Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A New Approach to Naming Our Greatest Presidents

An intriguing article about a recent poll conducted among historians to determine who the greatest US Presidents has appeared recently in Opinion Journal. What makes this poll so different from others I've seen is that it makes an effort to screen out various biases, whether those created by ideology or others by proximity in time. I think the collective judgment of historians on the worst president was right on: James Buchanan. (In fact, earlier today, my son asked me who I thought our worst president was and it was no problem naming Buchanan, who treated his duties with malignant neglect, as the bottom of the barrel.)

The historians judged Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as great presidents. Frankly, I would put Washington in a category of his own. Twice in an illustrious public career, Washington walked away from the implicit possibility of absolute power. He taught the world how power can be peacefully transferred and how to function as the elected leader of a nation-state.

Eisenhower deserves more credit for greatness than he gets. I hope that the recent release of many of his presidential notes, memos, and letters will wake people up to the fact that he was a shrewd and great presidential leader. After his quick wrap-up of Harry Truman's war in Korea, Ike presided over eight years when the U.S. was at peace, an almost impossible feat at a time of unprecedented tension owing to Soviet aggressiveness. As Eisenhower wrote in a post-presidential letter, that didn't happen by accident. Eisenhower did have a tragic blind spot to the call for equality for African-Americans, surely something that must be considered in assessing his presidency.

Of course, assessments of greatness are subjective. But it is amazing how, with the passage of time and adequate study, people of divergent views will often agree on who our greatest leaders have been.

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