Monday, July 5, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth Final

Odds and ends remaining from the Presidents for the Fourth series.

First, I enjoyed Alex Massie's version of overrated and underrated -- from a while back, but I hadn't seen it before.  Massie is championing Cleveland, Coolidge, and Harding to join Grant as presidents who are moving up.  We'll see!

I said I'd say something about Ronald Reagan.  Well,  (as he would say)...

Four of the postwar presidents have been the subjects of post-presidential campaigns to improve their reputations:  Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, who did it themselves, and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who had it done on their behalf.  Apparently, it works; I think they've all achieved higher ratings than they deserve, to varying degrees.  Nixon's campaign basically died with him.  I expect Carter's to do so as well...Carter's campaign is a bit different than the other three, because it's focused on proving himself a Great Man, as opposed to having been a good president, and for better or worse I expect that Carter's post-presidency will have a lot less pull on his presidential reputation as time goes on.  I have no idea what to think of the future of Kennedy and Reagan hagiography.  One would have thought that it would ebb over time, but it sure seems to be a self-sustaining industry.  I really don't know where I'd put Reagan, but I think that the various academic polls are too high (he's at #18, per Siena, which is a bit lower than where others put him).  Beyond that...I've posted about Reagan several times, so I'll leave it at that, for now.  I'm sure not for long; of the modern presidents, the ones I find particularly fascinating are Reagan, Clinton, Johnson, and Nixon, so I'm sure I'll return to one of them before long.

Is Bill Clinton engaged in a campaign to raise his reputation?  I don't really consider his post-presidency to be self-advertisement.  I think, and of course this is nothing but complete speculation, that he's mostly just doing stuff he wants to do.  Which includes the global activism, but also includes getting to go to the World Cup, and other such events.  Unless, of course, you count staying married as something that he's doing for his presidential reputation...I don't happen to believe that, and my rule of thumb for these things is to remember that we really have no idea what goes on inside a marriage, but, you know, I did have to mention it.   Of course, Clinton shares with George H.W. Bush and the Kennedy family a continuing political dynasty, so that's a factor, too. 

At any rate: since I've now devoted eight (!) posts to this topic over the holiday weekend, I suppose I might as well repeat my original disclaimer: this is a diversion, a good topic of conversation.  That's fine -- obviously, readers can tell that I like this stuff -- but it's not careful analysis, although I certainly try to stick to what I know.  There's a tendency once we get into these conversations to begin to attribute everything that happened during these presidencies to the man in office, when we know that he does not, in fact, have control of everything that the United States government does, much less whatever happens in the rest of the nation and in the wider world.  Presidents matter, but...well, regular readers know what I think. 

I'll also remind everyone that it really is too soon to know many things about the recent presidents.  Not, at least mostly not, because we don't know how things will turn out, but because we don't know, in many cases, what actually happened.  That goes with the previous point we don't know, in some cases, which side of a fight a president was really on.  Of course, sometimes we never really can know, but there are plenty of times that new studies add quite a bit to our original understandings of what a president was up to. 

Oh, last thing, before the weekend is over: so far at least, there have been some excellent discussions in the comments to these posts.  I recommend peeking into them, and please join in, especially if you are a student of any of these presidents.  And thanks to all those who have participated; with only a few exceptions, the conversation has been not only interesting but civil.  My only requests are to please be respectful to other posters, and, if you don't mind, please give yourself some name -- even if you want to be anonymous, it's easier for everyone if you pick something to call yourself.

And once again, I hope everyone (or at least, I guess, all the American citizens here) had a great holiday.  Happy Fourth of July!


  1. Of course, Bill Clinton is an unusual ex-president, in that he left office relatively popular (compared to G.W. Bush, Carter, or Nixon), relatively young (compared to Reagan or Ike), and relatively healthy (compared to Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson).

  2. As time goes by, might LBJ's reputation rise? Vietnam may have defined a generation, but as that generation passes, I suspect that its historical significance will diminish. After all, the USA still won the Cold War, the dominoes didn't fall, etc. It doesn't seem to have done any *long-term* damage to the USA's status as a superpower.

    But as racial equality becomes more central to the understanding of American history, LBJ's presiding over the "Second Reconstruction" or the "Second Appomattox" looms ever larger. Yes, it probably would've happened anyway. Yes, LBJ was a relative latecomer to the cause. But he's the one who did it, and those present at the time give him a lot of credit.

    Should the 2010 health care law come to be seen as a vindication of the American welfare state, then the Great Society will be recognized as another chapter in a narrative of social justice.

    The 1965 immigration reform also looks vastly more important now than it did at the time. I don't think this was a major priority for LBJ, and JFK was the one who proposed ending the national-origins system (long a bete noire of liberals), but he's the one who signed it.

  3. A couple points, fwiw...

    I think Clinton IS engaged in self-advertisement, but that that's just what he wants to do. I think his rabid support of Hillary- right down to hopeless primary endorsements- is all about cementing some kind of legacy for himself.


    I rather imagine he'd be doing the exact same thing had he never become President, or had he had a scandal-free term filled with an LBJ/FDR level of accomplishments. That's just baked into his cake.

    As for LBJ, I think his stock is going to rise- in fact, I think it sort of already is, at least because enough people are SAYING his stock will/should rise, and really, isn't that the same thing? I think Richard Skinner's analysis is right on, and I'd only add in the fact that Johnson is an absolutely fascinating figure that historians ought to love examining (look at what Robert Caro is doing).

  4. I'd also like to put something up for discussion: What SHOULD be valued more, decent stewardship of the country (a la Bill Clinton) or dramatic change, either in policy (a la LBJ) or culture (Reagan)? I think historians seem to err on the side of change (though I suppose a third class, Crisis Management, ranks above all), but I'd like to hear an argument for the other. Any ideas?

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  6. Chester Arthur is most famous for being the president nobody has anything, good or bad, to say about; mr irrelevant... and yet... Federal Civil Service came into being under him. An important reform during the Guilded Era. Think about the patronage wars througout the pre-civil war period. Anyway... a halfhearted toast to Chester Arthur.

  7. Arthur is the only president I have any memory of never having heard of. But all that really says is about the way presidential history is taught (which tends to treat all the presidents between Lincoln and TR as essentially forgettable).

  8. Some of the glaring errors in the Siena survey:

    1) Wilson (8) and Jackson (14) are WAY too high. The process described of how their reputations are being reevaluated is ridiculously slow if historians still put them this high more than, what, 50 years after the "Lost Cause" stuff came into disrepute.

    2) There are numerous errors in the communications ability section. Washington is way too low. And putting the most recent presidents so high is terrible. Coolidge was a very effective communicator (Will Rogers, of all people, respected him as such).

    3) I mentioned elsewhere, but the court appointments section shows lack of knowledge about 19th century appointments, and lack of perspective for way overestimating the importance of contemporary arguments over the court (a historian who thinks Jackson's judges are better than Bush's either should find a new lines of work, or is a neo-confederate). And a historian who thinks Jackson's judges are better than Fillmore's probably just doesn't know anything about either's appointments and didn't feel like taking the 10 seconds to look it up.

    4) What's up with Teddy Roosevelt being so high?

    5) Why the heck is Madison so high? He made voluminous mistakes in the lead-up to the War of 1812 (arguably this qualifies as the greatest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history).

    6) Truman, Clinton, Kennedy, LBJ and Obama are all too high by more than a decent margin of error.

    7) Van Buren! He is basically in the middle of this list. Van Buren presided over the Trail of Tears, was one of the biggest friends of slavery of any President ever (and violated all sorts of basic civil liberties to that end--most famously with Amistad and censorship at the U.S. post office), tried to appease northern Democrats by blocking Texas from joining the union, presided over the horrible second seminole war, AND presided over the second worst depression in U.S. history. I think you can make a decent argument he merits title "Worst President Ever"--that's debatable, what you can't do is say he's average. These participants put Van Buren, among other things, ahead of Taft, Grant, Arthur, Garfield, both Harrisons, Ford, Coolidge, and Harding. Awful!


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