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Noted Historians Rank America's Best--and Worst--Chief Executives
By Brian Lamb
By Susan Swain
Introduction by Douglas Brinkley
Introduction by Richard Norton Smith
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A Note to Readers on Style
Each of the following chapters is based on a single transcribed C-SPAN interview with a nationally recognized presidential historian or biographer. To achieve continuity for readers, questions were removed from the transcript, as were nonsalient portions, and the sequence of material has been frequently reordered. Double spacing between paragraphs indicates when text has been moved from another section of the interview.
Bracketed text generally indicates information that was conveyed during the questions posed during the interview and its inclusion was deemed important to telling the story. We also frequently added full names of historical figures and dates in brackets to enhance historical accuracy.
In the Complete List of Featured Books, we list the publication information for each of our highlighted authors. A website has been created to accompany this book, where you will find every chapter’s interview in its entirety, so you can listen to each historian for yourself. You will also find many additional resources about each president, allowing you to continue your informational journey. The web address is www.c-span.org/thepresidents.
About the Rankings
Chapters in this book have been organized by each president’s 2017 rating in C-SPAN’s widely recognized Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership. In 2017, ninety-one presidential historians and professional observers of the presidency rated our leaders on ten qualities of presidential leadership established in 2000 by a team of presidential historians—Dr. Douglas Brinkley, Dr. Edna Greene Medford, Richard Norton Smith, and Purdue University political scientist and Executive Director of the C-SPAN Archives Dr. Robert X. Browning. Prior surveys using these same criteria were conducted with historians in 2000 and 2009. Contemporary presidents are not included in the survey until they leave office; President Obama received his first rating in 2017 and President Trump is not yet ranked. The president’s overall ranking leads the chapter along with a summary of his results.
The historians who have participated in our surveys and the authors featured in this book overlap in only a few cases, making for interesting comparisons between the historians’ rankings and the observations of the individual biographers.
The ten qualities of presidential leadership identified by our consulting historians are:
• Public persuasion
• Crisis leadership
• Economic management
• Moral authority
• International relations
• Administrative skills
• Relations with Congress
• Vision/setting an agenda
• Pursued equal justice for all
• Performance within the context of the times
The topline results for all three surveys are included in Appendix I of this book. Complete results and additional contextual information are available at www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017.
Our Special Contributors
These three nationally recognized presidential historians have long contributed their scholarship to C-SPAN projects. For this book, their contributions include an essay, a featured chapter on a president, and participation in a podcast that formed the basis for our chapter on President Donald J. Trump. All three also served as advisers for C-SPAN’s three Historians Surveys of Presidential Leadership.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University, a best-selling author of numerous books, CNN’s Presidential Historian, contributing editor to Vanity Fair, 2017 Grammy Award winner for his work with jazz at Lincoln Center for “Presidential Suite” (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble), and is the first-ever New York Historical Society’s Presidential Scholar-in-Residence. Dr. Brinkley has a BA in American history from The Ohio State University, an MA in American history, and a PhD in military and diplomatic history from Georgetown University. Since 1993, Dr. Brinkley has been involved in numerous C-SPAN history projects, including its American Presidents and American Writers biography series.
EDNA GREENE MEDFORD is Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of history at Howard University, where she has taught for over thirty years. Dr. Medford received her undergraduate degree in secondary education with a history emphasis from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), an MA in US history from the University of Illinois, and a PhD in history from the University of Maryland. She has authored, coauthored, or edited four books and numerous scholarly articles on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. She serves on several national advisory boards and is a frequent contributor to historical documentaries and programs. Since 1994, Dr. Medford has been involved with several C-SPAN history projects, including its Lincoln-Douglas Debates and American Presidents series.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH is a historian and author specializing in US presidents and other political figures. He holds a degree in government from Harvard University. Between 1987 and 2001, Mr. Smith has served as the Director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Center, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and the Gerald Ford Museum and Library. In October 2003, he was appointed Founding Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. He has written biographies on Herbert Hoover, George Washington, and Nelson Rockefeller and is currently working on a comprehensive biography of Gerald Ford. Since 1993, Mr. Smith has been involved with many C-SPAN history projects, and from 2006 to 2014, he served as C-SPAN’s in-house historian, with a major role in series such as The Contenders and First Ladies.
What are the leadership skills that make for successful presidencies? If you’ve recently found yourself thinking about this question, you’re not alone. It’s a topic that inspired us to open the C-SPAN Video Library and search for perspectives among our interviews with some of the nation’s leading presidential historians, biographers, and journalists.
The result of this effort is this collection of brief stories from the lives of forty-four American presidents, each crafted from a C-SPAN interview transcript. These accounts vary as much as the men who have inhabited the office. Not intended as definitive biographies, the scholarship of our featured authors provides snapshots into life events that shaped US leaders, some of the challenges they faced, and the legacies they’ve left behind. We hope these stories will provide a starting point for your own exploration on presidential success.
As a further reflection on leadership, we opted to organize the book by the presidents’ most recent scores in C-SPAN’s widely cited Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership. In 2000, 2009, and 2017, our network asked presidential historians to rate all the chief executives on ten qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of their times. Nearly one hundred historians, listed on our website, participated in each cycle. Our chapters cite the president’s overall score from our 2017 survey; Appendix I lists every president’s topline results from all three surveys.
These ten leadership criteria were developed nearly twenty years ago with the guidance of three noted presidential historians who have lent their expertise to numerous C-SPAN projects: Douglas Brinkley, biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter; Edna Greene Medford, a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras; and Richard Norton Smith, biographer of Washington, Hoover, and, next, Gerald Ford. Brinkley, Medford, and Smith have featured chapters in the book and have authored a foreword or afterword for this project. They also participated in a lively podcast conversation about Donald Trump’s presidency, which forms the basis for the chapter on the forty-fifth president.
The best- and worst-rated presidents won’t surprise you: Abraham Lincoln consistently holds the number one position—as he does in most surveys—most recently earning 907 points out of a possible 1,000. Reliably, Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan ranks the worst. In 2017, he earned just 245 points, a full 30 points behind the next-lowest, Andrew Johnson, the impeached Tennessee Democrat who took office following Lincoln’s assassination. Aptly, Robert Strauss’s featured biography of Buchanan bears the title Worst. President. Ever.
In between these two leadership bookends, we think you’ll find many other fascinating stories. In our “Top Ten” section, Washington biographer Ron Chernow relates how George Washington, long before presidents were counseled about image-making, had an innate sense for the theatrical nature of leadership. During his first term, Washington traveled by carriage to most of the early states, but paused to enter towns on the back of a large white parade horse. Washington, an imposing figure, appreciated the public appeal of looking “good on horseback,” says Mr. Chernow. In Dwight Eisenhower’s chapter, biographer William Hitchcock describes the general-turned-president as a master of discipline while in office. “Plans are worthless,” he would say, “but planning is everything.” Notably, Eisenhower’s overall survey rankings have advanced more than all other presidents in our top ten, moving from 10th to 6th to 5th.
In the well-populated “Men in the Middle” section, Amity Shlaes recounts that after Calvin Coolidge’s sixteen-year-old son died from sepsis, the devastated politician found it within himself to campaign for reelection and then poured his energies into a successful “grand campaign” for tax legislation. For our chapter on Bill Clinton, we’ve selected journalist David Maraniss’s seminal pre-presidential biography, First in His Class, in which he argues that past is prologue with Bill Clinton, that his life has been full of “recurring patterns.”
In the section titled “All the Rest,” you will find stories of presidents who consistently rank in the lowest tier of our leadership surveys. Scott Greenberger, biographer of Chester Arthur, tells of uncovering amazing letters from a young New York woman whom he believes coaxed Arthur’s better angels into reforming a corrupt civil service system. Watergate figure John Dean, who knows a thing or two about presidential scandals, is our featured biographer of Warren Harding. He makes the case that the scandal-plagued reputation of the twenty-ninth president isn’t entirely borne out by later research.
Although Donald Trump won’t be rated by our survey until after he leaves office, we wanted to include him in this collection, so we asked historians Brinkley, Medford, and Smith to ruminate on some significant Trump-era themes that have persisted throughout 230 years of American history. Reading this chapter reminds one that US democracy has been a continually raucous, and frequently messy, process.
The Presidents marks the tenth book we have published with PublicAffairs using content from C-SPAN’s archives. Our objective with all our books is to help tell the American story to interested readers. We also hope that this transcript-based format serves to introduce new audiences to the work of the many historians, biographers, and journalists who appear before C-SPAN cameras. To further these ends, C-SPAN structures our book contracts with PublicAffairs so that any royalties from sales are directed to the nonprofit C-SPAN Education Foundation, which funds the creation of instructional materials for middle and high school teachers and students.
The work of forty-three historians and biographers of varied political perspectives is included in The Presidents. We drew almost entirely from two C-SPAN content sources: Q & A, Brian Lamb’s Sunday evening interview program, and Booknotes, its long-running predecessor series. In choosing the featured authors for the presidents, we focused on our most recent interviews; occasionally, we selected older books that were particularly significant or perception-changing. A few of the more obscure mid-nineteenth-century presidents necessitated reaching a little further back into our archives for interviews from American Presidents, a yearlong biography series we produced in 1999. As befitting the C-SPAN mission, these individual chapters and the ratings by the presidential historians are meant to stimulate your own critical thinking about US history and of the legacies of the men who have led it. A website filled with additional information about every president is provided as a companion to this book, allowing readers to continue their historical exploration. You’ll find it at www.c-span.org/thepresidents.
The starting point for each chapter is the transcript from our television interviews. Editing chapters from those transcripts is my task; it has become something of an art form I’ve been working on throughout all ten books. To facilitate storyline continuity, the sequence of the interviews have to be reordered, but every time text is moved, great care is taken to retain the author’s original meaning. Every chapter of this book has been further reviewed by Brian Lamb and several other C-SPAN staff members: Katie Lee served as line editor; Rachel Katz checked for continuity; and Zelda Wallace and Anthony Davis fact-checked every chapter.
C-SPAN co-CEO Rob Kennedy, statistical adviser for our three presidential rankings, contributed the survey summaries. Rachel Katz wrote the authors’ brief biographies and, as production coordinator, helped select the accompanying images.
As this book goes to market in the spring of 2019, C-SPAN will be celebrating its fortieth anniversary. On March 19, 1979, the US House of Representatives opened its chamber to television cameras for the first time and, as it did, a fledgling not-for-profit cable television network called “The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network,” aka C-SPAN, also went live, committed to televising every House debate live and without editorial comment. Over the years, C-SPAN expanded to twenty-four-hour programming; added two more television channels (C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3); and launched weekend programming blocks devoted to nonfiction books (Book TV in 1998) and US history (American History TV in 2011). In 1997, we debuted an FM radio station in the nation’s capital (WCSP-FM), now widely accessible via a free smartphone app. C-SPAN’s editorial philosophy is consistent for all of these services: no editing and no editorial comment from us. We see our mission as providing the public with real-time access to the workings of the federal government and to those who influence it, from all points on the political spectrum—hopefully creating a more informed citizenry.
In 1987, C-SPAN announced the creation of the C-SPAN Video Library. Today, this archive contains nearly 250,000 hours of C-SPAN content, a powerful resource that documents three decades of America’s national political debate. The fully searchable digital content is available worldwide, free of charge, from smartphones or desktop computers.
Over the past forty years, more than 1,500 C-SPAN staff members have worked to create, assemble, transmit, and promote this unique brand of public affairs content to the public. During our busy anniversary year, we offer special thanks to the 265 folks currently onboard with us at our headquarters in Washington, DC, and our archives based in Lafayette, Indiana.
As C-SPAN transitions into our fifth decade, we want to thank two generations of elected officials, civil servants, think-tank leaders, educators, journalists, historians, and authors who have shared their expertise with our viewers and opened their organizations to our cameras. We applaud their commitment to openness and accessibility for the public.
Forty years into the C-SPAN era of televised government, the most common misperception about our network is that we are a government entity. In fact, C-SPAN was conceived and launched by an entrepreneurial group of early cable television executives who provided our seed money. These C-SPAN “Founding Fathers” and their successor cable CEOs have continuously supported us by serving on C-SPAN’s board of directors, encouraging carriage of our networks, and offering strategic guidance in a rapidly changing media and telecommunications environment. For four decades, C-SPAN’s operating funds have been provided by fees paid by our cable, satellite, and telephone company affiliates. These companies also provide our channels to their customers as a public service, without advertising support. It’s no small understatement to say that C-SPAN wouldn’t be here today without the civic-mindedness of these telecommunications leaders and their companies.
The Magnificent Lion
It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Presidency
Richard Norton Smith
As the then-director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, I once received a letter from my counterpart at the James Buchanan Foundation chastising me for some none-too-generous comments I had made about his namesake on a C-SPAN broadcast. I should be careful, he suggested, to whom I applied the label of presidential failure. I sympathized with his position, if not his argument. As it happens, he has some distinguished company. The late, great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald liked to tell of his 1962 visit to the Kennedy White House, in the course of which JFK voiced unhappiness over the glib methodology employed by some historians in rating his predecessors as “Below Average” or even “Failure.”
“No one has a right to grade a president,” said Kennedy, “—not even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”
Whoever defined history as argument without end might have had in mind that great academic parlor game called “Ranking the Presidents.” The reputations of some chief executives are literally carved in stone, as evidenced by the C-SPAN Historians Surveys that appear elsewhere in these pages. Most, however, are subject to endless second guessing, less because of new facts coming to light than to fresh ways of interpreting facts long established. Case in point—in recent years, no one in the presidential fraternity has fallen more steeply in popular and scholarly esteem than Andrew Jackson. Traditionally numbered among the “near-greats,” not far below the holy trinity of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, Jackson is the only president to have an age bear his name. Enshrined in public memory as the original populist, Old Hickory was seen as a fiery enemy of entrenched privilege as represented by the monopolistic Bank of the United States, and an indomitable nationalist whose defiance of South Carolina nullifiers set the precedent for Lincoln’s breathtaking assertion of presidential powers a generation later.
Today, by contrast, the seventh president is widely stigmatized as a slave owner, an Indian killer, and an economic illiterate. Ninety years after his image first appeared on the twenty-dollar bill, many Americans want to replace Jackson’s stern military visage with the face of a very different kind of hero, Harriet Tubman. (The same fate nearly visited upon Alexander Hamilton and the sawbuck until the runaway success of a Broadway musical setting his story to hip-hop rhythm made Hamilton as fashionable as Jackson was passé.) What happened to bring about such a dramatic change of attitude? In a word, the 1960s, a transforming decade in whose aftermath historians discovered vast numbers of Americans—women, African Americans, Native Americans, among others—whose stories had gone missing from its history books. Their subsequent inclusion in the national narrative is not without irony. For the more truly representative American society becomes, the more imperfect Jacksonian democracy appears.
Revisionism does not end at the Hermitage. Consider Jackson’s Tennessee protégé James K. Polk. Dubbed “Young Hickory” by supporters, in his single term as president, Polk added more territory to the American nation—1.2 million square miles—than any chief executive before or since. While the threat of war and some skillful diplomacy were sufficient to obtain title to much of today’s Pacific Northwest, Mexico was less easily persuaded to part with modern-day Texas, California, and the Southwest. Polk’s conduct of the Mexican-American War, once celebrated as proof positive of America’s Manifest Destiny to occupy the continent, struck many in the Vietnam generation as a shameful example of imperial conquest.
Offsetting the decline of Jackson and Polk is the improbable ascent of other chief executives long relegated to the historical basement. Recent scholarship has dramatically raised Americans’ view of Ulysses S. Grant as the last American president for eighty years willing to deploy federal troops to protect black Americans in their most basic rights. A much smaller group of iconoclasts credits Warren Harding with pursuing naval disarmament and the first federal budget act. As for “poor James Buchanan,” his mishandling of Bloody Kansas, his suborning of the Supreme Court over the Dred Scott case, and his fatally limited construction of presidential authority at a moment when the nation’s existence hung in the balance—well, revisionism has its limits.
Theodore Roosevelt divided presidents into two categories: the Lincoln type and the Buchanan type. This was as prophetic as it was self-serving. The twentieth century would be dominated by TR and his heirs in both parties, activist chief executives who ushered the United States on to the world stage, entrusted a private economy to public planners, and belatedly committed Uncle Sam to the fight for democracy at home as well as abroad. What began with the first Roosevelt was reinforced by the second. First the Great War and the Great Depression, then World War II and the Cold War centralized power in Washington and personalized it as never before in the presidential office.
No one captured this trend better than Clinton Rossiter, the premier political scientist of his age. “The President is not a Gulliver immobilized by ten thousand tiny cords, nor even a Prometheus chained to a rock of frustration,” he declared in 1951. “He is, rather, a kind of magnificent lion who can roam widely and do great deeds so long as he does not try to break loose from his broad reservation.” Rossiter’s ode to the heroic presidency was composed under the spell of both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman—assertive leaders boldly testing the limits of an office enlarged to meet the twin crises of economic depression and global war.
Presidential government arguably peaked in the decades from 1960 to the 1980s, when television brought the people closer than ever to the man in the Oval Office, even as it magnified the reach of his bully pulpit advocacy from Birmingham and Selma to the jungles of Vietnam and the collapsible Berlin Wall. Yet the lifejacket of one generation can become the straitjacket of the next. Ronald Reagan was the last president who could command an audience of sixty or seventy million for an Oval Office address with minimal competition from cable networks, and none from the internet. Three decades after Reagan’s counterrevolution called into question the liberal consensus forged by his boyhood hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan and his policies continue to evoke intense loyalty and no less fervent criticism. (Eighty years on, the same holds true for FDR and his New Deal.) Such controversy is the tribute posterity pays to the handful of presidential change agents who remake the political weather. Harry Truman said as much when he defined a statesman as a politician who has been dead for twenty years.
Everyone knows about the sign on Truman’s desk asserting, “The buck stops here.” Much less well known is the sign that Dwight Eisenhower kept on his desk… translated from Latin, it read, “Gently in manner, strongly in deed.” Academic critics, accustomed to swashbuckling Roosevelts and their only slightly less energetic imitators, dismissed the old soldier as a grandfatherly duffer smiling his way through a bland decade. The first scholarly poll conducted after he left the White House placed Ike at number 22, just below Chester A. Arthur. Then, in 1966, the first of his White House papers became available for researchers to ponder. Soon students of the presidency were competing in their praise of what Princeton’s Fred Greenstein calls Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” leadership. Half a century later, historians are still peeking behind his artfully conceived defenses. According to the latest C-SPAN survey, most like what they see. As of 2017, Ike was ranked in 5th place, sandwiched between TR and Harry Truman.
"Among the pleasures of the texts are the little-known-and sometimes quirky-details about the presidents... A text that will serve both as a solid reference work and as a milepost in the evolving and ever changing reputations of our presidents."
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 560 pages