Went to War? Good President! Kept the Peace? Not so Hot

December 10, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in Chicago Sun‐​Times online on December 10, 2006.

History may prove kinder to President Bush than the voters were on November 7. That, however, says less about the value of Bush’s contributions than it does about the perverse conception of presidential greatness shared by historians who rank the presidents.

Such perennial rankings, based on surveys of historians and political scientists, tend to heavily favor imperial presidents. The winners in the game are the nation builders and war leaders. The losers are the presidential bores, the ones who “never did anything” other than preside over peace and prosperity without screwing it up.

Summing up the results of one of his surveys, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. — who in 1948 introduced the practice of presidential rankings — noted that “mediocre presidents believed in negative government, in self‐​subordination to the legislative power,” while top‐​ranked presidents “left the executive branch stronger and more influential than [they] found it.”

And scholars continue to see it that way today, favoring presidents who expand executive power and preside over major wars.

Thus, in a 1996 survey by Schlesinger’s son and namesake, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., five of the top 10 presidents were war leaders, including James K. Polk, whose major distinction is an unconstitutionally begun war of conquest; Woodrow Wilson, who brought us into a war most historians view as pointless carnage, and Harry S Truman, who launched our first major undeclared war and was rebuked by the Supreme Court for claiming that his powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize American companies.

A bias for war presidents left and right

Conservatives greeted Schlesinger Jr.‘s 1996 poll with skepticism, accusing him of picking a jury stacked with liberal historians. But correcting for political bias doesn’t change the preference for activist presidents. In October 2000, the Federalist Society and the Wall Street Journal sponsored a presidential scholar survey that “explicitly balanced” the survey group with experts on the left and the right. The results were almost identical to the Schlesinger survey. All but two of the top 10 presidents in the WSJ/​Federalist study appear in the Schlesinger top 10. FDR, once the bete noire of conservatives, ranks third on the WSJ/​Federalist survey, same as he does on Schlesinger. Whether they’re liberal or conservative, presidential scholars seem to prefer militant presidents who stretch against constitutional bounds — or break them.

By that curious metric, George W. Bush has a fighting chance at historical greatness.

Of course, neither war nor activism guarantee a president a place near the top. Lyndon Johnson ranks higher than average in most surveys, but that’s likely due to his civil rights record and the war on poverty. The disaster in Vietnam didn’t help. And though Richard Nixon worked tirelessly to expand executive power, arrogance, paranoia and corruption led to his downfall and his low standing in scholars’ polls.

Truman’s example holds out more hope for Bush’s legacy. Truman also fought an unpopular war to a frustrating, unsatisfying end, and he left office with an approval rating in the 30s. That may be one reason that, as his popularity has plummeted, Bush has increasingly invoked Truman in his speeches.

Does the fault lie with scholars?

But wherever Bush ends up, there’s something odd about the preference of scholars for crusading presidents with contempt for constitutional limits. Last year, in a piece for Foreign Policy, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner examined the WSJ/​Federalist survey and concluded that it demonstrated that “Imperial presidents perform better than limited‐​power republican presidents.” But is that the right lesson to draw? Is there something wrong with limited‐​power republican presidents? Or does the fault lie with the scholars who give them short shrift?

Consider Warren G. Harding, dead last in the Schlesinger polls, next to last in the WSJ/​Federalist poll. Historians have downgraded him for his scandal‐​ridden administration. But that can’t be the only reason for his abysmal ranking: Harding wasn’t personally corrupt, after all, and he never profited from his cronies’ misdeeds.

Place that fault against his great merits: Harding presided over the dismantling of Wilson’s draconian wartime controls, ushering in an era of prosperous “normalcy.” (Is it the normalcy that presidential scholars hold against him?) Harding’s good nature and liberal instincts led him to pardon the dissenters that Wilson had locked up, among them Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, imprisoned for making a speech against the draft. “I want [Debs] to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife,” Harding said.

Cal was wisely mute

Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, hasn’t fared much better in the polls: below average in the WSJ/​Federalist survey, bottom 10 in the Schlesinger Jr. survey. Cal kept things entirely too cool for historians who like presidential drama: he slept too much, didn’t do enough, and didn’t talk enough. There was method to his muteness, though. As he put it, “Nine‐​tenths of [visitors to the White House] want something they ought not have. If you keep dead still they will run down in three or four minutes.” After six years of George W. Bush, a president bent on expanding executive power and redeeming the world through military force, the modest, unheroic virtues of a Harding and a Coolidge are easier to appreciate. There ought to be room at the top of the rankings for presidents who know when to keep quiet and who understand the limits of power.

H.L. Mencken marked the end of Coolidge’s tenure by saying, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”

For Mencken, this was praise. He was on to something. We could do worse. In fact, we usually do.

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