convinced that it was much better to have a president who had been a governor than one who had a legislative background. I recall that back in 1960 this widely read columnist was slow to support John F. Kennedy simply because he believed the young man from Massachusetts had not - as first a congressman and then a senator - had the best training for running the affairs of state. He finally came around to backing Kennedy - but not, at least at first, with much enthusiasm.

Lippmann was basing his judgment on a little more than a half century which had produced three presidents who had already been picked by historians as outstanding: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. All three had been former governors. One other president - Harry Truman - wasn't seen then as deserving of being rated among our best chief executives. That came later. Truman, of course, had been a US senator.

Looking back now over the full century I can't find a clear indication of what public-service background produces the best presidents.

In a 1996 poll of 32 leading historians by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Lincoln came in first, judged unanimously "great." Washington was next, then F.D.R.

Then in their "near great" category these observers placed Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman. If we use the Schlesinger poll, and some earlier polls, as our reference points, we find that historians haven't found any "great" or "near great" president in the second half of the century - except for Truman, who remained in office until January of 1953.

One president seems to be shooting upward toward this "greatness." Writes Mr. Schlesinger: "The most striking change has been the rise of Eisenhower from 22nd place in the Schlesinger 1962 poll to 12th in David Porter's 1981 poll, to 11th in the poll taken by Robert Murray and Tim Blessing in 1982, and to 9th in Steven Neal's Chicago Tribune poll the same year."

Of course, Eisenhower doesn't fit into either of the governor or legislator categories.

The 1996 Schlesinger group picked two other presidents in the "high average" category just below "near greatness": Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Both, of course, came out of the Senate.

But of the three presidents rated "failure" in this century by this group, one is mining engineer Herbert Hoover and two other former senators, Warren Harding and Richard Nixon.

In the "average" group from this century, we find Ford (from the House), Carter (a governor), Reagan (a governor), Bush (from the House) and Clinton (a governor).

Fifty or 100 years from now we may get some entirely different ratings from historians. Revisionism likely will take place.

Certainly Wilson isn't receiving the uniformly high marks among academics that he was when I was in college. And I recall that when I was interviewing some historians back in the mid-1960s, Kennedy (like Truman) wasn't rated highly. Indeed, they all said then that Kennedy was in office too short a time to gain a standing among the presidents. That view, of course, has changed.

So I don't know what Lippmann would be writing today about the present crop of presidential candidates. In looking back over the full century would he be leaning toward George W. Bush simply because of his experience in running a state government?

I doubt it.

I think Lippmann would have been less than satisfied with the governors who have served in the White House in the last 50 years: Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. I believe he would be looking to other reference points in picking the candidate he regarded as the best.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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