Category Archives: The Bushes

Bush on Bush, and the Best Presidential Memoir Never Written

The news that George W. Bush has written a book about his 90-year old father,  former president George. H. W. Bush, set off the usual partisan-based reaction among some in the punditocracy. But I, for one, look forward to reading it, not least because one could argue – as I did here – that the elder Bush is the best president never to win reelection. Moreover, it will be interesting to see whether Bush 43 addresses some of the policy differences between them, most notably how each approached the problem of removing Saddam Hussein from office.

It is worth noting that both Bush’s wrote memoirs. The elder’s, co-written with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft is, as one might expect from the title A World Transformed, focused on the major foreign policy decisions of his administration. The excerpts from Bush’s diary that he includes in the text provide a wonderful contemporaneous view of his thoughts as he confronted a serious of significant foreign policy crisis, including the end of the Cold War and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait*. Bush’s ability to put together both an international coalition to oppose Hussein as well as persuading a much divided Congress to authorize military action remains one of the great leadership feats in presidential annals. The memoir is a great reminder that history is lived by the participants looking forward under conditions of great uncertainty, but it is judged by us with the benefit of hindsight.

The son’s memoirs, Decision Points,  in contrast, looks at a series of critical decision, both domestic and in foreign policy, that helped define his presidency. What struck me about 43’s memoir is how candid he is about the mistakes he made, including the slow response to Katrina and the decision to pursue social security reform ahead of immigration. Interestingly, Bush begins his memoirs by describing his decision to quit drinking – an interesting choice considering the magnitude of the other key events that he addresses later in the book. (The other important fact I learned is that 43 inherited his habit of bestowing nicknames on people from his father who most notably labeled his wife “the silver fox”.)

Hearing about Bush’s latest writing venture got me thinking about the best presidential memoirs I’ve read. In my view one of the most underrated is Calvin Coolidge’s The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, written in sparing yet often quite evocative prose. Here is Coolidge’s description of his reaction to the death of his son, who died of blood poisoning while Coolidge was in the White House. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him. The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

Among the more recent presidents, Reagan’s An American Life exudes a sunny optimism that is especially poignant given his subsequent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  Although he manages to faithfully address the major events of his life, including his presidency, his account never really penetrates deeply enough to help readers understand the inner Reagan nor the degree to which he was fully in charge of his presidency. Clinton’s My Life, at nearly 1,000 pages, is far too long and self-indulgent, as befitting a man of such enormous appetites, and can only be read in small doses.  Richard Nixon spent much of his post-presidential years writing a series of books designed, in part, to rehabilitate his public image. In this vein, his memoirs, RN The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, are good at bringing us inside his thought process during the Watergate scandal, but he never seems willing to fully address his culpability nor the enormity of the scandal. The book begins, however, with one of the best lines to open any presidential memoir: “I was born in a house my father built.”

For me, however, the best presidential memoir is Ulysses Simpson Grant’s Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which, unfortunately, does not cover his years as president. Written as he was dying of throat cancer, his account of his life up to the presidency reads much as he conducted his military command: meticulous, plain-spoken, brutally honest and uncompromising in its opinions. I will never forget Grant’s description of his approach to battle during his first regimental command: “As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we would see Harris’ camp [Harris was commanding the enemy forces] and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.” It seems to me that this passage captures what drives most soldiers to fight rather than to run from combat – a lack of moral courage. As it turns out, Grant arrives at the expected battlefield only to find that Harris has pulled back his troops. Grant writes: “I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.” From that point on, Grant says, he “never experienced trepidation upon confronting the enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety.”

The best presidential memoirs, it seems to me, accomplish two objectives. First, they recreate as faithfully as possible the critical events of the president’s time in office as he saw them as they were occurring. What was his explanation for the course of events? What options or responses did he consider? We want to see events from his vantage point in real time, rather than have him rationalize decisions after the fact. But a good memoir should also reveal something about the essence of the president as a person – those experiences and beliefs that provide insight regarding how and why he responded to the pressures of occupying the presidential office. In this regard, how presidents choose to tell their life story, including the events they decide are important for readers to understand, are often quite revealing. The best memoirs don’t defend a president or his presidency – they help us understand both.

* An earlier version of this post said that Hussein invaded Iraq. He invaded Kuwait, of course.  I’ve made the correction.

Sunday Shorts: Why Is This President Smiling, and What Have Millennials Really Learned?

Jack Goodman is constantly urging me to write more frequent, but shorter blog posts. In response, I’m introducing a new Sunday blog format, provisionally titled Sunday Shorts, that will touch briefly on political topics that I could not fit in during my longer posts during the week. This week’s short topics include Watergate, what explains Millennials’ growing distrust of the Presidency and why George H. W. Bush is a very happy 90-year old.

Let’s begin with Watergate. On the 40th anniversary of its original publication, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic work of investigative journalism All the President’s Men is being reissued with an afterword by the two authors. Both appeared on Candy Crowley’s State of the Union show this morning and had some choice words for the state of investigative journalism today. Simply put, they believe news organizations put too much time and money into shows that specialize in political punditry, and not enough into traditional on-the-ground reporting. Moreover, in this internet-dominated 24-7 news cycle, journalists face increasing pressure to get something out on a daily, even hourly basis, rather than taking the time to gather the facts in order to tell the full story. To illustrate, they cite the Benghazi and IRS missing e-mail controversies as stories that would benefit from some traditional investigative journalism, rather than the daily back-and-forth evidence-free accusations that have dominated discourse on this topic. Immediately after their appearance, Crowley – showing not a trace of irony – hosted a round table of four pundits who traded accusations about who is to blame about the IRS missing e-mails.

Former Midd student and political science major Addison DiSesa (who is gainfully employed in communications) pointed me in the direction of Ezra Klein’s Vox video piece claiming that Millennials (that would be Addy’s generation) are “getting smarter about politics.”  As evidence, Klein notes that Millennials’ “trust in the presidency has plummeted during [Obama’s] two terms.” This, Klein suggests, is a good thing because it shows Millennials are catching on that the presidency is an inherently weak office. As Addy, a veteran of my presidency course, can surely attest, Klein’s observation regarding the power of the presidency is Basic Neustadt 101.  But I’m not sure Millennials’ growing skepticism of the presidency is a sign of increased understanding of the limits of presidential power so much as it is disappointment in what Obama has been able to accomplish. Put another way, it would not surprise me to see Millennials’ fooled again, given the right presidential candidate and political context.

we all know how this ends

That’s what honeymoons are for! Later this week I’ll post a brief analysis of Obama’s falling approval ratings. You might be surprised which previous president’s approval ratings closely mimic the current president’s.

Speaking of previous presidents, why is George H. W. Bush smiling? Probably because when he’s not jumping out of airplanes, he’s surrounding himself with agreeable guests. Plus he wears cool socks.

This, I submit, is a just reward for arguably the best president not to win reelection!

Have a great Sunday (and keep those comments and suggestions coming)!

“41” The Movie: “When We Saw What He Had Done”

Thanks to a timely heads up by Stanis Moody-Roberts, I was able to catch the HBO premier of “41” two nights ago.  It is well worth watching, not so much for breaking new ground – it mostly skimmed the most significant events of Bush’s life – but for providing an intimate glimpse at a man looking back on a career that saw him reach the pinnacle of political power, only to be voted out of office by the people he tried to serve.  In watching the movie, I was reminded of just how prepared George H. W. Bush was as president to handle a series of extraordinary foreign policy crises, beginning with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in China through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War to the decision to repel Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait. These were momentous events and, for the most part, he handled them with extraordinary skill.  And yet, he was voted out of office, the victim of an economic downturn that had almost nothing to do with his policies. Indeed, it was his decision – one he stands by to this day – to break a campaign promise and raise taxes that helped close the budget deficit and set the stage for the surpluses during Clinton’s second term.  For that act, against the backdrop of an economic recession, Bush was booted from office. The film is an extraordinary reminder of how much our evaluations of presidents often turn on events about which they have little control and that even when they do make the “right” decision, they aren’t always rewarded.

When Bush ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1980, detractors chided him as the “resume” candidate – someone who had numerous job experiences, but who hadn’t really shown signs of leadership.  However, while it is true that there is no way to truly prepare to be president,  Bush came as close as any president in recent memory to taking office with a deep understanding of how government works at the national level and with a strong network of relationships with leading political figures both home and especially abroad.  He also was, by all evidence, a man devoted to family, and to the patrician principles instilled in him during his upbringing: duty, honor, love of country and a certain personal code that, among other virtues, precluded drawing attention to one’s self or directly criticizing others.

The son of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, George grew up in a privileged childhood, much it spend at the family compound at Kennebunkport – a location that Bush clearly loves, and which figures heavily in the film. In 1941 Bush was attending Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was by his own admission a middling student, but otherwise a B.M.O.C (Big Man on Campus) due in no small part to his athletic prowess when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.   Although he had been accepted to attend Yale that fall, Bush instead at age 18 immediately enlisted, against his father’s wishes, in the Navy’s aviation wing and became the youngest commissioned pilot in the country at that time.  One of the more poignant moments in the film is when Bush recounts getting shot down on a bombing run in the Pacific.  Although Bush was able to bail out of his damaged aircraft, both of his crewmates died (one ejected but his parachute failed to open, and the other went down in the craft) – an event that still haunts him.  One can’t help but wonder if Bush’s wartime experience – particularly his experience with death – contributed to his decision to halt the carnage the U.S. was inflicting on Saddam Hussein’s military forces during the First Persian Gulf War.

After successfully entering the oil business in Texas, Bush embarked on a political career, beginning with an unsuccessful attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1964. He followed that by winning a House seat in 1996 for the 90th Congress, part of a large Republican freshman class that election cycle.  Bush then served in a series of high-level appointed positions: Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73), chair of the RNC during the Watergate period (1973-74 – Bush eventually broke with Nixon); ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (1974-76 – he remembers spending a lot of time bicycling through Beijing), and finally director of the CIA (1976-77 – a key period in which Bush help restore the CIA’s reputation).  In 1980, he was Reagan’s main rival for the Republican nomination but despite an unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa, he lost to Reagan in New Hampshire after the famous debate debacle in which an angry Reagan issued his celebrated “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green” line.

Arguably, it was his 8 years as Reagan’s VP that best prepared Bush for the presidency. Although Bush acknowledged that he took a lot of grief for spending so most of his time as VP attending state-level funerals,  he recall that he developed relationships with numerous rising leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, during these trips.  It was that relationship with Gorbachev that helped Bush steer the U.S. through one of the potentially most perilous periods in his presidency: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  In “41” Bush recalls that he took tremendous criticism for not flying to Berlin to openly show  U.S. support to the thousands of demonstrators who were celebrating the end of Communist rule, symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  But, as I suggested in my earlier post on this topic Bush is adamant that appearing to gloat at the moment of East Germany’s collapse would have been the worst possible signal to send, with Gorbachev in such a precarious position trying to manage the transition to democracy in Russia.  It might have provoked a military backlash there, diplomatically, as the Soviet empire unraveled.

It was this type of prudence that characterized much of Bush’s foreign policy.  Ultimately, of course, it was the economic recession, and his breaking of his famous “read my lips” pledge that led to his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton.  Although Bush stands by his decision to break the no taxes pledges, he does express regret that he made that original pledge using such forceful and unambiguous language.   (The words were actually written by Bush’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan and they are a reminder that while speechwriters are motivated to craft memorable lines, they don’t always think enough about the potential political ramifications of uttering those lines.)  That stark wording, Bush acknowledged, made the fallout from breaking the pledge that much more severe.

It is clear in the film that Bush still bears the scars from that loss to Clinton.  There are two indications of this. First, in the only direct attack on another individual that you will hear from Bush in the film, he flat out states that he doesn’t like H. Ross Perot who, in Bush’s view, cost him the election.  (Perot won about 19% of the popular vote in 1992).  He also suggests that the media was in the tank for Clinton.  These are strong words from a man who does not express very many regrets in his life, and who seems generally to be quite content with what he has accomplished. Clearly, the loss in 1992 still hurts.

Although slowed by Parkinson’s, Bush continues to be active.  He spends much of his time at Kennebunkport piloting his kick-ass speedboat at high speeds through the Atlantic, tailed by Secret Service agents who must be cringing at the sight of this 88-year old man jumping the waves.  As Bush (who was a very good three-sport athlete) somewhat wistfully relates,  however, no one will pick him “for the team” anymore, given his physical infirmities. So driving his speedboat is one of the few ways he can still “stay in the game.”

Interestingly, and perhaps consistent with those patrician values that included an aversion to self-promotion, Bush did not write the standard post-presidential memoirs.  Instead, he co-authored a book with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft that focuses almost exclusively on foreign affairs.  And that’s why “41” is well worth watching – it provides an intimate glimpse into a man who has spent much of his life deflecting personal attention even as he served in the most high profile position in the world.

How should we remember George H. W. Bush’s presidency?  Inspired by Lizzie Borden (the Fall River, MA. woman charged with hacking her father and stepmother to death with an axe), I penned the following tribute, which I think captures the essence of Bush’s time in office:

We gave George Bush a budget axe

Instead he chose to raise our tax.

When we saw what he had done.

We voted out “Forty One”.

Is George H. W. Bush the Best President Not To Win Reelection?

George H. W. Bush turned 88 yesterday, and the milestone got me thinking: is he the best president not to win reelection?

Bush, as most of you know, served one term before losing in 1992 to Bill Clinton in a three-way race that also involved Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.  Bush received only 38% of the vote – less than any incumbent since Taft (who also lost in a three-way race). It was a loss that, by his own admission, hit him very hard. As he told his granddaughter Jenna in this Today show interview, it was a “terrible, awful feeling” to lose. “I really wanted to win and worked hard,” Bush said. “Later on, people said, ‘Well, he didn’t really care,’ which is crazy. I worked my heart out.”

His defeat was caused in large part by the public perception that although the economy was coming out of a recession, economic growth was more sluggish than it actually was. In addition, after 12 years of Republican control of the White House, there was growing sentiment that it was time for a partisan change.  Bush was also painted by Clinton as out of touch (many will remember his evident bafflement over seeing a grocery checkout scanner), and castigated by some conservatives for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge.  Despite this, there is evidence suggesting that had Bush begun campaigning earlier and more effectively in 1992 (he installed Secretary of State James Baker as campaign manager too late to overcome Clinton’s early polling lead), he might have won reelection.

Bush’s most publicized successes as President came in foreign policy.  In an almost bloodless campaign, he authorized the use of military force to remove Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from power.  And when in 1990 Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait as a possible prelude to invading Saudi Arabia, rather than fulfilling Margaret Thatcher’s fears that he might “go wobbly”, Bush instead put together a domestic and international political and military coalition that drove Hussein out of Kuwait in less than a month of combat and with a minimal loss of American lives.  (We forget just how close was the vote in Congress giving Bush authority to use military force against Hussein; the resolution passed the Senate by a scant 5 votes, 52-47.  This was a far closer vote than what Bush’s son received when he sought congressional approval to go to war in Iraq.)  Most notably, when Iraq’s military forces were routed and Hussein most vulnerable, Bush chose to halt the military carnage rather than pursue regime change.  His decision not to remove Hussein from power was heavily criticized at the time, and for years after, but today, as the violence continues in post-invasion Iraq, many now laud Bush’s prudence and foresight.

Bush also presided with deceptive ease over the end of the Cold War; we now view German reunification as the natural result of the collapse of East Germany, but had Bush overplayed his hand, he could easily have undercut Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political support back home and triggered a backlash among European nations to the specter of a unified Germany. Similarly, when the Soviet Union subsequently dissolved in 1991, Bush again confronted a potentially volatile period as Eastern bloc nations, freed from the yoke of Soviet dominance, struggled to remake themselves as democracies. If Bush’s leadership during this time lacked Reagan’s inspirational flourishes, he more than compensated by exercising a steady, if understated, diplomatic hand.  He recognized, despite pressure from critics to more actively intervene in the restructuring of Eastern Europe, that leadership sometimes means doing less, not more.

Bush’s political downfall, however, was rooted in domestic affairs, particularly the economy, which slid into a recession on his watch.  As with all modern presidents, he was held accountable for the state of the economy although he lacked many tools to influence it. Indeed, one of his most courageous but politically disastrous acts was to negotiate, in the face of growing budget deficit, a budget deal with Democrats in Congress that included additional revenue – thus breaking his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that was a cornerstone of his 1988 campaign.  For that act of treason he was pilloried by the Gingrich-wing of the Republican Party while receiving scant credit from liberals.  Sensing Bush’s political vulnerability, social conservative Pat Buchanan, touting his pitchfork brigade, unsuccessfully challenged the sitting President for the Republican nomination.  That was an early indication that Bush was in electoral trouble. With hindsight, of course, the Bush tax hike served as a downpayment that contributed to the budget surplus that was briefly enjoyed during Clinton’s last term.

Since leaving the White House Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight, except for his occasional leap from airplanes (he is promising at least one more jump on his 90th birthday). Here he is jumping on his 85th birthday.

Rather than actively engage in national politics, he has limited his public involvement to bipartisan goodwill missions. Notably, he kept a very low profile during his son’s eight years as president.  Rather than engaging in national politics, he spends much of his time on the water at Kennebunkport, Maine, and enjoying his grandchildren.  He did recently attend the unveiling of his son’s portrait at the White House.

So, is he the best president not to win reelection? By my count, there have been at least 11 polls ranking the presidents since Bush left office.  His aggregate place in the rankings is 21st (standard deviation 3.2), with his highest ranking 18th (twice) and one poll placing him as low as 31st.  Typically he is clustered in a pack that includes Taft, Martin Van Buren and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton. I’ve  written previously about the unreliability of these rankings, but there does not seem to be any evidence that Bush’s historical standing will change appreciably in the foreseeable future – his presidency, rightly or not, is deemed average.  Interestingly, in the aggregate presidential rankings, only the two Adamses – John and his son John Quincy – rank ahead of Bush among those presidents who sought reelection but were defeated.  Both Adamses may benefit historically due to their accomplishments outside the presidential office – an advantage Bush does not enjoy.

In his interview with his granddaughter (see below), Bush read from a letter he wrote that addressed, in part, the process of aging. He wrote: “As the summers finish out, and the seas get a little higher, winds a little colder, I’ll be making some notes, writing it down lest I forget so I can add to the report on getting older. Who knows, maybe they will come out with a new drug that makes legs bend easier, joints hurt less, drives go farther, memory come roaring back and all fears about falling off fishing rafts go away. Remember the old song, ‘I’ll be there ready when you are’? Well, I’ll be there, ready when you are, because there’s so much excitement ahead, so many grandkids to watch grow. If you need me, I’m here. Devotedly, Dad.”

Here he is reading that letter and talking about his presidency more generally. (The exchange in this video between Jenna and Bush regarding “the Bieb” is priceless.)

George H. W. Bush.  Possible the best president we never reelected – and a pretty good grandfather too.

Here’s to you, Poppy.  May you enjoy many more birthdays (and sky dives) to come!

P.S. For a discussion of his son’s rankings, see  my analysis here.

Is George W. Bush One of Our Ten Greatest Presidents?

Yes, he is.

At least that’s one superficial way to interpret the results of Gallup’s most recent annual President’s Day poll.  When asked to name the greatest president, Bush came in tied for 10th with Thomas Jefferson in votes received, just behind Harry Truman.  Ronald Reagan was judged the greatest president, ahead of Abraham Lincoln.  With one exception (Kennedy in 2000), either Lincoln or Reagan has topped the last eight Gallup surveys asking Americans to name the greatest president.  (Obama ranks 5th, by the way, in this latest poll).

Upon closer inspection, however, Bush’s popular ranking seems much less impressive. (For that matter, so is Obama’s.) To begin, the survey only asks respondents to name the greatest president; they are not required to rank all the presidents.  This is for good reason – it appears they can’t remember most of them! Indeed, the results suggest that respondents drew a blank after considering the historically most famous presidents – Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and the two Roosevelts.  With these names exhausted, the default option then became choosing among those presidents who served within living memory.  In effect, that precluded anyone serving before Truman, which evidently is as far back as Americans’ collective memory goes.

This meant that a few presidents received most of the votes.  That made it possible for Bush to come in 10th although he received only 2% of the votes. (With the poll’s margin of error at +/- 4%, it means you can essentially throw a blanket over the bottom ten presidents on the list; their ratings are virtually indistinguishable.) Reagan, in contrast, topped the list with 19% of the votes cast for the nation’s greatest president.  Here’s the list of everyone receiving votes:

Note that there was a clear partisan bias in the results. Among Democrats, the greatest presidents was, drum roll please….Bill Clinton!  He received 22% of Democrats’ votes, edging Kennedy’s 18% with Obama third at 11%.  Indeed, he finished third overall, ahead of Washington, both Roosevelts, and Jefferson and Jackson. Not bad for a president who was impeached!

Before castigating Democrats as historically-challenged, however, note that among Independents Clinton placed third, at 11%, comfortably behind Lincoln (19%) and Reagan (16%), but ahead of Washington (10%) and FDR (9%).  Among Republicans, Reagan was the runaway winner with 38% of the vote, followed by Washington (14%) and Lincoln (13%).  George W. Bush came in 5th among Republicans, with 5% of the votes.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bush fares far worse in the collective judgment of my academic peers in history and political science.  As I’ve noted in previous blogs, these judgments by scholars are also not without controversy.  Nonetheless – without making any pronouncements regarding the relative wisdom of presidential “experts” compared to the public – it is interesting to analyze how scholars rank George W. Bush.  At about the same time that Gallup released its survey results, a group of 47 British academics specializing in American history and politics announced their rankings of every president who served during the period from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died shortly after taking office).  The results were based on the cumulative total of ranking in five categories, including:

  • vision/agenda-setting
  • domestic leadership
  • foreign policy leadership
  • moral authority
  • positive historical significance of their legacy

Here Bush fares much less well, coming in at 31st among the 40 presidents ranked. He is dead last among the post-World War II “modern” presidents, several slots behind his father who is ranked 22nd, followed by Nixon at 23 and Ford at 24.  Carter is 18th and Clinton 19th.  Reagan ranks eighth among the British scholars.

The British ranking of Bush is slightly more positive than where their American counterparts place him.  If we include the five previous polls by American scholars that include Bush, he comes out 34th among all presidents, but his rankings are boosted by two early surveys made midway through his presidency that placed him 23rd and 19th.  Since leaving the presidency, American surveys have ranked him 37th, 36th and 39th.

Of course, as I’ve previously discussed, these rankings are based on different methodologies that make comparing them somewhat problematic.  On the other hand, there is remarkable consistency for some presidents whose rankings span surveys conducted decades apart. So, for the most part, every one of the 17 surveys of which I’m aware dating back to the initial one put together by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in the 1940’s places Lincoln, Washington and FDR in the top three.

On the other hand, there are some noticeable variations across these 17 surveys as well.  One of the biggest jumps is made by Dwight Eisenhower, who is ranked only 22nd in the first survey in which he is included conducted during the early 1960’s, shortly after he stepped down, but who now ranks 9th overall based on all 17 surveys.  Eisenhower’s rise was fueled primarily by archives released in the 1970’s that led many scholars, most notably Fred Greenstein, to reevaluate Eisenhower “hidden-hand” leadership. But it also reflects the passage of time. With hindsight, the years of general peace and prosperity enjoyed during the Eisenhower era seemed far more impressive after Vietnam, stagflation and myriad other controversial events since.

Eisenhower’s rise is a reminder that these current rankings are not set in stone.  One crude way to gauge the relative uncertainty of scholars’ rankings is to measure the standard deviation of each president’s average ranking based on all 17 polls. (Think of standard deviation as the “average” spread around each president’s mean ranking; the greater the deviation, the larger the discrepancy among scholars’ evaluations.)

Which President’s ranking has the highest deviation?  Not surprisingly, it is George W. Bush’s; although ranked on average 34th, the standard deviation around that slot is 7.5 positions.  Note, however, that this reflects the inclusion of the more positive evaluations he received while in office; if we include only his post-presidential rankings, the standard deviation decreases considerably.

Among those presidents who rank among the top ten in standard deviation, signifying greater uncertainty in their average ranking, only one served in the post-World War II modern era.  That is Ronald Reagan, who is ranked 16th overall but comes in third with a standard deviation of 6.7 slots.  (The other “modern” presidents with high standard deviations in their rankings are Jimmy Carter (4.73) and Richard Nixon (4.68), who rank 11th and 12th respectively.)  Evidently scholars are still struggling to come to grips with Reagan’s role across a range of issues, such as economic growth in the 1980’s, budget deficits, and ending the Cold War, to name just a few.  It may also be the case that Reagan is a more polarizing figure – one that splits scholars along ideological or partisan lines, although this is hard to assess without knowing who conducts the rankings, and something about their backgrounds as well.

Bush concludes his memoirs Decision Points by reminding readers that at one point Reagan was “denounced” as a “dunce and warmonger”, and now is viewed as “Great Communicator” who helped win the Cold War.  Whether one agrees with Bush’s evaluation of Reagan or not , it does raise the question whether he will also see a reappraisal of his presidency, one that will place it in a more favorable light.   It is far too early to know where he will ultimately rank.  But I think his future ranking is likely to depend on two factors. First, as with Eisenhower, will scholars digging through the archival record discover evidence that will cause them to reevaluate Bush’s decisionmaking? I’m skeptical that this type of archival-based reevaluation will happen because, unlike with Eisenhower, there has never been much doubt regarding Bush’s decisiveness.  He was clearly in charge of his presidency (although some still speculate that Richard Cheney was something akin to Bush’s “co-president”).

The second factor is whether subsequent events will make Bush’s presidency look more positive.  What might those events be?  It seems to me that the lynchpin is what happens in Iraq. If it becomes a functioning democracy (preferably one that pumps huge quantities of oil!), against a backdrop of a Mideast region where democracy movements have broken out all over, it will inevitably raise the question – a not uncontroversial one, to be sure – regarding whether and to what extent Bush’s policies can be said to have contributed to this development.

We are far too close to Bush’s presidency, and events far too fluid, to make this assessment now, of course (although I fully expect partisans to immediately jump on me for even suggesting he might be credited with influencing reform in the Mideast!)  But I don’t find it far fetched to believe several decades from now Bush’s historical ranking may well improve, much as Reagan’s and Eisenhower’s have.  His ranking will also depend in large part on judgments regarding the War on Terror and the relative blame/credit he gets for 9-11 and for keeping the nation safe from attack in the post-9-11 years.  That judgment too will depend on events occurring after Bush has left office.

In the meantime, let the debate begin!