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MURPHY – Looking back at leadership: rating the U.S. presidents

Abraham Lincoln. An obvious choice.

RATING THE RELATIVE merits of historical figures is an academic exercise that provides both fun and frustration. It’s also an enterprise fraught with challenges. How, for example, do you keep it even moderately free of ideological bias?

Those challenges notwithstanding, U.S. presidents have been prime fodder for this kind of assessment. The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. started the ball rolling in 1948 and C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) picked up the ball in the 21st century.

For its 2017 survey – the previous ones were in 2000 and 2009 – C-SPAN used a panel of 91 “historians and other professional observers of the presidency.” Working with a team of three academic advisers, the panel rated all past presidents on 10 qualities deemed critical for presidential leadership. Then with equal weighting given to each category, the scores were summed to produce totals and an overall ranking.

It’s no surprise that the top spots go to the usual triumvirate of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But things get interesting after that group.

Of the 12 post-Second World War presidents, five appear in the top 10: Dwight Eisenhower (fifth), Harry Truman (sixth), John F. Kennedy (eighth), Ronald Reagan (ninth) and Lyndon Johnson (10th).

(If you’re curious about the placement of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, they’re ranked 12th and 15th respectively.)

It’s no surprise the top spots go to the usual trio of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But things get interesting after that

Truman’s position is striking for a man whose final year in office (1952) registered a Gallup approval rating as low as 22 per cent. Mind you, historians have generally treated him relatively well, notwithstanding the fact that he became something of a bete noire for New Left academics in the 1960s.

Eisenhower and Reagan, on the other hand, both left office with high popularity ratings but had inauspicious standings among historians. Eisenhower was derided as a low-energy bumbler – a golfer rather than a president – while Reagan was dismissed as a lightweight who just got lucky.

For Eisenhower, the ascent of his reputation began around the time of historian Fred Greenstein’s 1982 study The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader. And it has continued since. C-SPAN’s 2000 survey placed him ninth, subsequently rising to eighth in 2009 and fifth in 2017.

Crisis leadership and international relations are two of the categories in which Eisenhower scores particularly well, but his highest grade comes from moral authority. If this seems a little strange, the dissonance can be assuaged by putting him into the context of his time.

Less than a decade before his 1952 election, Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and had ultimate responsibility for the planning and execution of D-Day. His related public standing was such that both Republicans and Democrats sought (unsuccessfully) to recruit him as their presidential candidate in 1948.

Reagan’s rise is partially powered by a gradual mind shift on the part of at least some liberal historians. While they still don’t particularly like him, they increasingly recognize two things: that his presidency was consequential and that his personal qualities had a good deal to do with it.

There are also parallels between Reagan and Kennedy.

Both score highly with regard to public persuasion and the ability to articulate a vision and set the agenda. They were charismatic performers who had a way with words and images.

But they had more going for them than that.

In terms of crisis leadership, Kennedy is ranked as the seventh most effective president with Reagan just behind in eighth position. And they’re both above average – Reagan especially so – in the international relations category.

However, spare a sympathetic thought for Johnson. If there’s a competition for tragic figure, he’s a real candidate.

Ranked most effective of all presidents with respect to congressional relations and second only to Lincoln in terms of pursuing equal justice for all, Johnson falters badly in other key areas. Essentially, Vietnam and the related credibility gap push him down several rungs. Otherwise, he’d be a serious contender for best post-Second World War president.

And here’s the rub. It can be argued that Johnson’s Vietnam policy was merely following the direction and template laid down by Eisenhower’s domino theory and Kennedy’s initial escalation.

To paraphrase Kennedy in another context, life isn’t fair.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

© 2017 Distributed by Troy Media

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About Mel Rothenburger (5007 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

2 Comments on MURPHY – Looking back at leadership: rating the U.S. presidents

  1. Richard Carlson // March 16, 2017 at 5:25 PM // Reply

    “And here’s the rub. It can be argued that Johnson’s Vietnam policy was merely following the direction and template laid down by Eisenhower’s domino theory and Kennedy’s initial escalation.”

    I can’t entirely agree with this summation. 54,000 Americans died so that Johnson could fulfill his promise to himself – “I will not be the first American president to loose a war.” LBJ’s ego was tragically large.
    On the plus side Johnson was exceptionally successful at pushing his legislation thru the two houses. His ability to persuade his fellow politicians was legendary.
    There is one illuminating story about LBJ’s dogged bull nosed attitude: He was at odds with the direction that the then Chairman of the federal reserve was taking the nation. I don’t recall his name at the moment, but he was the person who, years later, related this story. LBJ requested the fed chair meet him at his ranch in Texas. Once there and the salutations out of the way, and when they were alone, LBJ grabbed the chairman by the throat and slammed him into a wall, and berated him for his monetary policy being in conflict with LBJ’s fiscal policy. Scared the hell out of the poor fellow.

  2. -First of all, (fr. Wikipedia) “(Teddy) Roosevelt has consistently been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest American presidents.” -Murray, Robert K; Blessing, Tim H (2004). ‘Greatness in White House.’
    Pennsylvania State U.P. pp. 8–9, 15.” and second to this,

    I have a hard time figuring: If this piece is about the current ‘credential evaluation’ on the present American President or just simply one’s personal interest in academic exploration on American means and ways in getting to ‘sufficient administration’ towards and for one’s people therein?

    There are _so_ many people talking about the current leader(ship) in America, it is beginning to look like a swath of gadflys; mainly -one thinks- because the form of presidency is atypical in its ability to find solutions and results that aren’t particularly liberal in their viewpoint.

    (It might be noted that liberal is always, now (seemingly) attributed to a better form of democratic procedure and hence the contrast theory to this thinking is: Benghazi -whereupon the lack of leadership, at that moment, caused democratic failure and tragedy; pointed -like a lens- at America, because it believed, at that moment, that to do nothing ‘was better.’ (sic).)

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