Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ranking Presidents

I haven't thought about this in a little while, but I got an email from a student this morning, asking me to rank the Presidents. Without thinking about it too much, I dashed off a list. The first three are easy. The rest of the list is up for discussion.

Washington
Lincoln
Franklin Roosevelt

Thomas Jefferson
William McKinley
Dwight Eisenhower
Ronald Reagan
Andrew Jackson
Theodore Roosevelt
Harry Truman
James Polk
George W. Bush
Woodrow Wilson
John Adams
William Taft
John Kennedy
Grover Cleveland
James Monroe
James Madison
Rutherford Hayes
John Quincy Adams
Martin Van Buren
Ulysses Grant
Lyndon Johnson
George H.W. Bush
Calvin Coolidge
Gerald Ford
Chester Arthur
Warren Harding
Benjamin Harrison
Bill Clinton
Herbert Hoover
Richard Nixon
Zachary Taylor
Jimmy Carter
John Tyler
Millard Fillmore
Andrew Johnson
Franklin Pierce
James Buchanan

Gets tough after the big three, doesn't it? Discuss.

56 comments:

Stephen said...

Of course, if someone were to ask me again, I don't think I could reproduce that list.

Tom said...

Theodore Roosevelt is the clear number four for me, both in effectiveness and greatness.

And truthfully, as Derek always points out, you really should ask what someone means when they ask you to rank the presidents. Woodrow Wilson was an effective president (mostly) but he was not a great man in my opinion. The opposite is true for John Quincy Adams, so if I were weighing them on effectiveness plus greatness, they would both be in the lower middle somewhere. Taft, Jefferson, McKinley, Lyndon Johnson, Harding, Van Buren, and Jackson would also be lower on my list. The only person who would jump up quite a bit is Grant, who is at the Washington-Lincoln levels of greatness, but was not the most effective.

dcat said...

Wow. George HW Bush a bit high. I don't see Garfield but then I'm assuming you left out the early departurees. As I always say, I think rankings list need to be specific -- most important presidents, perhaps. But yeah, it sure thins out after the top three, in whichever order you rank them. And then it thins out again after the next 6-7. Not surprisingly I think you overrate coservatives/Republicans (McKinley, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush) surprisingly underrate TR, but as you say, if you did this again your list would probably be rather different.

dcat

Stephen said...

I tried to give myself a ten-minute time limit and be as vague as my student (he just asked for the "top presidents"). I worried about ranking TR too highly. Was I just giving him a high rank because I like him? So maybe I was a little too hard on him. After the big three I went for "defined their era," then, character and effectiveness. I think I ranked presidents higher if they avoided making things worse. I think Taft deserves to be where he is. GHW Bush gets up there because of his handling of the end of the Cold War, particularly Germany--tricky stuff. Gotta run to class. More later.

Stephen said...

Do a list. It is good for you.

dcat said...

Oh my goodness -- and George W Bush a top 12? Are you kidding me? I do not go as far as Wilentz in naming him the worst of all time, but he is a bottom five or ten. In what possible way is Bush a better president than a middling Bill Clinton?
Egads.

dcat

jc said...

If you take personal political tastes out of the equation, then Clinton is perhaps bottom 10.

What exactly did he do positively?

Hate him or love him, WHAT DID BILL CLINTON DO?

Then rank his accomplishments against the bitterly divided country he left behind, racked by his numerous scandals...

Same goes for Dubya, but at least HE has made the tough calls and the hard decisions....

Again, D or R, right or left, lib or con....WTF did Bill Clinton actually accomplish in 8 years that was positive and can be directly attributed to him?

Midnite basketball?

Stephen said...

GWB: Bold agenda in both foreign and domestic policy pre-sept. 11, effective in getting major domestic legislation through Congress, toppled 2 governments, long-term institutional change, government reorganization, healthy economy despite sept. 11. Successful leader of his party. Major failings in communication, spending, and some parts of his compassionate conservative agenda.

Stephen said...

In defense of Clinton. He usually, eventually came to something approaching the right decision; welfare reform, trade, economic matters siding with Rubin, brought his party along to his way of thinking, Democrats added economic (meaning business) prosperity to their list of goals. That is a big deal, ridding the Democratic Party of much of their anti-business rhetoric. He learned on the job and won re-election, kept his party together enough to fend off removal from office. Pursued equal justice for all. Good sense of humor--that counts.

Stephen said...

And what is wrong with Taft?

Jeff said...

Gentlemen, let's check our partisanship at the door. It is far too early to even begin to assess the presidency of GWB. I think he should be left off any list until he is at least out of office. As far as Clinton is concerned---a 2 term president who presides over peace and prosperity must be credited with some success. I think Steve ranked him far too low (that is a debatable point that reasonable folks can debate). Claiming that actually accomplished little in office is merely foolish.

Stephen said...

Jeff,
You make a good point about GWB and Clinton. It is too soon to make any kind of judgment about either presidency. We should probably stop at Reagan. What did you think of my defense of Clinton?

Stephen said...

And seriously, I want to see your lists.

Jeff said...

Steve,

I liked your defense of Clinton---you were fair. I hope (some) of the lessons of Clintonism and the DLC will stick which will add or detract to his legacy...another reason to stop at Reagan and/or GHB. There is much to be said for writing and studying folks you don't have an adult memory of---I couldn't write a fair book on dubya but I think I could write a fair account of Nixon (unlike baby boomers).

thejamestaylor said...

Lincoln
Washington
F. Roosevelt
T. Roosevelt
Reagan

I can't pretend to know enough about the presidents to rank them all, but I think Jefferson should be way lower than number four.

dcat said...

What was George Bush's "bold agenda" either pre or post 9/11, and how has he met that agenda? I am not certain there is a single important area that Bush has not mangled. Basically, your defense lies in an allegedly "bold agenda" for the first eight months of his presidency. Since then he has had awful foreign policy and in many cases as bad domestic policy. Just a disaster.

As for Clinton, I see that JC gives us the all caps, which means he really means business.

Northern Ireland peace agreement. If you think this is insignificant, go the Belfast these days. He tried to make a late run in the Middle East -- is anyone seriously going to say it was his fault that a potential agreement fell apart? He still came as close as any president has come to brokering peace in that region. I'd also ask about Ierbia, and I'd say that Clinton's policies regarding Iraq do not, in fact, look all that bad.

What about balancing budgets on the home front?

Are you really blaming Clinton for the partsanship at the end of his administration? And if so, are you really asserting that the partisanship in 2000 was worse than what it is today? And in either case are we simply going to say that it is the president's fault? No place for Newt gingrich at that table, say? Or of those people accusing Clinton of murder and rape?

If you want to compare scandals, I'll gladly do that as well. Clinton's behavior was intolerable. But it had almost nothing to do with affairs of state.

Neither makes the top 15 or so, but Jeff's assertions aside, I don't think we from OU got our PhD's and worked with the Contemporary History institute to say that we cannot at least begin tentatively to take steps toward assessing contemporary history. When history judges the Bush presidency, I think it will do so harshly. And I think Clinton will look better by comparison.

dcat

dcat said...

You know I prefer to do luists of important presidencies or to have something more clear, but in the context of what we seem to be valuing in this discussion:

Franklin Roosevelt
Lincoln
Washington
Harry Truman
Theodore Roosevelt
Thomas Jefferson
Woodrow Wilson
Lyndon Johnson
Dwight Eisenhower
John Adams
Andrew Jackson
Ronald Reagan
William McKinley
James Polk
Bill Clinton
John Kennedy
Grover Cleveland
James Monroe
James Madison
William Taft
Rutherford Hayes
John Quincy Adams
Martin Van Buren
Ulysses Grant
George H.W. Bush
Calvin Coolidge
Chester Arthur
Warren Harding
Benjamin Harrison
Herbert Hoover
Richard Nixon
Zachary Taylor
Jimmy Carter
Gerald Ford
George W. Bush
John Tyler
Millard Fillmore
Andrew Johnson
Franklin Pierce
James Buchanan


OK -- I tend to keep the middle pretty muddy, but the top has changed significantly from Tootle's and indeed Clinton does squeask into the top 15, barely, showing a handful of factors -- that we have had relatively few great men in the White House, that two term presidencies that oversee peace and prosperity warrant a place on any list.

dcat

Stephen said...

GWB enacted most of his big first-term goals in his first 6 months as President. He was tilting toward India, pressuring Egypt and China, and had already passed most of what became the NCLB, tax cuts, and the budget. Then Iraq and Afghanistan--not small things. HIs party kept power through midterms and 2004. He also signed McCain-Feingold (I disagree with it, but it was landmark legislation), Prescription Drug coverage, health savings accounts, the Patriot Act, established the department of homeland security, the African AIDS initiative, the faith-based initiative, abrogated the ABM treaty then signed nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, reorganization of the military, attempted social security and immigration reform, USA Freedom Corps, good economic growth and low unemployment... at any rate that is a pretty healthy record of accomplishments, even if you disagree with the goals. Again, I agree with Jeff that it is a little early to judge, but when we do judge, we will have quite a record. Hard to think of a President since FDR with a more consequential record in both foreign and domestic affairs.

Stephen said...

D,
Why FDR at #1 ahead of Lincoln and Washington? Why is LBJ so high but not Grant (if we are giving him credit for civil rights, that is)? Why is John Adams ahead of Jackson, Reagan and McKinley? I am also kind of surprised to see you rank Cleveland so high. Ditto w/ Hoover. Nixon over Ford? Carter over Ford?

dcat said...

FDR had to deal with two potentially devastating tragedies. As we know, he did not end the depression, but he handled it and alleviated what could have been a far worse situation. Then he led us through the greatest conflict in human history.
LBJ surely did more for civil rights than any other president, and whatever credit you want to grant Grant (heh heh) you have to take into account the role of the radical Republicans in trying to push a more aggressive policy. While LBJ required legislation as well, it is pretty clear that he had his fingerprints and used his, may I say, mastery of the Senate, far more for the CRA and VRA, the two most significant pieces of legislation in US history inasmuch as they finally allowed us to begin to live up to our promise.

As I said, in the middle I sort of copped out -- Adams was just a slipup. But Reagan gets docked points for vetoing the Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act, for his less than active support of civil rights, for Iran Contra, and for terrorism issues that in general he did not and maybe could not foresee but that nonetheless created circumstances that would fester on others' watch.
Nixon could have been ranked closer to the bottom, but I'm not about to engage in a lot of Ford revisionism. I actually think that Crater more than anything was a victim of circumstances -- economic circumstances that he inherited from Ford and Nixon. It is easy for conservatives to slag his foreign policy even though much of those policies were imported wholesale when Reagan entered office.

I'd say your assessments of Bush are a bit cheery. You are actually listing Iraq as a feather in his cap? You are also listing tax cuts and his cunning handling of the budget as positives? Prescription drug coverage and health accounts have been a nightmare. He has underfunded his promises to Africa, though his Africa policies are as good as any we have ever had -- and still are not that good. He opposed the establishment of the Department of Homeland security before he supported it. The Patriot Act has been an utter disaster. I do not know what "tilting toward India" means, nor do I have any idea what the result of that pressure on China and Egypt was or in fact what that means.

If by "consequential" you mean disastrous and incompetently handled, yes. But then you are listing his Iraq and budget policies as an accomplishment, so it's hard to see where we will find any point of agreement. The coup de grace is that you are comparing his record with FDR's (more consequential, for good or for ill, than LBJ's? Tell me his Civil Rights Act, please? His Voting Rights Act? Bush's entire legislative record in toto is not a blip on that screen. On the other hand, his foreign policy has been even more consequential, by which I mean disastrous, than LBJ's.). Such a sterling record that I am sure Republicans will be lining up for him the campaign with them this fall. None is so blind as those who will not see.

The amazing thing is that Bush has abandoned all claims to conservatism. Some principled conservatives have abandoned him. Others have decided that partisanship will out, which is fine, but it will be tough for them to speak of principles ever again.

dcat

Stephen said...

Tilting towards India means trying to encourage a better relationship with India. Economically, militarily, geopolitically, this tilt may be one of our most important relationships over the next 50 years. Again, this is just a guess.
Before Sept. 11 the Bush Administration was beginning to push Egypt and and China on democracy and human rights matters, pressuring Egypt to release political prisoners and threatening to cut off future economic aid.
I give Bush credit for passing major legislation and reforms, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. If I judged presidents based on whether I agree with their policies, my results would be much more partisan and skewed, although, as you noted, you already see my rankings as biased.

I don't know if I would call Clinton's private affairs intolerable, since we did tolerate them. They did enter the realm of the affairs of state when he lied under oath. Of course he was lying about private sexual misconduct. That is why it was a crime, but not a high crime. He was impeached. He didn't leave the presidency better than he found it. That keeps him in the middle range. I wouldn't call his presidency a failure though. Two terms, prosperity... those are important things. Anything that you would call "landmark" legislation? NAFTA, I guess.

Stephen said...

I am trying to figure out--this may seem strange to do after the list has been made--why I ranked the presidents in that order. I may have detected a method to my madness. Washington, we have nothing without him. Lincoln, saves the very idea of representative government. FDR, wins WWII and doesn't compromise with a negotiated settlement with either Germany or Japan. Jefferson and McKinley remade America both geographically and politically. Jefferson also gets bonus points for the Declaration. McKinley gets bonus points for creating the modern presidency. The next group defined their respective eras (DDE, Reagan, Jackson, TR). Eisenhower also gets kudos for devising a more workable strategy for winning the Cold War, Reagan gets a boost for restoring confidence in America's future, and Jackson fought off the challenge of sectionalism. TR was TR.
The next group (Truman, Polk, Bush, Wilson) effectively pushed through their agendas, like them or hate them.
The largest group (Adams through Harrison or Clinton), I tried to balance character, administrative effectiveness, major achievements, intentions. In general, I would say we have been blessed with some pretty good "average" presidents. I don't mean to insult anyone in this group, really. I do think that the last group (Hoover and after) left the country and the presidency worse than they found them. I might be a little tough on Taylor and Tyler though. I might be convinced I am wrong about them.

Stephen said...

D,
I think you are underestimating the political opposition that Grant faced as his term(s) wore on. Same could be said for Hayes, and he didn't have Grant's reputation. And the way he came into office didn't help.

For kicks, here is Harrison's third annual address: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29532

Cooler than you thought it would be, eh?

dcat said...

I rate Truman more highly than you do because of two things: The way that he handled the hardest and most potentially dangerous years of the Cold War; and if you want to talk about legislation, his was just vitally important. And that does not even get into the marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine. But I also rate him highly because while he did not succeed, he tried much harder on civil rights than his two successors. Eisenhower took steps back and what forward steps he took he was largely dragged into. Kennedy was equally as tepid until he too was forced, though when he was forced his actions finally matched his rhetoric. The two most important issues, and Truman was not only ahead of the curve, but was a real leader. the more I think about it, the more I think that we all love TR, but his record just pales next to truman's in much harder times.

Clinton surely defined his era every bit as much as those you mentioned.

Washington's greatness is unassailable, but that generation would have come up with a first president if he had not done it.


dcat

Mark said...

I'm keeping out of this great debate (foreigner's prerogative), but I did notice that it's spreading over to POTUS.

thejamestaylor said...

Bigtime Jeffersonian here - in principle. But Jefferson was not much of a leader as president, and was quite the Francophile (I know that at the time it was harder to be pro-British, but Adams sort-of pulled it off). Being a slave owner certainly takes him down a big notch, even considering the historical context. Also, I object to giving Jefferson extra consideration for the Declaration, unless we give Madison extra points for the Constitution, which would put Madison in the top ten by my estimation.

Stephen said...

After talking with Tom last night, I am pretty sure I ranked Taft too highly and Grant too low.

Stephen said...

I guess I see the civil rights records of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy in much the same light, so that issue was a wash for me for those three.

Stephen said...

And good call on Madison, thejamestaylor. You are right. I can't give bonus points to Jefferson for the declaration. I still think the Louisiana Purchase keeps him at #4.

dcat said...

But their civil rights records are not in the same light. Nowhere near it. Truman proposed things that were far ahead of the curve of both of his successors during a time when doing so did much more harm to him than it would have to the others. Eisenhower only reluctantly enforced the laws before him, ditto kennedy until after the Birmingham campaign. "To secure These Rights" was a landmark that was the result of Truman's presidential commission. Truman led on civil rights, even if in the end he had to cave. Eisenhower (who was sympathetic to a father who did not want his daughter sitting next to "some big black buck") did not lead and Kennedy was almost desperate for the issue to go away. Truman at least tried to confront it.
Plus that still does not address Truman's record with regard to the Cold War. One can, I suppose, dock him for Korea. But in the first years of the Cold War, when "losing China" almost made truman seem like he was soft on communism, it is hard to know what he ought to have done. If great times make for great presidents, I just do not seethat TR had as much to deal with -- keeping in mind that I still place him 5th.

dcat

Stephen said...

For a nice summary of Eisenhower's civil rights record, see: http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/Civil-Rights.htm

Check the two reports at the bottom also. Might want to also consider the appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice. See Robert Fredrick Burk's "The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights." Also note the civil rights platforms of the Republicans in 52 and 56, but particularly 52.

Stephen said...

My Revised List:

The Great:
Washington
Lincoln
Franklin Roosevelt

Big advances, few big mistakes:
Thomas Jefferson
William McKinley
Dwight Eisenhower
Ronald Reagan
Andrew Jackson
Theodore Roosevelt
Harry Truman

Effective Leaders:
James Polk
George W. Bush
Woodrow Wilson
John Kennedy
Ulysses Grant

On balance, pretty darn good:
John Adams
James Monroe
James Madison
Grover Cleveland
Rutherford Hayes
John Quincy Adams
William Taft
Martin Van Buren
Lyndon Johnson
George H.W. Bush
Calvin Coolidge
Gerald Ford
Warren Harding
Benjamin Harrison
Bill Clinton
Chester Arthur

Left the country worse than they found it:
Herbert Hoover
Richard Nixon
Zachary Taylor
Jimmy Carter
John Tyler
Millard Fillmore
Andrew Johnson
Franklin Pierce
James Buchanan

dcat said...

Tootle --
While it is nice that you refer to me, a civil rights historian, to civil rights sources, and while one of those sources is the Eisenhower Memorial (hagiography writ large -- this is not what most historians would see as a serious scholarly source), and while you refer me to two what you call "reports" (and what the site refers to as "eyewitness accounts") and while you have on several occasions referred me to the appointment of justice Warren as evidence of Eisenhower's views on race, (as if Eisenhower appointed him either for the purpose of Brown or supported that decision after the fact -- Warren's appointment and subsequent decisions are a matter of unintended results and not of Eisenhower's desires) and while you point me to a single book from more than two decades ago (more on this, my favorite of your arguments, in a moment), and while you seem to mistake civil rights platforms with presidential policy, the fact remains: Eisenhower was lukewarm on civil rights. He was slow to react, was not supportive of the Brown decision, opposed an amicus brief that his subordinates had to convince him to support, may or may not have called the appointment of Warren the "biggest damned fool mistake" of his life, and referred to black school children as "strapping black bucks" whose father's would be right to want to keep away from their little blonde daughters.

But here is my favorite part of your citing the Burk book as supportive of your argument that Eisenhower was strong on civil rights, and I'll let an excerpt from a reviewer of the book sum up Burk's own argument: "What Robert Frederick Burk has done is to provide a clearly written, copiously documented account of the Eisenhower Administration's manifold shortcomings in its policies and practices toward black Americans." The reviewer? Charles Alexander. In the Journal of American History. But maybe Charlie misread the book. And maybe too did Francis Wilhoit, whose review in the AHR says "However unfair the old stereotype of Eisenhower as a kindly but bumblig president, Burk deflates eisenhower revisionism by confirming the comnventional wisdom that Eisenhower was truly a reluctant dragon in the field of civil rights . . .". On the plus side, the reviewers do say that up to that point, Burks's book, which bolsters my argument, is the best book on Eisenhower's approach to civil rights. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.

"Manifold shortcomings." It ain't from the Eisenhower museum, or those "eyewitnesses," but as descriptions go by relatively reliable sources who presumably actually read the book to which he refers, it works pretty well.

Eisenhower: Not strong on civil rights. Says me. Says one of your sources (and the most respected) that you use to bolster your arguments.

dcat

PS: Manifold shortcomings.

dcat said...
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dcat said...
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Stephen said...

Here we go again. Please address whether or not the accomplishments listed by the Eisenhower Memorial commission are facts. If they are, then there were concrete accomplishments that Eisenhower could point to. And yes, I would call Eisenhower's mixed record on civil rights roughly comparable to Truman's--my original point.


Eisenhower was lukewarm on civil rights. (so was Truman) He was slow to react, (or didn't see that as his job) was not supportive of the Brown decision (except that he supported it with his actions), opposed an amicus brief that his subordinates had to convince him to support, (but he did support) may or may not have called the appointment of Warren the "biggest damned fool mistake" of his life (he did say this but not in reference to the Brown decision), and referred to black school children as "strapping black bucks" whose father's would be right to want to keep away from their little blonde daughters (repeating a concern a senator had voiced to him).

But here is my favorite part of your citing the Burk book as supportive of your argument that Eisenhower was strong on civil rights, and I'll let an excerpt from a reviewer of the book sum up Burk's own argument: "What Robert Frederick Burk has done is to provide a clearly written, copiously documented account of the Eisenhower Administration's manifold shortcomings in its policies and practices toward black Americans."

Yes. That is it. I would agree that Eisenhower had manifold shortcomings--about the same as Truman's.

And I have read the book. Read a couple others, too.

Jeff said...

Gee I think we have seen this arguement before and it seems that it has less to do with Ike and civil rights thans it appears. When we are overly emotionally invested in a certain subject/figure that is when historians lose their balance and judgement. I mean this with all due respect to Steve--I think your admiration for Ike has clouded your estimation of his civil rights record. I believe that he was less forceful than both Truman & JFK. Perhaps, his civil rights record consists of more than an unfortunate quote about black school children and Little Rock (which I think is your overall point--that his CR record consists of ups and downs similar to HT & JFK).

Ike's quote about "black bucks" is unfortunate. But for his time---that was acceptable language so it isn't some trump card which proves much of anything other than he had some racist views (gasp). After all, LBJ used the term "nigger" more than a bit.

Derek, your attacks on Steve are personal and reveal a lack of professional courtesy. Sadly, we have seen this before. Why can't you disagree with people in a respectful manner?

dcat said...

How, precisely, are my attacks personal? How do they lack "professional courtesy"? Ardent arguments are not in and of themselves peronal, and with all due respect, Jeff, I think you are not yet in a position to make yourself final arbiter of what is and is not professional courtesy. Give an example of a personal attack from my comment, please, or do cease setting yourself up as the arbiter of professional standards.

Tootle tried to trumpet the accomplishments of Eisenhower on civil rights and he is wrong. He did so using a source that we would not allow freshmen to use on a paper, and then he cited a book that absolutely undercuts his claims. What was personal about me going after a shoddy argument? It's easy for sensitive types to complain about personal attacks, but where was my argument a personal attack?

Truman's record, meanwhile includes the president's commission on civil rights, the report of which Truman endorsed and tried to enact against far greater reistance within his own party that Ike faced -- in other words, Truman took far greater risks in advocating far greater civil rights than Ike did, and he did so before he had something like brown that would have allowed him even greater room to operate.

Steve tried to use a host of shoddy sources or sources that bolster my point to buttress an untenable argument.

Up until I called him out on what the Burk book actually says, someone from the outside reading this would have had no idea that the book Steve cites in fact completely goes against his case, as made by the Eisenhower library, that Eisenhower was good, even passable, when it came to civil rights. His presentation was at beat misleading and disingenuous.

But lets discuss historiography. If the most well regarded book on Eisenhower's civil rights points out that he had, in Alexander's words, manifest shortcomings, one of the best books on Truman's civil rights, Michael Gardner's "Harry Truman and Civil Rights" argues "the record of Harry Truman's efforts on behalf of black Americans is a remarkable presidential story of moral courage and political recklessness." Or as another historian has written: "Truman was magnificently right on what may have been the two most important issues of his time: civil rights and the Soviet challenge." That writer? Fellow named Hamby, who seems to hold my work on civil rights in some regard.

As a general rule "manifest shortcomings" are not quite as good as "magnificently right" when it comes to describing the same issue.
Steve is wrong, manifestly, magnificently wrong in his ardent defense of Eisenhower's civil rights. These are the prevailing interpretations by the people who know what they are talking about. I'm sure asserting as much does not meet standards of professional courtesy by those who have decided they are the gatekeepers for such things, but so be it. I can live without Jeff's imprimatur.

dcat

Stephen said...

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0669416991/103-6235065-8178245?v=glance&n=283155

For anyone interested, this book has two articles on Eisenhower and civil rights. I am more sympathetic to Mayer than I am to Burk. But do read the articles for yourself.

Stephen said...

Jeff,
You are probably right (on all counts).

dcat said...

So are we now saying that Mayer is going to provide the evidence that Eisenhower was better than Truman on the issue of civil rights?
Meanwhile, I am curious about what you have to say about Hamby. We have the best monograph on Eisenhower's civil rights, certainly at the time it was written which says what it says about Eisenhower. We have Hamby, Gardner, and others and what they say.
I'd be curious if anyone reading this agrees that Eisenhower was Truman's equal on the question of civil rights and how they reconcile that with the historiography and their records.
And I also am awaiting anyone to point out what, specifically, I have said that has been so objectionable. I know Tootle thinks Jeff is right "on all counts," which is great, so I'll also let him or Jeff tell me what was so "unprofessional" about what I said. Or is that just the word we pull out to chill dialogue when someone making an ardent case makes us feel uncomfortable?

dcat

Stephen said...

We are now saying the Mayer is going to provide evidence that Eisenhower was better on Civil Rights than most people think. My official statement on Alonzo Hamby is that he is "The Man" and the single most important influence on my intellectual life and scholarship.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an expert on the civil rights movement in the 1950s. He voted for Eisenhower. Twice.

Jeff is right that I am more inclined to be favorable to Eisenhower. I think that happens when you spend a considerable amount of one's life studying something.

For the record, the word I use when I want to chill dialogue is, in fact: "Chill."

If anyone is interested in what Eisenhower considered to be his mandate in Civil Rights, take a look at the Republican Party platforms of 1952, 56, and 60.

S.J. Redman said...

Thanks for the list. I put Lincoln at the very top of my list, even above Washington, and Teddy checks in at four. GW Bush is also near the bottom. But I think it is difficult to rank President's while they are still in office.

dcat said...

That Martin Luther King Jr. voted for Eisenhower twice has nothing to do with whether Eisenhower was comparable to Truman. That is the question on the table. I would suspect that most civil rights leaders would have voted for a republican over a Democrat in 1952 0r 1956. What does that have to do with our discussion. You are conflating separate issues to make a weak argument stronger by association with issues that we were not addressing. The democrats in the 1950s were torn between two wongs-- a liberal wing that was stronger than the GOP on civil rights and a southern conservative wing that was awful, weaker not only than the GOP but than anything imaginable. But let's not pretend that either party deserves to have any particular virtue ascribed to it on the matter of civil rights, and let's not pretend that voting for Ike meant that MLK was especially warm about his civil rights policies. He was not, as he made abundantly clear. And let's not pretend that platforms are a proper source of evaluation for actions nor that they are especially useful guidelines to what individual presidents think.
I ask again -- name a single prominent civil rights scholar who says that Eisenhower was anything but lukewarm on civil rights. Name a single one. Mayer may argue that Eisenhower was better than people think, but people think he sucked. He may have been something north of sucking. Which brings us right back to lukewarm.
And the argument was that Truman was better on civil rights than Eisenhower, which based on my own work (including a forthcoming historiographical article on the presidents and civil rights, a forthcoming article that involves Little Rock, and a book on interstate transportation that takes things back to the Truman administration and carries them through Eisenhower and obviously Kennedy), based on the historiography, based on the evidence, is irrefutably true.
Look, Steve, I write and publish in the area of civil rights. I write and publish to a somewhat extent on the issue of the presidency and civil rights. You have cited two books, one which wholly backs my views on Eisenhower and one which by and large does not focus on civil rights with the exception of two essays that have not exactly left a huge mark on the scholarship.
Here is what I am not saying about Eisenhower, and never have: That he was a racist; that he was actively hostile to civil rights. Nor have I ever denied that his signing of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, however tepid those acts were, was not an important step. His intervention in Little Rock, however slow and however reluctant, was also vitally important. But in comparison with Truman, who took much braver steps at much greater risk, and who did not face anything resembling the Southern democrats within his own party, Eisenhower pales. He could have and should have done better. For all of your support of him, the fact remains -- if you care about civil rights, you cannot possibly look at Eisenhower as a champion for African Americans. He did some things that set in motion the possibility of change. But the lion's share of the credit goes to no presidents, but rather to the activists themselves, but even among post-WWII presidents, Eisenhower was slow to react, was lukewarm when he did, and yes, in Charlie Alexander's apt phrase, was characterized by "manifold shortcomings."

dcat

Stephen said...

Re: GHWB, yes. I would call my ranking an educated guess. We only have glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes, not vast archival evidence. Thanks for the comment.

dcat said...

Stephen argues that because King voted for Eisenhower twice, he must have supported Eisenhower's civil rights policies. In fact, in the sort of tone for which I have been chastised, Steve snarkily writes "Martin Luther King, Jr. was an expert on the civil rights movement in the 1950s. He voted for Eisenhower. Twice."

That's apparently his trump card. But here is the thing: King thought that Eisenhower was a failure on civil rights. I'd suggest looking at some of his choicer comments that can be found in Volume 4 of the MLK papers. Or instead he can look at, oh, say, page 119 of David Garrow's "Bearing the Cross":

King: "I fear that future historians will have to record that when America came to its most progressive moment of creative fulfillment in the area of human relations, it was temporarily held back by a chief executive who refused to make a strong positive statement morally condemning segregation."

King: "Much of the tension in the South could have been avoided if President Eisenhower had taken a strong, positive stand on the question of civil rights and the Supreme Court's decision as soon as it was rendered . . ."

King placed faith in the Eisenhower administration, faith that was disappointed. Trying to mislead us on what King's views really were on Eisenhower muddles the discussion, but it obfuscates the truth. When the Eisenhower administration was over, King, who in Tootle's felicitous if sarcastic phrase "was an expert on the civil rights movement" found Eisenhower wanting and then some.

dcat

Stephen said...

A vote for Eisenhower in 1956 is an endorsement of Eisenhower's first term.

dcat said...

Of course that is not necessarily true. It could well indicate a fear of Adlai Stevenson's own lukewarm stances on civil rights, not to mention a fear of his party's less than savory civil rights platform. (By the way, has King ever said for whom he voted in 1956? I cannot find a direct reference anywhere; the evidence comes from what one journalist has said that King told her).
In fact, this is precisely what King indicates was the case.

Rather than surmise and intuit what King thought, why are you not paying attention to what he actually said? How can you possibly privilege your interpretation on this over what not only King, but so many historians have written? You have not identitfied a single civil rights scholar whose views are closer to yours than to mine. You claim that King's alleged vote means more than King's actual words. At this point you have simply dug your heels in against all evidence. We've all been known to do as much, but at this point the evidence simply is lined too deeply against you.
King did not think Eisenhower was good on civil rights. I have pulled out two quotations from King's most respected biographer. I could have come up with another ten had it been necessary.

dcat

Stephen said...

Re: "You have not identitfied a single civil rights scholar whose views are closer to yours than to mine."

Michael Mayer

dcat said...

Is Michael Mayer considered a highly regarded civil rights scholar?
But ok, I'll give you Mayer, since you seem to think it is a pretty big weapon in your arsenal. Here is who I have: James Patterson, Harvard Sitkoff, David Goldfield, Clay Carson, Adam Fairclough, David Garrow, Taylor Branch, Dan Carter, Steven Shull, James Duram, Robert Burk, plus a couple of non civil rights historians who are more highly regarded in the profession than Mayer, Alexander and Hamby. This is just off the top of my head. Were I in my office I could list 20 more books by the most highly regarded scholars in the field.

So the historiography is against you. You have not engaged in one iota of original research on civil rights, I have. I just don't know why you're being so damned intransigent on this.

dcat

Stephen said...

Instead of naming names, try making an argument all by yourself.

dcat said...

You're kidding, right?

I am going to hold off on taking this to the next logical level, which is comparing our respective records, and which involves asking some very pointed questions I would suspect that you do not want asked, starting with your dissertation and moving on from there. Fish in a barrel, my friend.

But seriously -- how dare you? You are questioning my original thoughts on the issues of civil rights?

I have made an argument, several, in fact, based on my own views throughout this discussion, and I have referred to primary evidence, including quotations by King. You dismissed that based on, well, based on very little. In fact you did not even bother to deal with those quotations, but rather you simply averred that after reading King's quotations what you think you know about his voting history trumps what he actually said and wrote.

I've pointed out that I am writing an article on just this issue -- the presidency and civil rights -- for which I have been commissioned. I had a number of pieces published on the Brown decision and its impact not to mention several other articles on the issues of civil rights and a handful of op-eds on the issue of race. I have a book under contract that I am finishing up that incorporates civil rights issues in the 1950s, inter alia. I have another article forthcoming in which Little Rock is prominent. I am starting yet another book on questions of civil rights in the US and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and have an edited collection on southern history and race that within a week will be inder consideration from a university press. We'll forget about my work on South Africa or other topics for a moment (feel free to break up your own list of publications into separate categories if it will make it easier for you).

"Try to make an argument yourself," he writes. An astounding assertion from someone who has done nothing in this argument but cite other sources, albeit ones of far lesser significance than the giants in the field I have cited. The problem is that Steve has shown no regard for my own opinions. Only fer realizing as much did I resort to the dueling banjoes approach to civil rights historiography. I'd have gladly kept this in the realm of our own thoughts and ideas until he immediately argued based on the Eisenhower museum website home page and a book that inconveniently utterly refuted his argument.

But ok, Steve -- where are your own arguments here? In fact, where are your own arguments anywhere? In fact, where do you have a single word published on civil rights or Eisenhower that would lead me to have to bother with this discussion any more? I have presented plenty of arguments. Only now, after I have revealed the utter vacuity of your arguments with regard to the historiography, do you assert that I have not made any substantive points of my own. it's dumbfounding on its merits, but even moreso given that you have done nothing but insert the ideas of others to stand for the ideas you do not have yourself.

But I'll tell you what -- you will soon, in your way, be part of the same department as another preeminent scholar on these issues, Glenn Eskew (He wrote "But for Birmingham," but of course you knew that. Oh wait. No you didn't.) who is part of the senior faculty at Georgia State. Ask him how he feels. And if you are so confident in your argument, you should have no problem simply showing him this post and its comments.

And tell Glenn I said "hi". I think I owe him an email (Hey, I'll tell you what -- I can just email him the link to this conversation. What do you think? Are you that confident in your part of what has gone on here?) For whatever reason, Glenn seems to hold my work, indeed my original thoughts on civil rights, in high regard. Surely your publication record on such matters, or on any matters, will sway him to your side. Surely.

The irony is that I have been accused of posting unprofessional comments here (oh, and Jeff, still waiting for examples of such unprofessionalism . . . tick, tock, tick, tock). "Instead of naming names, try making an argument all by yourself." Unbelievable.

dcat

Stephen said...

Thanks for holding off on "taking this to the next level." You are the model of restraint.

Tom said...

If I may interject on the issue at hand in this lovefest--I think you are both right. If you put a list of civil rights policies/achievements of the Truman administration next to a list of civil rights policies/achievements of the Eisenhower administration, they are not that different. In that sense, Ike and Harry have comparable civil rights records.

However, Derek is right to point out that Truman's embracing of some civil rights issues, desegregating the military being right at the top of the list, was in several ways a braver stand than what Eisenhower did--in part because Truman risked alienating a huge section of his political party, and in part because he simply was doing things first.

Now Ike can't be blamed for not having an ultra hostile wing to his party, but his actions, significant though they were, did not involve as much personal bravery as Truman, and Ike probably could have done more. But then Truman can also be criticized for what he didn't do and Ike had to finish.

So let me put it this way: Truman and Eisenhower's records on civil rights, as a matter of policy, are comparable, but I admire Truman more for what he did, and Eisenhower should have been braver on the issue.

dcat said...

Tootle --
Only after several patently sarcastic comments, snide references, and utter dismissals of my own insights as a civil rights scholar did I let loose. You started the vitriol. Don't whine when your pithy little substanceless rejoinders (Martin Luther King knew something about civil rights, am I ever going to contribute ideas of my own, etc.) that may seem really cute in the hallways of UNC (or, perhaps not) or in the classroom are not sufficient in a sustained argument about historical questions.

I think Tom's comments get to the heart of the matter and the gist of what I have been saying. Given far greater opportunities and with much less potential political cost, Eisenhower acted more tepidly than Truman on the issue of Civil Rights, and I find that timidity to be a failure. And I make this judgement both based on my own scholarship, relatively modest in comparison with the profession but growing, and on that of the vast majority of civil rights scholars and the historiography they have produced and into which I have immersed myself.
My own ideas integrated with the ideas of others has been at the heart of everything I had written until Tootle's snotty little rejoinder yesterday about naming names and my own ideas.

dcat

mickey o'douche said...

The criteria for the list are somewhat unclear, to say the least. Backward engineering, I would posit that there's a premium placed on presidencies were presented with opportunities for dramatic actions. This likely explains

That being said, the relegation of John Adams to the lower decile, notwithstanding his indefatigable support of the U.S. Navy, is unforgivable.