Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton and His Peers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton and His Peers

Article excerpt

The rating of American presidents says as much about our standards for judging as it does about the relative performance of the men we would judge.

This is true whether the rating is done by a panel of 32 eminent historians and politicians, as in the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. poll in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, or the casual rating of model or un-model White House performance by Every Citizen, or you and my barber.

Among 20th-century presidents, only FDR is rated, with Washington and Lincoln, as "great." T. Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman are placed with Jefferson, Polk, and Jackson as "near great." Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ are "high average." Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton are rated "low average." Coolidge is "below average," and Harding, Hoover, and Nixon are rated "failure." The raters were given no criteria for judging the presidents. And so one must assume the rating gets more subjective the closer one gets to evaluating the presidents of our lifetime and the present. Kennedy rates high among the population at large, although his term was brief. LBJ, Nixon, Bush, and Carter had quite different successes in foreign and domestic endeavors. Eisenhower steadily rises in the estimation of historians as time passes and the remembrance of his press conference garbles diminishes. Reagan gets seven near-great votes from the panel, and Nixon and Clinton get two. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR stand out because they represent the continuity of the idea of the American democracy at the moments of inception, challenge, and change. There are elements of heroism in their stories; only one survived the harrows of hatred and war to retirement. Perhaps a CD-ROM version of all the presidencies will one day be published, in the manner of the state histories first produced during the 1930s in book form and then repeated in a new series during the 1976 bicentennial, so more Americans can judge the careers of their chief executives for themselves. …

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