Is George W. Bush's presidency shaping up to be one of the worst in U.S. history? You hear the question being asked more and more these days. And more and more, you hear the same answer. With Iraq a shambles and trust in the administration declining, it is probably not surprising that 54 percent of respondents in a recent USA Today/Gallup survey said that history would judge Bush a below-average or poor president, more than twice the number who gave such a rating to any of the five preceding occupants of the White House, including Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Public opinion is a notoriously fickle beast, of course, which is why historians and other custodians of the long view prefer to reserve judgment until they can speak of their subjects in the past tense. But clearly something about Bush II has inspired many historians to abandon their usual caution. Meena Bose, a Hofstra University political scientist who has written about presidential ratings, says that the scholars' rush to rank the current president comes out of an acute awareness of the long-term consequences of his policies. "Since it's hard to see how Iraq will work out for the better," Bose says, "it's hard not to pass judgments."
Whatever his reasons, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz created a minor sensation last year when he published a resounding verdict in Rolling Stone magazine: "Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents." Bush partisans had a ready explanation for that assessment: liberal bias. But while Wilentz makes no secret of his liberalism, he referred to an informal survey of 415 historians in 2004 in which 81 percent of the respondents stated that the Bush administration would go down as a failure.
Bush's own view of how history will treat him comes across in his frequent allusions to Harry Truman, another famously unpopular sitting president whose reputation rose sharply as scholars began to appreciate his role in laying the foundations for America's success in the Cold War. And if Iraq turns out to be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East 10 years from now, there will be a lot of scholars eating crow.
Attempts to rate the Bush presidency are at best premature, but they do raise valuable questions about presidential ratings in general and failed presidencies in particular. Is there, to begin with, a scholarly consensus on who America's worst chief executives are? If there were a negative Mount Rushmore, which presidents would have their faces carved into it? What qualities seem to distinguish poor presidencies? And finally, and is there any failing that seems to weigh more heavily than others? And finally, do rankings really help us understand presidential leadership and individual presidencies, or do they, in the words of Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein, "divert attention from the full range of presidential experience"?
Are they simply parlor games that say more about the biases, partisan or otherwise, of the people who do the rating?
As it turns out, those questions have been asked ever since scholars got into the business of ranking presidents. Fred Greenstein, chairman of the Program in Leadership Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, charges that ratings "divert attention from the full range of presidential experience."The ambiguities and mixed performances of our past chief executives are far more instructive, he argues, than what you get when you reduce a president to a place on a ladder. Having written an outstanding book on the Dwight D. Eisenhower (The Hidden-Hand Presidency), which provided a significant upward revision of that president's ability and accomplishments, Greenstein has good reason to question the mutability of judgements, even those of scholars. Yet as critical asis of presidential rankings, his own study of the qualities that constitute presidential leadership (The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton) has been picked up and used by designers of many of the major polls. Perhaps not altogether innocently, Greenstein has contributed to the game.
Credit, or blame, for the first scholarly ranking of the presidents usually goes to Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who conducted a poll for Life magazine in 1948. He asked 55 specialists in American history to rate the presidents as great, near great, average, below average, or failure. Abraham Lincoln topped the list, followed by George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Claiming the cellar of that list were Warren G. Harding and, in ascending order, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Herbert Hoover.