For the 41 men who have served as president, history has had almost magical powers. It has been a source of comfort and wisdom: "History will judge," every president announces, suggesting it will provide vindication against critics and facilitate the approval of future generations. It also supposedly guards against error: Knowing what came before seems an effective guide to current and future actions.
Presidents have needed all the comfort they could get. Every president has shared Thomas Jefferson's feeling that the office is "a splendid misery." James A. Garfield wondered: "What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?"
Grover Cleveland saw his time in the White House "as a dreadful self-inflicted penance for the good of my country." For Herbert Hoover, the job was "a compound hell." Reading what Vietnam War critics wrote about him and hearing pickets chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" so upset Lyndon B. Johnson that one aide considered calling publicly for a psychiatric evaluation. Richard M. Nixon reportedly left office psychologically broken, unable to sleep and talking to portraits of past presidents. Bill Clinton complains he has been "subjected to more assaults than any previous president based on the evidence."
All the other 34 men who served in the office also complained about the demands made on them and their treatment at the hands of the press and the public. As John Steinbeck remarked: "We give the president more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear . . . . We wear him out, use him up, eat him up . . . . He is ours and we exercise the right to destroy him."
Yet, all our presidents have voluntarily sought the office and were eager to hold on to it. Fifteen were reelected to second terms; 11 tried and failed; three, having served more than four years, never made a second run. Seven were cast aside by their parties after four years or less.
The presidency, for all its miseries, affords its occupants a chance to make their mark on history--or so they like to think. Faced with any sort of defeat--in a campaign or over a major domestic or foreign policy--they look to history for confirmation of their rectitude.
Though a violation of his constitutional scruples, Jefferson believed history would see the value of purchasing the Louisiana Territory. Hoover justified his laissez-faire response to the Depression with predictions that future historians would see him as preserving Jefferson's time-honored proposition, "The government that governs least governs best." In the midst of all the domestic turmoil over Vietnam, Johnson took comfort from the belief that biographers and historians would declare his decision to fight courageous and necessary to the national security.
Similarly, when confronted with hard choices about war and peace, domestic change and continuity, presidents have turned to history for guidance. The struggle for independence from Britain and the decisions to fight in Korea and Vietnam, for example, rested on considerations of historical experience. History taught the founders that government derived its "just powers from the consent of the governed" and that when "any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." In recent history, the lesson of Munich--never appease an aggressor--became the rationale for fighting the Korean and Vietnam wars. The experience with the Depression convinced all presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact and maintain safeguards against impoverishment.
Presidents care a lot about history: How it will view them and what it tells them to do for the good of the country. In an interview with the Washington Post, Clinton expressed animated concern about what historians will say about his administration. He hoped that he would "be one of those rare leaders who stamp an imprint deep on an era." The reporters wrote that the president "revealed himself as a politician with breathtaking ambitions for what he hopes historians will someday write about his presidency. He said he wants to be known as the only president, other than Theodore Roosevelt, to shape an era of dramatic change without a major war catalyzing it."
Clinton also reads history and presidential biographies for clues to what he should do in office. Like the majority of his predecessors, Clinton's assumptions about vindication from and the uses of history are largely misplaced. A recent poll of historians by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ranks Clinton as no more than an average president. Of course, his second term could change this for the better. But second terms have been largely notable as burying grounds for presidential ambitions.
The great majority of presidents have fared no better at the hands of historians. The recent poll turned up only three great chief executives--George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt--and only six near-great ones, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry S. Truman. Seven won distinction as "high average" presidents: John Adams, James Monroe, Cleveland, William McKinley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Johnson; and another 12 were ranked as "low average," including Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Clinton. Four were identified as "below average," and seven as failures--including Nixon.
The 32 jurors casting votes, including yours truly, hardly constitute the last word on presidential standing. I was surprised at Nixon's ranking as a failure and Reagan's as low average. A different panel of scholars would undoubtedly raise and lower the standing of several of the presidents. Moreover, the passage of time will surely alter the rankings. Truman's low public approval at the end of his term in 1953 has now translated into near-greatness. Kennedy's relatively high ranking seems certain to erode with diminished memories of Camelot.
Some presidents do, of course, win historical vindication like Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Jefferson and now Truman and Eisenhower. But presidential impulses to assuage bruised egos by comforting themselves with thoughts of kinder, gentler historical reputations have been poor bets.
And presidential assumptions about the uses of historical events in deciding on current policy have also often been flawed. To be sure, some presidents have managed to build effective administrations with the help of historical knowledge. Lincoln's understanding that Americans would fight and sacrifice to preserve what he called "mankind's last best hope" rested on the nation's sense of its past and future place in world history.
But examples of failed policies emanating from a misplaced reliance on the past are legion. James Buchanan's impulse to maintain a Southern slave system that might have been killed off by arrangements for its natural extinction significantly contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Andrew Johnson's misplaced assumption about resurrecting Union ties sundered by four years of terrible bloodletting led to his impeachment.
Both Ulysses S. Grant and Hoover were ill served by the conviction that the traditional business cycle would ease the economic miseries of their respective times. Truman's misreading of Chinese intentions in Korea from assumptions about their behavior during World War II, and Lyndon Johnson's conviction that Hanoi's assault on South Vietnam was comparable to Nazi aggression before World War II, led both men into war policies that destroyed their capacities to govern.
Presidents need to rethink what they can expect from history. Assuming that historians will be any more indulgent of them than their contemporaries is not borne out by--of all things--history. Nor can they assume that knowing something about the past necessarily helps preserve them from current error. Much more has gone into successful presidential leadership than historical awareness. How do I know? It's history.*