Richard Reeves

Rating Presidents Real and Would Be

WASHINGTON -- A panel of historians assembled by C-SPAN, that jewel in the crown of American public affairs, has ranked American presidents in more or less the usual order: Abraham Lincoln is first, with 900 of a possible thousand points, and his predecessor, poor James Buchanan, is 41st and last, with just 259 points.

Lincoln and Buchanan are flip sides of the same presidential medal. Lincoln preserved the Union; Buchanan was a failure whose actions led to the possible breakup that became the Civil War. Personally, I would have given first place to George Washington, who finished third behind Franklin D. Roosevelt, because in a very real way the first president could be said to have both created and preserved the Union. If he had done what so many others have done as democracy swept the world -- tried to be president-for-life -- the United States would be a very different place today, a lesser place.

But I did not participate. I was one of 87 president-ponderers who did some work on C-SPAN's valuable year-long series on the 41 men who have served as our chief magistrates and executives. But I did not feel qualified to judge the "administrative skills" of, say, James Monroe, or the "vision" of Chester A. Arthur. But 58 historians did vote the presidents up or down in 10 categories -- those two just mentioned, plus public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, relations with Congress, pursuit of equal justice, and performance within the context of his times.

Obviously that last category, the context of the times, was the biggest one, and the ratings given there tended to mirror the overall results for all categories. In other words, big contexts bring out the bigness of men; thus we will always remember Honest Abe, FDR and the Father of Our Country. Beyond that, though, there were some surprises, at least for me:

Harry S. Truman, with a total of 753 points, was ranked fifth, behind Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson was overrated at sixth, ahead of Thomas Jefferson. Then came John F. Kennedy (overrated), Dwight Eisenhower (on a historical roll), Lyndon Johnson and (surprise) Ronald Reagan. James K. Polk (usually underrated) was next, tied for 12th with Andrew Jackson, with 632 points.

Interesting. For the record, Richard Nixon was ranked 25th, with a score of 20.9 in the moral authority category and 75.9 in international relations. Bill Clinton was ranked 21st, with 19.5 for moral authority, but 70.3 for public persuasion, 74.0 for economic management and 76.7 for pursuing equal justice.

Now the future. What about the men who would be president? I wondered how Al Gore, George W. Bush, John McCain and Bill Bradley might rank in those same categories. These are my guesses:

Public persuasion: 1. McCain, 2. Gore, 3. Bradley, 4. Bush.

Crisis leadership: 1. Gore, 2. Bradley, 3. McCain, 4. Bush.

Economic management: 1. Gore, 2. Bush, 3. Bradley, 4. McCain.

Moral authority: 1. Bradley, 2. McCain, 3. Bush, 4. Gore.

International relations: 1. Gore, 2. McCain, 3. Bradley, 4. Bush.

Administrative skills: 1. Gore, 4. Bush, 4. Bradley, 4. McCain(cq)

Relations with Congress: 1. Bush, 2. Gore, 3. Bradley, 4. McCain.

Vision: 1. Bradley, 2. McCain, 3. Gore, 4. Bush.

Pursuit of equal justice: 1. Bradley, 2. Gore, 3. McCain, 4. Bush.

Performance within the context of his times: If I knew that, I'd know who I would want to vote for in November.

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