Around this time in every presidency, there begins a great reckoning - or, more precisely, a great conversation about a great reckoning. In the West Wing, in the Oval Office and even in the private residential quarters, the subject is unavoidable: How is history going to rate the president?
There is only one reliable answer: Often.
Historians, columnists and politicians are obsessed with presidential rankings, maybe because it is one of the very few areas where there is no reliable answer and where the verdict changes with the times. More than a half-century ago, for example, a group of scholars ranked Andrew Johnson 19th best. The latest rankings, just out, put him at 37th. (I'd rank him below 40th, if you're keeping score at home.)
What happened in the past 50 years to explain the precipitous drop in the way the first President Johnson is viewed? Maybe the thousands of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction, maybe the civil rights movement. And in the end, it may not matter a whole lot whether Franklin Pierce, who bungled the run-up to the Civil War, or Andrew Johnson, who bungled the period just after the war, was a worse president. They were both execrable.
For years, conservatives complained that presidential rankings were dominated by the very liberals who controlled the universities and the news media, and thus Americans were looking at their history, and choosing their heroes, through pink-colored lenses. So The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, no avatars of liberalism, engaged James T. Lindgren, of the Northwestern University Law School, to conduct his own poll - one which strived to balance liberals and conservatives and give an average ranking.
Lindgren's poll, a survey of 85 historians, political scientists, economics and law professors chosen to ensure ideological balance, produced a ranking - at least at the top, where the heroes are made - that isn't all that different from the ratings developed by that symbol of liberalism, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, in 1948. The top three in the Schlesinger rankings were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The top three in the Lindgren rankings were Washington, Lincoln and FDR.
So, at the very least, we can agree that Americans have settled on something of a trinity, and if you think about it you may conclude that the top three have a number of things in common. They all presided over times of great change. They all governed in periods of great threat. They all saved the country at a time when it was not completely clear that the country could be saved.
Bill Clinton (ranked No. 22 in the new survey) spent more time than any recent president worrying about how he'd be viewed in the future, and he came to what was, for him, a gloomy conclusion. Serve in a White House where the challenges aren't great, and the chances aren't great that you'll be remembered as great. As proof, you might consider Benjamin Harrison, ranked at No. 30.
Exceptions to the rule
The president who gives the lie to that calculus is Dwight D. Eisenhower, who turns up as No. 8 (two ahead of Andrew Jackson) in the new survey. A generation ago, you couldn't find many votes for Ike as a great president, but recent scholarship has determined that there was more meaning to his mumble than anyone believed at the time. His revival is one of the great posthumous achievements in American history - and a redemption of the final line of the "Checkers speech," made by Richard Nixon - who at No. 32 in the new rankings, is still awaiting his own revival: "Folks, he is a great man, and a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what is good for America."
One of the curiosities of these rankings is how the second president has fared. The conventional wisdom on the street (maybe not on the street, but surely in the stacks or in the lounges of the great history departments in America) is that the popular historian David McCullough single-handedly has rediscovered John Adams and, in a book that sold a million copies in hardcover, performed the miracle act of reviving his reputation. Maybe not.
The 1948 rankings by Schlesinger, so often derided as tinged with pro-liberal bias, put the president who signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, so hated by liberals, at No. 9. The new rankings produced for The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society find him resting comfortably at 13.
Let's not buy the argument that passions have cooled on Herbert Hoover. In 1948, only two decades from the onset of the Great Depression, the Great Engineer was ranked No. 20.
The new rankings, based on a survey earlier this year, put him at 31. Since nine presidents who served since the original Schlesinger reckoning outrank him, Hoover has made essentially no progress.
Professor Schlesinger's son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., repeated his father's exercise in 1996 and found Ronald Reagan in 25th place. The new ratings place him at No. 6; even Democrats placed him in 14th place. The current President Bush ranks 19th, just below Lyndon B. Johnson, but would have placed higher had it not been for the votes of economists, even conservatives, who gave him low ratings.
"This is something more than a parlor game and something less than a good evaluation of presidents," Lindgren said. "It helps the general public understand where the academic consensus is moving. And for academics, it helps to remind them to reconsider some presidents."
Some of this reconsideration is well under way, and the prime example is Ulysses S. Grant. The 1948 survey placed him fourth from the bottom. The new survey ranks him at No. 29. What changed? A new regard for Grant's economic policies, perhaps, or a new understanding of his open-mindedness on civil rights. Maybe it is just a new appreciation, even at this distance, of his role in the Civil War.
The past doesn't change. Our view of it is always changing.