For my blog post today about Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I'll start with something that Black says on pages 423-424. The topic is where President Dwight Eisenhower ranked among U.S. Presidents.
couple of years into his presidency, Kennedy confidant and respected
historian Arthur Schlesinger circulated a form among selected historians
inviting them to rate America's presidents. The recipients chosen
assured a selection that would be indulgent of the Democrats, and
Franklin D. Roosevelt came in with Lincoln and Washington in the top
group, where Wilson and Jefferson also resided, with Truman and Jackson
and Polk and Cleveland (all Democrats) just behind, and with Theodore
Roosevelt as their only accompanying Republican. Eisenhower was
outraged to find himself in twenty-second position, with generally
ignored presidents like Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and
Rutherford B. Hayes. This was a gross injustice to a good president.
Eisenhower considered Roosevelt an artful but shifty political trickster
(true up to a point but hardly an overall judgment of FDR), and Truman
an incompetent (a preposterous opinion), and set down his own
Black then goes on to list the
achievements that Eisenhower enumerated. Black accepts much of what
Eisenhower lists as achievements (i.e., the highway system, the end to
the Korean war, containment of Communism, a tax cut, HEW, aid to Latin
America, etc.), while thinking that Eisenhower stretches some things, as
when Eisenhower claimed to have defeated Communism in Vietnam. Black
believes that Eisenhower could have handled some things better, such as
the Suez Canal crisis and Hungary, and he notes embarrassing episodes
during the Eisenhower Presidency, including Sputnik and the U-2
incident. But, overall, Black maintains, there was peace and prosperity
in the United States under Eisenhower's Presidency, and America was
largely respected throughout the world. This, even though Eisenhower
was "one ultimately too much identified with golf, uncertain cardiology,
and fiscal humbug", to quote Black's wit (page 424).
I don't know
on what basis the historians evaluated Presidents as they did. It is
tempting to say that the historians Schlesinger asked were mostly Democrats and thus they
preferred Democratic Presidents, which is what Black essentially argues,
but such a characterization, in my opinion, leaves certain questions
unresolved. While Black is correct that Democratic Presidents did well
in the ranking, there were Democrats who ranked pretty high who were
arguably conservative, by today's standards. Grover Cleveland, for
example, did well in the ranking, but he has been characterized, by both
the right and the left, as a government-keep-out sort of President.
Perhaps the historians were looking at how Presidents handled crises,
such as wars, and also the question of what long-standing
accomplishments they made. Still, I'd say Eisenhower should get a
fairly high rank on these grounds. I wouldn't say that his civil rights
accomplishments were particularly spectacular, for the civil rights
bill that he signed had been watered down, but he did break some ground
in the area, and perhaps he set the stage for later progress. But he
did make some lasting accomplishments, such as the highway system and
the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and he also brought
the Korean War to an end.
There are some who question the conventional manner of ranking U.S. Presidents. I'd someday like to read Ivan Eland's book, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. The description of the book here
says: "Who were the best and worst U.S. presidents? In the past when
historians and scholars have rated the presidents, their evaluations
often have been based on individual charisma, activism, and service
during periods of crisis. Taking a distinctly new approach in Recarving Rushmore,
Dr. Ivan Eland profiles each U.S. president on the merits of his
policies and whether those strategies contributed to peace, prosperity,
and liberty." You'd think that this book is a bunch of right-wing
clap-trap, but not so fast! Eland doesn't rank Presidents along party
lines: "As for more modern U.S. chief executives, Republicans will be
astounded to learn that Nixon was the last liberal president and that
Reagan wasn’t all that conservative. Democrats will be amazed to learn
that Clinton was in some respects more conservative than George W. Bush.
Readers will learn why the author goes against the grain and anoints
Eisenhower and Carter as the two best modern presidents." I wonder how
Eland (who strikes me as a less-government type of thinker) would
evaluate Eisenhower's accomplishments in domestic policy (i.e., HEW, the
start of federal health care for the elderly, etc.), or why exactly he
ranks Jimmy Carter so high! I probably would not agree with
Eland's ideology, but I think that he does well to bring to my mind a
good question: Why should we rank wartime Presidents so highly? Maybe
the low-key Presidents who presided over peace and prosperity deserve
higher ranks that they usually get!
I should note that, nowadays,
Eisenhower has a pretty good reputation. In the midst of the Tea Party,
liberals, moderate Republicans, and even some conservatives like to
point to Eisenhower as someone who was a reasonable Republican.
Progressives like to appeal to Eisenhower's highway system as an example
of the government stimulating the economy, Eisenhower's high marginal
tax rates for the rich, and other factors. And there are conservatives
who point to Eisenhower as a President who was fiscally responsible, one
who wanted to get spending under control before cutting taxes.
Eisenhower's Administration was probably a time of relative peace and
prosperity. At the same time, I don't think that it was a totally rosy
time. People were still afraid of the bomb. Communism triumphed in
Cuba, ninety miles off of the U.S.'s shores. Democratic Presidential
candidate John F. Kennedy referred to the problem of hunger in America.
Racism was alive and well. There was a recession during part of
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