Hail to the Chiefs Presidential Survey
How does Bill Clinton rank in history? In a survey published on November 16, 2000, in the Wall Street Journal, presidential scholars differed widely in assessing his contributions as president. Surveyed in October before the election, 78 scholars in history, politics, and law rank Bill Clinton 24th among the 39 presidents who served more than a few months. For presidents serving two full terms, only Ulysses Grant ranks below Clinton.
The study, jointly sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, was released in Washington and published in a Wall Street Journal article by Northwestern law professors James Lindgren and Steven Calabresi. As in most prior studies, the three presidents ranked as "Great" are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. In this survey, Ronald Reagan joins the group of "Near Great" presidents with Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, James Polk, and Woodrow Wilson.
Overall, Democratic presidents are rated slightly, though insignificantly, higher than Republican presidents. Bill Clinton's predecessor, George H.W. Bush, ranks 21st, which places him (with Clinton) in the group of "Average" presidents. Jimmy Carter ranks among the 10 worst U.S. presidents-below Gerald Ford and not far above Richard Nixon.
Fully 43 of the 78 scholars named John Kennedy as "Overrated," many more than for any other president. Although Kennedy's rank has slipped a few places from some prior surveys, he still ranks "Above Average," the highest rank for any president who served less than one term and one of the highest rankings for a one-term president.
Ronald Reagan was named as the most "Underrated" president, as well as the second most "Overrated" president, suggesting the lack of academic consensus about Reagan's legacy. In this study, the ratings of Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson vary even more than Reagan's.
One of the designers of the survey, Professor Steven Calabresi, attributes Reagan's reputational improvement in part to a growing appreciation of his accomplishments and in part to the study's balanced panel of surveyed scholars. Unlike most prior studies, which had surveyed predominately liberals or predominately conservatives but not both, the new study selected the experts to be surveyed balanced about equally between those who lean to the left politically and those who lean to the right. As Calabresi explained, "Because political leanings can influence professional judgments, we think that these are the most politically unbiased estimates of reputation yet obtained for American presidents."
The author of the report of the study, Professor James Lindgren, tried to place the study in context, "Ranking U.S. presidents is much more than a parlor game for academics and much less than a full assessment of the successes and failures of the men who have held our highest office. Our results are almost identical to those of a 1996 study by Arthur Schlesinger-except for Ronald Reagan, who was 25th in Schlesinger's study but 8th in ours."
The new study also found that length of term in office is an important determinant of reputation. As Lindgren reported, "Based on our regression analyses, two-term presidents are today rated much higher than one-term presidents." Calabresi commented, "This finding is somewhat in conflict with the common wisdom that second terms are always a failure." It also cuts against the notion that there is little correlation between electoral success and success in office. The study also found that age at inauguration has no effect on measured success in office.
An advance copy of the report was reviewed by Philip Hamburger, a legal historian at the University of Chicago who was not surveyed. He offered his assessment: "This is a sophisticated study of what is not normally a sophisticated endeavor."
Click HERE to view the original article published in the Wall Street Journal on November 16, 2000.
Click HERE to visit the Wall Street Journal at OpinionJournal.com for more facts, opinions, and trivia on our American presidents.
Click HERE for information on a collection of essays on each American president based upon the results from the above survey.