Gene Healy: Activist and warrior president dominate historians’ polls

Roundup: Talking About History

[Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008).]

As he prepared to head back to the ranch, President George W. Bush embarked on a sort of "Legacy Tour," granting numerous interviews.

Asked how his presidency will be remembered, Bush typically insisted that "history" will be the judge. He’s right — and right as well that historians may be kinder to him than his abysmal approval ratings would suggest.

But that says less about Bush’s success than it does about the perverse standards by which historians evaluate presidents.

Judging by the perennial presidential ranking polls, historians reward presidents who dream big and dare great things — even when they leave wreckage in their wake.

Odd as it may seem, given the manifest failures of his administration, Bush has a fighting chance at presidential greatness.

John Yoo, the author of the administration’s infamous "torture memos," has remarked that "the greatest presidents are those who exercise executive power most aggressively."

Most of the scholars who rank the presidents aren’t particularly fond of Yoo or the president he served, but it’s hard to see what legitimate grounds they would have for disagreeing with his assessment.

Indeed, more than five decades worth of academic surveys make it plain that the scholarly arbiters of presidential greatness reward presidents who expand their power.

Some of them even admit it: In a 2003 article titled "Reflections of a Presidency Rater," Barnard political scientist Richard Pious wrote that when he fills out presidential surveys, he downgrades those who "left the presidential office weaker than when they entered"— which is a strange position to take, unless one believes that there has never been a time in American history when the presidency has been too strong.

That perspective is all too common, unfortunately...

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