Why Ike Keeps Going Up Up Up in Scholarly Polls

tags: presidential rankings, Eisenhower

Keith W. Olson is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

In his 1963 memoir Dwight David Eisenhower commented about presidential legacies and his in particular. He started with what he called “the trite observation that history will have to make the final judgment.” Time, he added, brings perspective, and the actions of successors profoundly influence how a later generation would review a president’s legacy. Two examples illustrate his point.

In his Farewell Address Eisenhower wanted “to share a few final thoughts” with Americans. In his first substantive thought he declared that “our people expect their President and the Congress to find essential agreement on questions of great moment….” For the last six years of his administration, the Democrats controlled Congress. Eisenhower believed that “on most vital issues” the Congress and the Administration “cooperated weekly, to serve the nation well rather than mere partisanship….” He concluded that “his official relationship with Congress ends on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together.” His legacy of bipartisanship remains a standard model unequaled in post-1961 presidential history The nadir of bipartisanship perhaps took place in October 2010 when Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell declared in an interview that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Bipartisanship, of course, requires mature leaders who have a concept of and a commitment to the national interest.

The second legacy that Eisenhower left also serves as model. Evan Thomas, historian and professor of journalism at Princeton University, succinctly emphasized both Eisenhower’s legacy and model and the quick disregard of both by his successors. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Thomas concluded in his well-received book Ike’s Bluff, “adopted a policy of ‘flexible response’ that made possible the small wars that Eisenhower did his best to avoid. The result was Vietnam.”

The passage of time and the performance of his successors have enhanced Eisenhower’s legacies of bipartisanship and broad foreign policy vision. Because of this perspective, the five polls spanning nineteen years ranked Eisenhower seventh of all presidents, as summarized in American Presidents: The Greatest and the Worst. The five polls were: 1996 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. poll of presidential scholars; 2005 Wall Street Journal poll of 130 prominent professors of history; 2009 C-SPAN poll of 65 historians; 2010 Siena College poll of 238 scholars; and 2015 American Political Science Association poll of 162 members.

In February 2018, the most recent survey, 170 members of the American Political Science Association ranked Eisenhower seventh.

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