The November 1, 1948, issue of Life magazine is a collector's item because of a picture on page 37 that is captioned, "The next president travels by ferry over the broad waters of San Francisco bay." The picture is of Thomas E. Dewey.
Of greater significance is an article that begins on page 65 called "Historians Rate U.S. Presidents." The story was written by Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., who had called on 55 of his fellow historians to grade each president (excluding the incumbent, Harry S. Truman) as either "great," "near great," "average,"
"below average," or a "failure." When Schlesinger averaged each president's grades, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, and Andrew Jackson scored as great presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding were rated as failures, and the rest fell in between.
Schlesinger followed his 1948 survey with another in 1962. The results were strikingly similar: the same pair of failures and nearly the same set of greats. Truman, now eligible for the ballot, ended up in ninth place as a near-great president in the company of John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had left office the previous year, earned a low C: He ranked 22nd, sandwiched between Chester A. Arthur and Andrew Johnson. Republicans howled that Schlesinger had packed the jury with Democrats; he replied that he had chosen the most eminent historians in the country. Both were right.
More important than the rankings themselves were the two related standards that historians used in assessing presidents: power and the desire to be powerful. "Washington aside," Schlesinger wrote, "none of [the great presidents] waited for the office to seek the man; they pursued it with all their might and main." Once in office, their greatness was established by the fact that "every one of [them] left the Executive branch stronger and more influential than he found it." When dealing with Congress, they knew "when to reason and to browbeat, to bargain and stand firm, ... and when all else failed, they appealed over the heads of the lawmakers to the people." Nor did the great presidents shy away from confrontations with the Supreme Court. They were, to be sure, inattentive to the administration of the bureaucracy (arguably a core responsibility for a chief executive), but Schlesinger sunnily explained that this freed them for the more important task of "moral leadership."
Historians still like to play the presidential greatness game. Indeed, one of the most recent rankings of presidents was commissioned in 1996 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the eminent professor's equally eminent son. Eisenhower's stock has risen since the 1960s (he now regularly shows up among the top 10) but less because of any new appreciation of what long was thought to be his passive style of leadership than because of recent archival research that shows him to have been a deceptively strong "hidden-hand" leader. Ambition for power and success in wielding it remain the attributes that stir the admiration of most president-ranking historians. Explaining the high regard that Lincoln, Washington, FDR, and Company still enjoy among his academic colleagues, Schlesinger, Jr., noted that historians continue to view as great those presidents who "took risks ... provoked controversy ... [and] stood in Theodore Roosevelt's 'bully pulpit.'"
Now come two historically savvy political scientists, Marc Landy of Boston College and Sidney M. Milkis of the University of Virginia, to argue in Presidential Greatness that although historians may have gotten the roster of great presidents right, they have gotten the essence of presidential greatness wrong. The greatness of the presidents in Landy and Milkis's hall of fame--Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR--has less to do with power than with purpose. Great presidents are "conservative revolutionaries" who in uncertain times "teach the nation about the need for great change but also about how to reconcile change with American constitutional traditions and purposes." In addition, great presidents are both leaders and creatures of strong political parties, mobilizing their party to build a majority coalition yet restrained by its demand for fidelity to party principles and organization.
Washington established his greatness by working systematically to transfer his enormous personal authority to the new and still fragile Constitution. Jefferson, who like Washington would have occupied a prominent place in the American pantheon even if he had never been president, helped democratize the Constitution by creating the Democratic-Republican Party "and allowing it to flourish as a real party, not a vehicle for personal aggrandizement." Jackson furthered the cause of democratization within the Constitution by building the first mass-based political party. He also taught Jeffersonians how to combine their zeal for states' rights and limited government with a strong attachment to the Union.
Lincoln was in some ways the ultimate partisan. Virtually all of Lincoln's national stature at the time of his election owed to his being the nominee of the Republican Party. His use of political patronage during the Civil War put Jackson's spoils system to shame. But that did not stop Lincoln from preserving and renewing the Constitution by weaving into it the commitment to equality that is embedded in the Declaration of Independence. ("Four score and seven years ago" took his listeners back to 1776, not 1787.) Finally, FDR taught the American people--and the Supreme Court--that the Constitution allows the federal government, led by the president, to play an active and continuous role in domestic and international affairs.
The same historians who mistakenly equate greatness with ambition and power instead of with constitutional growth are guilty of a second fundamental error, Landy and Milkis imply. The profession's very preoccupation with presidential greatness suggests that greatness is still possible. But the political parties that are so essential to great leadership have waned in influence to the point that they can neither empower presidents for monumental accomplishment nor keep them faithful to broader purposes and interests. Landy and Milkis portray presidents today as being more visible than ever but also, because of the exposure that visibility brings, more vulnerable, awash in a sea of competing demands they cannot hope to satisfy from special-interest groups, the ever-critical media, and an impatient public.
Ironically, it was Roosevelt, the last of the great presidents, whom Landy and Milkis say closed the door to greatness for his successors. He did so by assaulting the authority of political parties in order to be free of external restraints on presidential leadership. FDR's most enduring institutional legacy was the Executive Office of the President, which over the years has taken over the traditional party functions of linking the president to interest groups, staffing the administration, and developing policies. What Roosevelt did not foresee is that the same party weakness that unshackles presidents also leaves them bereft of reliable and strong organizational support when they need it.
Presidential debates, which place the candidates in the spotlight as solo acts rather than as featured players in a party ensemble, accentuate the problem Roosevelt created. When Al Gore and George W. Bush debate each other as individual candidates, and when their commercials are all about them and their opponent instead of the party ticket, the message to the voters is that political parties are institutions of little consequence.
In the absence of greatness, smaller virtues may deserve more of our attention. Princeton University political scientist Fred I. Greenstein focuses his book The Presidential Difference on "emotional intelligence"--a president's ability to "manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes." (The opposite of emotional intelligence is "emotional obtuseness," which Greenstein connects to leaders who end up "not being masters of their own passions.") Greenstein also looks at five other leadership traits in assessing each of the presidents from Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. The five, none of which he thinks is as important as emotional intelligence, lie more in the realm of skill than of character: an aptitude for public communications, adroitness at motivating and organizing advisers (think Martin Sheen in The West Wing), surefootedness in bargaining with fellow politicians, a consistent vision of public policy, and an effective cognitive style of processing information.
Greenstein acknowledges that Roosevelt provides "endless positive lessons" about how to be an effective president, but, wittingly or not, he evens the score with Schlesinger's liberal historians by being otherwise kind to Republicans. He judges three of FDR's five Democratic successors to be deficient in emotional intelligence (Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Clinton), but faults only one of the five modern Republicans (Richard Nixon). Granted, Nixon's "deep-seated anger and feelings of persecution" take the cake for emotional obtuseness. But LBJ's insecurity-born "mood swings of near-clinical proportions" and his brutal bullying of subordinates also "impeded the conduct of [his] responsibilities." Carter stumbled because he was "fixed in his ideas and unwilling to brook disagreement." As for Clinton, his "psychic shortcomings were debilitating." Better a "patently emotionally stable" Gerald Ford, Greenstein seems to be saying, or a "generous, polite, and forbearing" George H.W. Bush.
Greenstein is no less kind to the Republican presidents when it comes to the five leadership skills. If you tally his assessment of the presidents' performance of each skill as +1 for success, -1 for failure, and 0 for somewhere in between, the Republicans come out pretty well. Nixon's overwhelming emotional deficiencies aside, he scores +5 (out of 5) for skill. Eisenhower, whose hidden-hand leadership style Greenstein was the first to uncover and celebrate in a 1982 book, and Gerald Ford both score +3. Ronald Reagan scores +2, and George Bush scores -1.
Democratic presidents fail the leadership skills test as badly as they fail the emotional test. John F. Kennedy barely passes with a +1. All the others score a good bit lower. Truman and Johnson are -1, Clinton is -2, and Carter comes in at -5.
Although Greenstein claims to have "avoided presidential rankings," part of the fun of his book is the same fun political and historical junkies have had over the years with the surveys by Schlesinger père et fils--that is, unmasking their biases and disputing their judgments. Surely the historians were right to place Kennedy, Johnson, and Truman above Nixon and Ford, in contrast to Greenstein's arrangement. But they were wrong to rank Reagan with the average presidents (as they did in Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1996 survey), just as Greenstein is right to rate him more highly.
More serious than presidential rankings, however, is the question raised in Presidential Greatness (which, with its well-supported arguments, is the more substantive of the two books): Is the decline of presidential greatness such a bad thing? Landy and Milkis seem to think it is. They especially lament the loss of the teaching function that great presidents perform, leading the people to accept new policies by demonstrating their compatibility with enduring constitutional principles.
The negative on this question was perhaps best defended in a famous 1977 Commentary article by political scientist Nelson W. Polsby. His article--appropriately called "Against Presidential Greatness"--argued that the quest for greatness led presidents to act in ways that disserved themselves and the nation. "For fear of being found out and downgraded," he wrote, "there is the temptation to hoard credit rather than share it ... [and] to export responsibility away from the White House for the honest shortfalls of programs, thus transmitting to the government at large an expectation that loyalty upward will be rewarded with disloyalty down." The most dangerous temptation is "to offer false hopes and to claim spurious accomplishments to the public at large."
The worst of both worlds surely comes when a sitting president becomes obsessed with how historians will rate him. Carter, after studying the political scientist James David Barber's celebration of FDR, Truman, and other "active-positive" presidents in his 1972 book The Presidential Character, plaintively told a reporter that active-positive is "what I would like to be. That's what I hope I prove to be." In 1996 Clinton privately grouped his presidential predecessors into three tiers, then spent a long Sunday morning with consultant Dick Morris discussing what he could do to join the top group.
Nixon, as always, wins the prize for excess. He audiotaped much of what went on in the White House because he thought that if historians had an accurate record of what he said and did there, they would judge his presidency favorably. It is unlikely that Nixon will turn out to have been right about historians in the long term--they are still pretty liberal, and he is still looking pretty bad. What is certain is that he could not have been more wrong about how Congress, the Supreme Court, the media, and the public would judge him in the short term. Lesson for Gore or Bush: If elected, just do the job. ¤