How Hindsight Can Change View of a Presidency
The recent unpleasant presidential election and the ugly aftermath of rioting in Washington got me thinking about the concept of presidential reputation. How will Donald Trump be evaluated by future scholars of the presidency? The presidential ratings game is not all that simple.
For instance, other than the three presidents uniformly ranked as ‘great:’ Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, the labeling of "great" or "near great" presidents really is little more than an interesting commentary on the fickleness of fame and a commentary on the way ideas move in a modern society.
During my lifetime (born 1936) 13 men have served as president. FDR, who I barely remember is ranked a "presidential great" for obvious reasons: He served four terms and was president for two of the worst crises in American history: the Depression and World War II. You can argue about the effectiveness of his policies, but you cannot discuss American history without dealing with his impact.
Reputations change with perspective
Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower are interesting examples of how the whole concept of historical reputation can undergo major shifts. When Truman left office in 1953, his public opinion-poll numbers were in the 20s and he was generally regarded as a failure. That began to change within a generation. Scholars not caught up in the controversies of Truman’s last years in office such as the unpopularity of the Korean War, now saw Truman as the architect of the policies and programs that ultimately won the Cold War: NATO, the Marshall Plan, ending segregation in the military, etc. Truman is now seen to use a term popular with some historians as a ‘Near Great President.’ In a recent poll of historians and biographers conducted by Sienna College, Truman was ranked sixth among great presidents.
The case of Eisenhower is even more illustrative of how historical reputations can change. Seen initially as an amiable bumbler who did not understand the realities of politics, Eisenhower now, like Truman, is ranked as a "Near Great." In a survey of scholars in 1962, two years after he left office, Dwight Eisenhower was ranked No. 22 among presidents tied with a non-entity like Chester Arthur.
Within a decade of his leaving the presidency a re-evaluation began. It was noted that during his time in office, tensions in the nation over issues like McCarthyism began to die down. Inflation, which had plagued the nation after World War II, was down to just over 1 percent a year. The American economy grew by 25 percent during his term in office and as he liked to note, no American soldier died during his watch. Historians began to note that the man who ran the biggest, most complex military alliance in history and had to deal with egoists like De Gaulle and Churchill, must have possessed rare political skills.
Eisenhower moved from No. 22 to No. 5
The same Sienna study that reevaluated Truman now ranks Eisenhower as the fifth most effective president in American history. It appears that Ike got awfully smart in the 50 years after his death.
The reputations of the next three presidents in my lifetime, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, and Ricard Nixon reveal the twists of historical judgements. JFK is almost impossible to render a full judgment on because of the briefness of his tenure, just 1,000 days and his tragic assassination. Although scholars have tended to be harsher in their evaluation of him and his policies especially considering his sexual proclivities -- which only became known after his death -- JFK has passed into the realm of legend. For many, he remains an iconic figure and the myth of Camelot still strong.
LBJ is showing signs of interesting reevaluation. At one point, because of the "Great Society," he was seen as the logical successor to FDR as creator of the modern American welfare state. The events of the last four decades have taken much of the gloss off that claim. But the issue that historians face with Johnson is a simple one: the war in Vietnam.
Now seen as one of the great disasters of American history, Johnson’s reputation will always be measured against that dark moment in our past. Despite the work of scholars like Robert Caro, who has devoted his life to investigating LBJ’s bigger-than-life career, it is doubtful that his reputation will survive Vietnam.
Nixon can't overcome Watergate
Like Johnson, Nixon has an immense burden to carry: the Watergate affair. No matter how anyone tries to re-evaluate Nixon’s presidency pointing out how successful his foreign policy was -- ending the war in Vietnam, opening normal relations with China, reaching détente with the Soviet Union -- there will always be Watergate with all its sleaziness to haunt his reputation. Nixon may have been talented, but he was a classic case of someone corrupted by his pursuit of power.
Of Nixon’s successors, except for Ronald Reagan who seized hold of the American imagination and is now regarded as a Near Great President, it is difficult to render evaluation. Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush will probably be regarded as good men but failed presidents. Bush Sr. deserves credit for handling the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he was a one-term president and tone deaf politically. I can see a future historian making a case for taking him more seriously as a political leader who made a major contribution to American political life.
It is too early to puzzle how history will view Bill Clinton. Despite a real gift for politics in the best sense of the term, his presidency has the handicap of the Monica Lewinsky affair and his impeachment to overcome. He has a certain roguishness about him that may attract future historians.
President Barack Obama, whatever historians have to say about his policies, is guaranteed an important place in the history books as the first African-American president. His policies may not appear particularly significant to future scholars, but his claim to attention will always be noted.
And then we get to Trump. He will leave office under a bigger cloud than anyone since Herbert Hoover in 1933 with the Depression raging. But he retains the allegiance of a loyal band of supporters. It will be interesting to see how his major policies -- the transformation of the judicial system with his appointment of conservative judges, his mentoring of the process where Israel and some its Arabic neighbors have opened diplomatic relations, his deregulations policies that stirred the economy -- hold up in the future.