Thursday, September 5, 2013

Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full 12

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.

"A 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 administration's achievements."

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 Eisenhower's Presidency.

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