By Seth Studer
This is part of an ongoing series about 20th century American presidents, what they did, and how we think and talk about them. Each essay can be read on its own, but if you wish to see the others, click here.
1. Presidential History: from the Academy to the Public
On December 15 1996, JFK hagiographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used the pages of the New York Times Magazine to work through some daddy issues.
Arthur’s father, Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr., was one of several historians who in the 1920s and ‘30s helped develop, defend, and establish what would become the default methodology in U.S. history departments. These historians – influenced by post-Marxian social theory in Europe and the rapid development of sociology over the past half-century – argued that “bottom-up” analyses of history yielded better knowledge than the then-still-traditional “top-down” approach.
Imagine you are a student of history at the University of Iowa in 1910. You could expect an education with two foci: verifiable facts and historical narratives. These foci generated two activities: the verification of facts using primary sources and the construction of narratives using those facts.
This method of study was executed with one underlying assumption: history does not repeat itself. And because the past will not return, intensive research into the diets of 17th century French peasants is less useful than a study of King Louis XIV’s domestic policies. Louis was the main actor, after all, the one who made things happen. Seventeenth-century French peasants were minor actors by comparison; their impact (even if you consolidate them) was minimal. If you want to understand the past, start at the source.
Much like the model of American university itself, this traditional historical methodology originated in 19th century Germany. This method had been practiced to varying degrees by amateur historians since the Renaissance. But it was formalized by professional historians in Germany (esp. Leopold von Ranke and Friedrich Karl von Savigny) in reaction against Hegelian philosophy, which explained, totalized, and subordinated history to transhistorical systems. Hegel’s work successfully pollinated a thousand significant ideas and academic disciplines. And while every university in Europe and America had a few token Hegelian historians, the fact-and-narrative method dominated. In Anglo-American historical scholarship, “facts” were generally details surrounding big events caused by big actors (important men, but occasionally large populations if they could be viewed as “top-down” actors).
By the time Schlesinger the Elder arrived at Harvard (in 1924), new approaches to historical knowledge were percolating. They had already developed in other discipline over the past half-century. These new approaches would use economic pressures, material conditions, and theories of society to write history. Although this shift in focus seemed radical to older historians, these new methods shared with their predecessors an aversion to abstract models and systems (Hegelian or otherwise), a rejection of the notion that “history repeats itself” (or even that it can rhyme without awkwardly forcing it), commitment to facts, and deference to empiricism as an epistemological base.
These new methods did not quell interest in the great persons of history. Historians tempered their emphasis on Sun Kings and Great Events. Meanwhile, the general public remained entranced by the glow of George Washington and the Civil War. Both remained invested in narratives. And narratives tend to reveal patterns; it is difficult to inoculate yourself against this. On the eve of World War II, Schlesinger Sr. published an article that proposed a cyclical interpretation of U.S. political history. He argued that trends in U.S. federal polices followed a pendulum-like pattern. Although this hardly amounted to a large Hegelian system, Schlesinger Sr. had stepped outside the mainstream.
Except that he didn’t. By 1948, Schlesinger Sr. had established a reputation outside academe, and was asked by Life magazine to poll his colleagues and rank the presidents of the United States. I do not know whether Schlesinger Sr. paused to reflect on the inadvisability of such a endeavor, on how many of his own best practices he’d be violating. A list ranking the presidents would only tell us what a handful of historians in 1948 thought, but it would tell us nothing about the presidents. Further, such a list would only encourage the public’s inflated view of the presidency.
Nevertheless, Schlesinger agreed. He asked his participants to assign each president a degree of greatness, ranging from “great” and “near great” to “below average” and “failure.” Each category was assigned a value, and the number of votes each president received in each category determined their place on the list. The results weren’t surprising: Washington and Lincoln at the top, Buchanan at the bottom. The list and its accompanying article in Life were so popular that Schlesinger Sr. was invited to repeat the experiment in 1962. On both occasions, Schlesinger Sr. surveyed nearly 100 historians.
Schlesinger Sr.’s progeny, Arthur Jr., began his foray into the family business at the family’s company in 1940. In 1954, Harvard promoted Arthuer Schlesinger Jr. to full professor sans PhD, largely on the merits of his popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Jacksonian democracy (also: he was Art Sr.’s boy).
Schlesinger Jr. behaved like anyone who’d just received the world’s biggest Free Meals for Life ticket, at the world’s greatest university: he resigned for the volatile world of politics and a chance to fill an elusive, ephemeral, and newly emerging role in American society: the public intellectual.
Long active in Democratic politics, Jr. hit the mother lode in 1960 when he joined the campaign and administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He served as one of several “house intellectuals”: young men hired by Jack and Bobby to lounge around the White House and write memoranda to be set aside as doodling paper for the president (an incurable doodler). These men also provided a requisite level of eggheadedness – they lent an intellectual veneer – to offset the Kennedy glamour (Jack) and thuggishness (Bob). They, like the White House furniture, had a good and honorable purpose.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Schlesinger Jr. wrote A Thousand Days, an instantly popular, hagiographic “insider’s view” of the JFK administration. From then on, Schlesinger Jr.’s reputation as a scholarly but thoroughly public historian-intellectual was impeachable. He confidently spoke about administrations into which he had not enjoyed an “insider’s view” (e.g., Nixon’s). He taught at the City University of New York, but he no longer moved with the currents of historical scholarship. And frankly, between celebrity and serious scholarship, which would you choose?
But Schlesinger Jr. did little to popularize the best practices of his ostensible métier. And so in 1996, when the New York Times Magazine solicited a list ranking the presidents, Schlesinger Jr. must have thought about his father. Although Sr.’s scholarship was far more rigorous than Jr.’s, both men had turned away from hard scholarship to satisfy a very basic desire, one that the overwhelming majority of their countrymen felt, one that (in 1996) a new, radical brand of hardcore historicists had spent nearly two decades combating: the desire for easy access to history, to one’s own national history.
Of course Schlesinger Jr. would oblige.
The 1996 survey resembled the ’48 and ’62 surveys. Identical format. The pool of participants was decidedly smaller (Schlesinger Jr. surveyed twenty-nine professional historians, two politicians, and Doris Kearns Goodwin). Confirming a thesis developed later by Meena Bose et al (which examined hundreds of similar surveys), long-dead presidents fared better than more recent presidents, who tended to fall in the “average” category or lower.
You may see the full list here. If you remove all but the 20th century presidents from Schlesinger Jr.’s list, here are the rankings (accompanied by their presidential GPA):
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (“Great,” 3.97)
- Teddy Roosevelt (“Near Great” 3.31)
- Woodrow Wilson (“Near Great” 3.21)
- Harry Truman (“Near Great” 3.10)
- Dwight Eisenhower (“High Avg.” 2.34)
- John F. Kennedy (“High Avg.” 2.29)
- Lyndon B. Johnson (“High Avg.” 2.21)
- Bill Clinton (“Avg.” 1.58)
- Robert Taft (“Avg.” 1.52)
- George H.W. Bush (“Avg.” 1.45)
- Ronald Reagan (“Avg.” 1.42)
- Jimmy Carter (“Avg.” 1.37)
- Gerald Ford (“Avg.” 1)
- Calvin Coolidge (“Below Avg.” 0.88)
- Herbert Hoover (“Failure” -9)
- Richard Nixon (“Failure” -21)
- Warren G. Harding (“Failure” -48)
Schlesinger’s list was widely publicized (a Schlesinger-authored analysis of the list appeared in Political Science Quarterly). Political commentators in the mass media, which had contained less mass backed when Schlesinger Sr. was publishing his lists, used it to render judgments on still-active presidents, politicians, and legislation. One of these judgments had very interesting consequences, something Schlesinger Jr. could not have anticipated or desired.
2. Presidential History: from the Public to Mythology
Will Bunch, a left-wing journalist, has exhaustively and credibly documented the cottage industry of Reagan hagiography that emerged in the mid-1990s. At that time, conservative Republicans were confounded that Bill Clinton’s popularity persisted despite the fact that he wasn’t a conservative Republican. In 1992, the year of Clinton’s election, a Gallup poll fixed Ronald Reagan’s favorability ratings around 44%. Jimmy Carter’s, meanwhile, were around 63%. In Bunch’s account, 1996 was the tipping point for Republican panic over Reagan’s legacy and, writes Bunch, the Schlesinger Jr. rankings were a major factor in this tipping point. Reagan was deemed “Average.” He scored 1.42 out of 4, below both H.W. Bush and Clinton (who hadn’t even finished his first term when the survey was published). This revelation – that history professors at prestigious universities don’t much care for Ronald Reagan – should have elicited a reaction comparable to news of the pope’s sectarian affiliation. But tax guy Grover Norquist, writes Bunch, was sufficiently alarmed and motivated by the rankings to take action. The following spring, Norquist founded the Reagan Legacy Project: a division of his influential Americans for Tax Reform group that would be devoted solely to hyping Reagan.
A summary of the near deification of Reagan among conservatives, and the increased admiration for Reagan among everyone else, during the late 1990s and 2000s is unnecessary. This mood peaked somewhere between Reagan’s 2004 funeral and the 2008 primaries, when the Republican candidates fought desperately to out-Reagan each other. Reagan was a certifiably mythic figure.
But myth-making can be an ugly business. Because in mythology, there’s a frustrating tendency to be killed by one’s offspring.
By 2012, something had changed. Republicans, conservative pundits, and your father-in-law were suddenly hearing Reagan’s policies and statements turned against them. Reagan was being quoted by people who looked like Rachel Maddow and argued over minutia on Daily Kos forums. In February 2011, the centennial of Reagan’s birth, countless media outlets ran profiles of “the real Reagan” or “Reagan the liberal.” Time featured a cover that showed Obama and the Gipper chumming it up against a white background (like two guys in a Mac ad). Among the Slate and Salon class, Reagan’s liberal streak was already an article of faith.
Reagan had backfired.
Like Barry Goldwater before him (and Robert Taft before Goldwater), Reagan no longer seemed so conservative…not because American conservatives had shifted so far to the right but because “conservative” means different things in different eras.
Something else had changed: the distance between the 2012 primaries and Ronald Reagan’s last day in office was roughly the distance between Hitler’s suicide and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The distance between 2012 and the day Reagan became president was the distance between Hitler’s suicide and Reagan’s first presidential campaign against Gerald Ford. Enough time had passed – and enough documents were being declassified – for serious historians to begin assessing Reagan’s presidency with sobriety and distance. Two Princeton historians, Sean Wilentz and Daniel T. Rodgers, published books on the Reagan era in 2009 and 2011. Wilentz’s accessible Age of Reagan was favorably reviewed by George Will in Time magazine. Rodgers’ Age of Fracture was an ambitious attempt to synthesize American culture during the end of Cold War. Age of Fracture was published 30 years after Reagan’s first inauguration.
The 1980s felt remote.
In 1999, three years after Schlesinger Jr.’s list, Time magazine published a list ranking the presidents of the 20th century as part of their “End of the Century” coverage (they had polled nine journalists and historians, including Schlesinger Jr.). Time published its list with anonymous comments from the participants:
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Indisputably the century’s greatest”
- Theodore Roosevelt: “The great prophet of affirmative government”
- Woodrow Wilson: “A great visionary who presided over major domestic advances”
- Harry S Truman: “A decent human being with homespun virtues”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: “No hint of scandal either. The good old days”
- Ronald Reagan: “Jury still out”
- Lyndon B. Johnson: “America would have found a way to give blacks the vote without him, but don’t ask me how”
- John F. Kennedy: “Might be first-tier if he had lived longer”
- George Bush: “A skilled and decent administrator”
- Bill Clinton: “Jury out here too–maybe literally!”
- William Howard Taft: “Achieved nothing good with excellent situation left him by T.R.”
- (tie) Calvin Coolidge: “Left little historical legacy”; “Could have been greater if faced with challenges”
- (tie) Gerald Ford: “Returned nation to normality”
- Jimmy Carter: “Should have been a preacher”
- Richard Nixon: “The most difficult President to assess”; “Uniquely a failure among American Presidents”
- Warren G. Harding: Term: “Whatever personal shortcomings, presided over a period of economic growth”
- Herbert Hoover: “Victim of bad luck”
Presidential rankings are interesting because, when you compare them across time, they reveal the fluctuations of American cultural identity and how history is incorporated into that cultural identity. When Schlesinger Sr.’s second poll was published in 1962, half the interest it generated was the addition of a few new presidents, and the other half was the (relatively few) changes between the ’48 and ’62 lists. People wanted to know how the 19th century had changed between 1948 and 1962.
One might think that public rankings (of which there are many) would reveal more about cultural attitudes toward former presidents, because…well, they’re the public. But although the public has a monopoly on the culture, the public alone is not necessarily the best gauge of the culture’s self-conception. Rankings generated by historians arguably tell us more about cultural changes, because historians a.) possess more comprehensive knowledge of U.S. history and b) try (or imagine themselves) to be thoughtful and rigorous in their assessments. For this reason, the changes between their rankings – though smaller and less dramatic than changes on public rankings – are arguably more charged with cultural meaning: these are the bits of culture that filtered through even the historians’ ostensible sense of fairness vis a vis the past. What appear to be the thinnest vein proves to be the richest mine.
Imagine the Time list today. Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranking is slightly higher than in the 1996 Schlesinger Jr. list. But in 2014, two Robert Caro volumes and one Affordable Care Act later, I believe he might rank higher. In Lee Daniels’ recent and self-conscious ABOUT AMERICAN IDENTITY!!!, Johnson is portrayed more favorably than Kennedy. The film ends with a succession of voices speaking hope, civil rights, and the black experience. Johnson’s is the last white voice we hear. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln reflects admiringly the qualities that Lincoln and Johnson shared.
Similarly, Wilson’s visionary internationalism might have seemed appealing into the heady, post-historical days of the 1990s. But after nearly eight years of disastrous neo-conservative internationalism (just as visionary as Wilson’s), when Samuel P. Huntington joined Francis Fukuyama on State Department shelves, Wilson’s foreign policy idealism is less attractive. Eisenhower, whose stock has been rising, might take Wilson’s place on the list.
In 2014, Truman and his accomplishments feel distant, while Nixon’s appear towering (the towers that link our iPhones, made in China). Nixon was already undergoing massive rehabilitation in 1999, but many of the historians/journalists on the Time panel lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve found it’s difficult to talk reasonably about Nixon with a person whose political life began in the 1960s. Today, though, Nixon would surely be among the top ten. Truman would, too, but lower down.
No serious Carter rehabilitation has taken place. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, received almost instant rehabilitation, and would rank higher today. The narrative of the 1990s – a period of massive economic growth and peace, all of it ruined by the next guy – would prove irresistible to Time‘s panel.
Reagan? Reagan might stay in place, just outside the Top Five. Presidents would move around him, up and down, but he would stay fixed, smiling and content. Since 1999, as documents are declassified and trickle down, historians like Sean Wilentz have confirmed half of what Reagan’s worshippers believe, and dispelled quite a lot of what Reagan’s despisers believe. So it’s a wash.
Herbert Hoover is still a victim of bad luck.
3. Presidential History: from Mythology to Fable; or, Slouching toward Rushmore
Responsible historians would balk at these lists (even if we’re analyzing the historians rather than the presidents – the samples are too small). And rightly so. They encourage the wrong kind of thinking. When I speak to students about presidents, I encourage them to ignore any success/failure paradigm and treat the presidential name – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Clinton – as not a person’s name but as a metonym for a collective: a complex of policies and individuals that must be judged one by one. That approach is more productive, and that collective more interesting, than one man’s career and biography.
And yet we want our Great Men. We want them not merely as they existed in the past, but projected forward into our present: speaking to our problems, condemning our enemies, confirming our prejudices blessing our decisions.
We want to know the presidents.
But if you want to actually engage with the past, you’ll first find only dead silence. The anti-Hegelians resisted abstracted or cyclical history because they believed that the past speaks only to and about itself. At its most extreme, this view reduces history to delicate facts that crumble with the slightest extrapolation. The practice of history, the ability to make claims about the past, is practically impossible. The past is a sealed tomb. Most historians today are more pragmatic, borrowing methods and principles from the social sciences. They borrow these methods because the tools are strong and the excavation of historical knowledge is incredibly hard. You cannot apply even the recent past forward without great rigor and painstaking precision. To utilize historical knowledge properly, you must rely on slivers of specificity or sturdily engineered abstractions (usually constructed with the help of others). And you cannot allow specificity and abstraction to cross-contaminate. Everything you claim must be qualified and controlled.
This does not make for engaging or accessible presidential biographies.
Driving home last week, I endured a Minnesota Public Radio host lapping up the latest historical musings of journalist Simon Winchester. His new book that purports to introduce “the men who united the states,” men who are – fortunately for Winchester – “explorers, inventors, eccentrics, and mavericks.” The book is actually about oft-overlooked figures who show up at critical moments in U.S. history. A noble enough subject. But Winchester gives us fables. When asked, regarding Minnesota (paraphrase), “Who settled this area? Who made Minnesota a place? And why did they come here?”, he does not mention the fur trade and the decline of French colonialism in North America and the War of 1812 and federal incentive programs and politico-economic refugees from central Europe. No, Winchester driveled on about people “seeking adventure,” stir-crazy Easterners who wanted to live on the outskirts of civilization. They had an itch, and building a nation on prairie wilderness was the cure! He actually quoted Will Cather’s famous musings on the subject: the plains are “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” This passage beautifully represented a Virginian’s first impressions of Nebraska, written from Cather’s 20th century vantage, not the actual motivations of the actual miserable masses who traded New York and cholera for the Great Plains and scarlet fever. But for Winchester, the retrospect (Cather) preceded the event (the pioneers).
The contours of the present are determined by the material past. The fact of the material past is undeniable. We know that it exists, but it is hard to see. History shows us the shadows of the past, sometimes with surprising clarity, but it is easily corrupted. Fabulism is inherent in practically every publicly accessible account of American history. Perhaps this fabulism cannot be eradicated; it can only be pruned and minimized.
Regrettably, the overwhelming majority of those Americans who actually bother to think about history prefer that fabulism flourish. They want to learn from the past. They want a greatest president. They want a worst president. They want to make the past present. But the past belongs to the dead, who are mute and can be understood only by the conditions and corpses they leave behind. We take their words out of context the moment we speak them. We construct fables. We want the Angel of History to fly facing forward, like the bald eagle.
Next time: I violate everything I’ve written here and rank the 20th century presidents!