James Taranto: George W. Bush is "average," but far from ordinary.





Ask someone to describe the presidency of George W. Bush, and "average" is not a word you're likely to hear. Mr. Bush's detractors treat him with a level of vituperation unseen since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt; some even blame him for bad weather. His admirers don't go so far as to credit him when the sun shines, but their affection for him is palpable.

So it may come as a surprise that in a new survey of scholars ranking the presidents, Mr. Bush finishes almost exactly in the middle of the pack. He ranks No. 19 out of 40, and he rates 3.01 on a 5-point scale, just a hair's breadth above the middlemost possible figure. But this is no gentleman's C. Mr. Bush's rating is average because it is an average, of rankings given by 85 professors of history, politics, law and economics.

Most such scholarly polls have a strong liberal bias, reflecting academia's far-left tilt. But this survey--conducted by James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School for the Federalist Society and The Wall Street Journal--aimed at ideological balance. The scholars were chosen with an eye toward balancing liberals and conservatives, and Mr. Lindgren asked each participant about his political orientation, then adjusted the average to give Democratic- and Republican-leaning scholars equal weight. (To see the rankings, click here.)

Mr. Bush's rating thus reflects the same sharp partisan divide that gave him a shade under 51% of the popular vote last year. GOP-leaning scholars rated Mr. Bush the 6th-best president of all time, while Democratic ones rated him No. 35, or 6th-worst. Even Bill Clinton--13th among Democrats, 34th among Republicans--isn't as controversial.

If this result reflects the passions of the moment, how will history judge George W. Bush? Today's opinion polls are no guide: Warren G. Harding was a lot more popular when he died in office than Harry S. Truman was when he left, yet Harding now rates as a failure and Truman as near great.
Here's one way of thinking about the question: The three great presidents--Washington, Lincoln and FDR--all faced unprecedented challenges, all responded to them boldly, and all succeeded. Mr. Bush has met the first two of these criteria: The 9/11 attacks were his unprecedented challenge; setting out to democratize the Middle East was his bold response. Will he succeed--not just in bringing stability and representative government to Iraq but in beginning a process that spreads freedom throughout the region? That will determine whether he joins the top tiers of presidents.

If he falls short, he may still get credit for trying. The lowest-ranking presidents tend to be not those who aimed high and missed, but those whose administrations were plagued by scandal (Harding, Nixon) or who were passive as crises built (Buchanan, Carter).

If Mr. Bush's vision turns out to have been overambitious, the more salient precedents may be the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both had bold, forward-looking agendas, and both suffered enormous setbacks. Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy, but America instead turned inward, leaving the world decidedly unsafe for democracy until after World War II. Johnson waged war both in Vietnam and on poverty, with one loss and one draw.

Yet neither one is judged a failure in the survey: Wilson is above average at No. 11, and Johnson is average at No. 18. Like Mr. Bush, both are more highly regarded within their own party. Wilson finishes 7th among Democrats and 23rd among Republicans; LBJ, 9th among Democrats and 31st among Republicans.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Arnold Shcherban - 9/17/2005

If he fails, we are told, he still can get points for trying...
And the author is right, since that's
how the political judgements are delivered in this country.
He, i.e. G.W.Bush, for example, has been praising and simultaneously criticizing the deadliest and the most destructive (for South-East Asia, of course) US-Indochina war:
essentially praising the killings
of a couple millions of people, and
criticizing the indecisiveness of
Democratic White House administrations
in intensifying the war efforts, instead of preoccupation with "politics". Adding just one more million of foreign victims, and just a dozen of thousands of American lives on the altar of war this country could have win. Can one imagine how great would it be and how many additional points Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon would get from the
US esteemed historians?

The same is with the current President. If the US agression and occupation of Iraq succeeds, (apparently, to the true historian, regardless after how many years, and what the "success" means for the Iraqis themselves), let it be in 15 years, after 1 million of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead Americans, the practical annihilation of Iraq's
economical, societal and cultural infrastrcutures, and spending hundreds of billions of taxpayers's dollars this crooked, war criminal President will most likely score high
on the corrupted scale of the US intellectual elite.
Can anything else serve as the better indication of the depth of socio-political and ideological corruption of this society in whole?
It is not surprising that the great majority in the world considers
this country as the most dangerous to
the world's peace and stability.

Subscribe to our mailing list