So were these America's worst presidents? Or does this list merely prove that rankings are valuable to the extent they spark debate, unhelpful to the extent they foreclose it? A look at the rankings of several historians we approached individually yields a provocative contrast to the poll results—and suggests how some of the more interesting choices often get averaged out in the wash.
For all the efforts of some polls to offset liberal bias, for example, there are no scholarly polls that show where the weight of conservative opinion might rank the worst chief executives. Forrest McDonald, a noted University of Alabama historian of distinct conservative leanings, has contributed to some of the large polls over the years, but many of his choices for the worst have clearly been cancelled out. On his own list, McDonald awards Lyndon Johnson the No. 1 spot "for pushing government," he explains, "beyond the limits of what it can do." Woodrow Wilson ranks second for "equating democracy with peacefulness, leading to World War ii." While giving Buchanan and Andrew Johnson typically low ratings (Nos. 3 and 4, respectively), he places Andrew Jackson at No. 5 (for "destroying the fiscal integrity of the United States" and Jimmy Carter ("completely ineffectual") at No. 6. Hoover does not make this list, but Martin Van Buren comes in at No. 9 "for presiding over the longest depression in U.S. history."
Sins of commission: While the large surveys tend to be harder on inaction and incompetence, some of our respondents cast a sterner eye on sins of commission. Jackson Lears, a professor of culturaland intellectual history at Rutgers University, is particularly critical of heedless bellicosity in some of his picks. His choices of Buchanan, Nixon, and Reagan for the bottom three may reflect a standard liberal bias (though Lears describes himself as a "left-conservative-Jeffersonian), but he ranks John F. Kennedy at No. 5 for having "put the whole world under the shadow of nuclear war." Lears locatesthe progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt at No. 6 for being the only president "who celebrated the regenerative effects of military violence" and William McKinley at No. 7 for having "allowed T.R. et al. to push him into a savage and unjustified war in the Philippines."
Walter McDougall, a professor of history and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, uses two broad criteria to evaluate presidents: One, he explains, is "damage done," and the other is what he calls the "Kuklick yardstick," after the argument set forth in Bruce Kuklick's book The Good Ruler. In McDougall's summary of that book, "The American people call on their president to give them the leadership and policies they want or need at a given time. Hence, whatever smug historians deem later, the only true measure of how 'good' a ruler was must be the opinion of the people he served."Curiously, the Kuklick yardstick could be described either as narrowly a historical (by rejecting the significance of the effects of a presidency on subsequent developments and times) or as scrupulously historical (by the seeing a presidency strictly from within its time). Whatever the case, Three of McDougall's picks for the worst are based on both criteria: James Buchanan (No. 1), Lyndon Johnson (No. 2), and Andrew Johnson (No. 3). Three others earn their spots strictly on the basis of the Kuklick yardstick: Harry Truman (No. 7), Jimmy Carter (No. 8), and Richard Nixon (No. 9).
To most historians, the Kuklick yardstick is heresy—which is why Harry Truman has risen in the rankings, and why George W. Bush may ultimately fare well in them. "I think we should put little weight on how a president was viewed in office," says Mount Holyoke historian Joseph Ellis, a self-described man of the left who thinks that Bush, the current president, will probably be included among the failed presidencies. Yet Ellis adds a caution that almost seems to support Kuklick's view: "In some sense," he says, "most presidents and people like to think how presidents shape history. But really presidents are much more the playthings of historical conditions."
Maybe what we learn from the least of our presidents—apart from the fact that even the worst often have remarkably redeeming features—is that it requires a rare combination of qualities to be among the best. Strength of character, principles, and political skills are necessary, to be sure, but so are the flexibility and judgment that allow them to gauge the needs of a time. If the worst help us understand the great, they also remind us of how merely good leaders often fail.