In the new Atlantic (not online yet), Ross Douthat makes the case that history–or historians, at any rate–may end up being a lot kinder to President Bush than he deserves. Douthat writes that judging by the periodic presidential rankings issued by presidential scholars:
Americans tend to forgive their leaders for the crimes and errors of the moment…. we’ve forgiven Teddy Roosevelt his role in the bloody and disgraceful occupation of the Phillipines. It’s why we’ve pardoned Woodrow Wilson for the part his feckless idealism played in unleashing decades of strife and tyranny in Europe. It’s why we’ve granted Harry Truman absolution for the military blundering that prolonged the Korean War and brought us to the brink of nuclear conflict…. These well-respected presidents have benefited as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge…
Douthat’s absolutely right that the presidential rankings reflect a bias toward activism, a preference for those presidents who dream big and dare great things, even when they leave wreckage in their wake. As I point out in The Cult of the Presidency:
Social psychologist Dean Keith Simonton used regression analysis to examine the factors that the rankers reward, demonstrating that, besides years in office, years at war are most strongly correlated with higher standing. Another scholar who, like Simonton, ran the numbers on presidential greatness, concluded that “Without the compelling urgency of war… a great individual will have considerable difficulty in gaining recognition as a great president.” In 2005, conservative law professor Eric Posner suggested that the academic consensus proved that “imperial presidents perform better than limited-power republican presidents.” Posner looked at the 2000 presidential poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society (the first to control for the rankers’ political affiliation) and categorized each of the presidents ranked in the poll as either “republican” or “imperial.” The high status of the imperialists led Posner to conclude that there was a powerful argument for unleashing the Imperial Presidency: “much of the structure of the presidency—especially in foreign affairs—is hampered by 18th-century restrictions that were motivated by fears of monarchy. By pushing against these restrictions, Bush… is further modernizing the office of the presidency and preparing it for the challenges ahead.”….
In the perverse calculus that governs the presidential rankings, a man’s worth is measured not by how much harm he avoided, not by how well he presided over domestic peace, but by how skillfully he exploited catastrophes to spur revolutionary change. Is it any wonder, then, that presidents, who walk the halls with the portraits of past greats, sometimes long for an enormous crisis in which to prove themselves? Should we be surprised if they’re tempted to resort to militarism when the impossible tasks they’ve signed up for—“managing” the economy, keeping Americans safe from every sort of harm—up to and including spiritual “malaise”—prove difficult to fulfill? If presidents are too quick to invoke the war metaphor, if they find themselves drawn toward sweeping theories of executive power and an exalted, quasi-religious view of their station, then perhaps that’s because the people who fill out their report cards reward such behavior.
Buy the book, already.