Douglas Brinkley and James Taranto: Ranking Presidential Greatness

Roundup: Historians' Take

From CNBC’s ‘Capital Report’ (June 23 2004):


And when it comes to book sales, Bill Clinton will soon be number one among American presidents, but when it comes to his years in the Oval Office, where does he rank? James Taranto is editor of The Wall Street Journal's and the editor of the new book"Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House." Doug Brinkley contributed to the book. He's a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author of"Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War."

Thanks to both of you for being here. You conducted this survey back in 2001. I want to put up some of the results that we've got from your book because they're so interesting. Great presidents: We've got George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. Near-great, and this is not the entire list: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, James Polk, Woodrow Wilson.

Let's start with you, James Taranto. What were the criteria these historians and scholars used that you polled?

Mr. JAMES TARANTO (Editor,"Presidential Leadership"): Well, the criteria were up to them. We asked them to rate each president on a five-point scale with five meaning highly superior and one meaning well below average, and they rated based on whatever they thought was important.

BORGER: Now, were you surprised by any of the results?

Mr. TARANTO: Not really. I think they were about what we expected. The one thing that sets our poll apart from other, similar surveys is that Reagan did a lot better, because we took care to have conservative scholars, as well as liberal scholars. Scholars, in general, tend to be much more liberal than Americans as a whole, so, for example, when Arthur Schlesinger did a survey in 1996, Reagan came up number 25. He's number eight in our survey.

BORGER: Well, Doug Brinkley, let's talk about Ronald Reagan. You were here in Washington during the Reagan funeral and people were talking about the Reagan legacy. Do you think, in fact, that that week a couple of weeks ago will raise his ranking among historians?

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Presidential Historian): I think so. It's made people realize how the American public is enamored with Ronald Reagan. It was a love fest, a celebration, not a mourning. And, you know, his news bites, if you like, his sound bites, are very powerful, the"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," or his speech with the Challenger disaster, or his 'Boys appoint, a-ha.' All those clips, I think, re-inspired Americans again to recognize that Reagan was not just a conservative leader or a Republican or a polarizing figure, but actually, as the survey says, a near-great American president.

BORGER: James Taranto, what about those intangibles, though, that make a leader a great leader and a great president?

Mr. TARANTO: Well, the intangibles are important. I mean, a lot of the reason FDR is considered a great president is because he restored the morale of the country at a time when it was in very bad shape for understandable reasons. And likewise with Reagan. We had been through a very rough decade in the '70s, and Reagan came along and restored our confidence in American ideals. And Bill Clinton, too, was a great communicator. I think the problem with him was it was a little less clear what he was communicating.

BORGER: Well, I want to add that Bill Clinton is number 24. Let me go to you, Doug Brinkley, on that. Do you think that this book is going to help him?

Mr. BRINKLEY: Oh, maybe slightly. I don't think too much, though. I think Clinton has a legacy problem for the reason I gave about Reagan and his sound bite. A lot of the interviews this week have been about Monica Lewinsky, the meaning of this. And the great accomplishments of Clinton, of winning two terms and helping domestic renewal, trade pacts around the world, they're not as exciting or as important as some things--unfortunately, as, let's say, war, which presidents like Polk or Harry Truman and the Korean War had to go through.

BORGER: So the old line that greatness can be thrust upon you, you know, Clinton didn't have that kind of a situation.

Mr. BRINKLEY: I think so, and it's why Bill Clinton this past week's been talking--even when they unveiled his portraits, was talking about Theodore Roosevelt. I think he likes to think of himself as TR because Theodore Roosevelt was a very popular president who kept America out of war. He actually won the Nobel Peace Prize, TR. And I think the fact that he's one of those near-great presidents but wasn't a wartime president--and Dwight Eisenhower, the same things. He got us out of the Korean War and saw eight years of prosperity and kept America at peace. I think Bill Clinton's--looks at sort of Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, and hopes to be in their midst, but I think he falls short....

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