Senior National Editor
Perhaps former President George W. Bush can take solace from the example of Ulysses S. Grant.
The first historical ranking of Presidents has been released since Mr. Bush left office last month, and his initial score is not a kind one. The C-SPAN Historians Presidential Survey puts Bush in the bottom tier of Chief Executives, at #36, slightly ahead of Millard Fillmore.
But Bush has made it clear he wasn’t worried about the first judgments on his presidency. At his final White House news conference, he said “there is no such thing as short-term history.”
Saying, “I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed,” Bush said he believes the longer view will look more favorably on his handling of Iraq and the economy. The C-SPAN survey of 65 presidential historians ranked him #40 on the economy, ahead of only Herbert Hoover and survey bottom-dweller James Buchanan. His International Relations rating was #41.
Bush’s defenders often point to the example of Harry Truman, not popular as he left office but now judged the fifth greatest president in our history.
And the new survey shows how time can change perspectives. For better than 100 years, Grant has been considered one of the poorer presidents, a victim of corruption, poor relations with Congress and an ineffective record. In C-SPAN’s first survey of historians in 2000, Grant was ranked near the bottom at #33. But this time, Grant made the biggest jump, rising ten spots to #23.
New focus on his record after the Civil War, and even a bounce from all the attention on Abraham Lincoln may have helped Grant. (Lincoln was again at the top of the survey). Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford told C-SPAN’s Washington Journal that “Grant won the war for Lincoln” and that the totality of his career may be improving his presidential stature.
Ronald Reagan saw a slight improvement, but one that now puts him the top ten. He moved from #11 to #10. George H.W. Bush moved up two places, to #18.
Former President Bill Clinton, considered by many historians a tough commander in chief to judge, rose in the new survey from #21 to #15. George Mason University Scholar in Resident said on Washington Journal Clinton’s numbers show “it is difficult to get a fix on a President who has just left office, particularly if he is a polarizing figure.”
But not all recent presidents fared as well. Jimmy Carter dropped from #22 to #25. Rice University Historian Douglas Brinkley told C-SPAN controversy over Carter’s Middle East comments in recent years hurt his standing, and cost him points in the areas where he was rated the strongest.
And a president’s place in history doesn’t always improve with time. Many of the presidents judged poorly in their time remain near the bottom in the view of experts. A James Buchanan revision seems unlikely in any future surveys.
The view of history isn’t always perfect…with many judgments subjective and superficial matters even years later affecting perceptions. But in a world where instant analysis sometimes isn’t fast enough (one columnist last week even raised the question if President Obama’s presidency is already a failure amid the stimulus debate, less than 30 days in), there’s great benefit in stopping for a moment to reflect on the test of time.
Bush (43, that is, not 41) said as he left office the standard for history should be “did a president’s decisions have the impact that he thought they would, over time? Or how did this president compare to future presidents, given a set of circumstances that may be similar or not similar”?
Future surveys will help tell if Mr. Bush’s comparison is ever any kinder.
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