During the past week, we observed Lincoln’s birthday, President’s Day, and Washington’s birthday.
With a few score friends, including a group of Elders at the marvelous Dominican Village in Amityville, we have been discussing how to gauge the best and the worst of American Presidents.
We were not unmindful that it might be claimed that ratings depend on who is doing the evaluating.
Are folks who live during our hyper-partisan times likely to be significantly different in how they appraise our past Presidents?
So far as I know, there have not been recent polls seeking such contemporary assessments. Still, it is informative to consider past ratings and the criteria for making those determinations.
A single person ‘sculpted” an early “poll” that has been viewed for decades by multitudes (way beyond the numbers who read scholars’ evaluations).
How many of you have visited Mt. Rushmore?
Even folks who have not been there can name the “Rushmore Four” — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
How those sculptures came to be carved on Rushmore may be one of the least known stories of American history. The sculptor who won the commission made his own choices.
That man, Gutzon Borglum, was the American son of a Mormon immigrant from Denmark who had two wives.
Borglum’s own personal life was filled with bizarre twists and turns (beyond the scope of this discussion).
No matter, the core “Rushmore Four” have stood the test of time; more than 3 million people each year come to see the 60 foot heads of those Presidents (which took from 1927 to 1941 to complete).
For a while, T.R. was listed by scholars below the top give “Great” Presidents. He was placed in the “Near Great” category.
But in recent years, scholars have returned to Borglum — not only is T.R. in the top 5, but in some polls he is as high as three.
The first major scholar’s poll was done by the acclaimed historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1948.
He did not provide rating guidelines for the appraisers, except to say that individuals should be evaluated only in terms of presidential leadership, not their entire careers.
Presidents like Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, in particular, would be even more notable if one were to include all that each did before and after his presidency.
Over the decades some areas of agreement have emerged among scholars as to successful Presidents, e.g. the ability to get reelected and keep one’s party in power with the succeeding candidate.
That applies to all of the most current top five – Borglum’s 4 plus FDR. My next column will elaborate on what has made Presidents great.
But, in this space, I will address some of the admonitory lessons from our worst Presidents.
In contrast to sustained winning by the top rated chief executives, nearly all of the worst Presidents served only one term.
Men like Tyler, Pierce, Buchanan and Andrew Johnson could not even get their party’s nomination for another campaign.
Warren Harding, often listed among the failures, died in office (some say under unusual circumstances).
Criticism of Harding by historians focused primarily on the corruption during his years in office (not on the fact that he is the only President known to have sired a child in the White House with a mistress).
Considerations of the worst of the worst have undergone some significant shifts, especially since the 1960s.
Perhaps it is not surprising that during the many decades of legal segregation in the U.S., Andrew Johnson was depicted as a “Profile in Courage” (featured in the TV series of that title).
He was enthusiastically praised for resisting efforts by Congress to impeach him (the Senate fell a single vote short of conviction).
Now, most historians consider Andrew Johnson near, or at the bottom of the Presidential ranks.
His rating kept declining as the stock of the Radical Republicans in Congress has steadily risen because of the growing recognition that they were bending the arc of history in expanding rights for freed slaves.
They also worked with Lincoln to adopt the Homestead Act (millions of Americans were able to receive 160 acres of land, free of costs; each person got the equivalent of the property of 640 Levittown homes).
They also adopted the Morrill Land Grant College Act, providing free or inexpensive higher education for Americans to this day.
Johnson is a classic example of the “Peter Principle,” a man of achievements who rose to his level of incompetence. Increased criticism of Johnson also focused on his stubborn rigidity (in contrast to Lincoln) and how he failed to broaden his appeal to more Americans.
John Tyler, who became President because William Henry Harrison died a month after inauguration, shared Andrew Johnson’s inflexibility in dealing with Congress and being tone deaf to the changing times for the nation.
Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan are properly criticized for their leadership failures during the 1850s as the nation became extremely partisan and regionally-divided (one might see parallels with 2017 in terms of sectional divides and levels of hyper-emotionalism that diminished fact-based data. Should a U.S. President be an effective communicator-in-chief to connect Americans?).
There has been a continuing debate about how low to place Richard Nixon.
Watergate showed that Nixon lied repeatedly and had his staff do the same (many of them went to jail). Nixon’s White House tapes document his “Abuse of Power” (Stanley Kutler’s book), and they show President Nixon’s name-calling, demonizing of his political opponents, especially referring to the press as his “enemy.”
Still, scholars acknowledge that Nixon was smart and had significant international achievements (China, Russia) as well as domestic accomplishments. Where should he be placed when weighing his positives against his extreme negatives?
Within the past few months scholars have found evidence of the suspected Nixon effort to subvert the 1968 Vietnam peace negotiations. He advised his staff to throw “monkey wrenches” into the negotiations to better his election chances (but because peace was not established in 1968, another 25,000 Americans died before Nixon finally stopped the war).
Lyndon Johnson certainly represents “credibility gap” issues in terms of his lies about the Vietnam War. More recently, scholars have been inclined to elevate his ratings because of his domestic accomplishments – the “second coming of FDR’s New Deal” and, especially, for the Civil Rights legislation (as depicted in Robert Caro’s most recent book).
During the past decade, many scholars have rated George W. Bush as a failed president; several of them consider him the worst in American history (see the 2016 book by Jean Edward Smith).
My next column will focus on the positives of our best Presidents, but some of their high placements can be shown in continuing contrasts with some of the worst who are cited here.
Historian Margaret MacMillan’s “Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History” says the value of history is to teach humility and skepticism.
One illustration of her view can be found in headlines for a review of Michael Beschloss, “Reaching for the Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes” : “New LBJ book shows dangers of public ignorance
Active media help prevent presidents’ deception of people”