By Mark K. Updegrove [July 1, 2021]
During his presidency, John F. Kennedy, perhaps with a wary eye on the future, met with David Herbert Donald, a biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and expressed his displeasure with historians’ presidential rankings.
“No one has the right to grade a president, even poor James Buchanan,” he told Donald, “who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned from the decisions he made.”
Historians have nonetheless persisted. On Wednesday, C-SPAN issued a report card of past presidents, its fourth since 2000 — and the first to include Donald Trump. James Buchanan has held a lock on the bottom spot as the worst president. Would Mr. Trump change that?
No — though he has very little to brag about. Historians deemed him the fourth worst of the 44 former presidents (Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce were also rated below him).
The scores, rendered by over 140 independent historians looking at 10 criteria like “crisis leadership” and “performance within context of times,” range from 897 (out of a possible 1,000) for the top-rated president, Lincoln, to Buchanan’s 227. Mr. Trump got 312.
It’s too early to draw a dispassionate view of Mr. Trump’s single term. Normally it takes at least a generation for the appraisals of historians to become rooted in more reasoned judgment. In a poll conducted by Arthur Schlesinger in 1962, Dwight Eisenhower, just a year out of office, tied with the forgettable Chester Arthur for 20th out of the 29 presidents measured. Likewise, in a survey done two years after leaving the White House, Ronald Reagan placed 28th out of 37 presidents.
But time has been good to Eisenhower and Reagan, as historians have come to focus more on the triumphs of their leadership: Eisenhower’s deft foreign policy management, ensuring that the Cold War didn’t become hot, and Reagan’s productive partnership with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, resulting in an easing of superpower tensions. In the new C-SPAN poll, Eisenhower and Reagan ranked — at fifth and ninth — in the top 10 with Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, Kennedy and Barack Obama, who bumps Lyndon Johnson from 10th (in 2017, Mr. Obama placed 12th).
For Mr. Trump, whose administration was marked by chaos, discord and division — much of his own making — it may take longer for greater even-handedness to take hold. But will he prove, like Eisenhower and Reagan, to climb the list with time as his record inspires re-evaluation and, ultimately, absolution?
It’s not likely. Presidents are principally measured by the most consequential aspects of their administrations, those that resonate in history and define the times in which they governed. Mr. Trump will be hampered by two central crises of his tenure. He treated the first, the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 Americans, as an inconvenience. Offering hollow promises that it would magically disappear in the interest of keeping the economy growing and his re-election chances alive, he largely allowed the virus to spread perniciously.
He manufactured the second: the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, a deception that culminated in the attack on the Capitol. Mr. Trump’s fecklessness in both cases, and his general failure to put the nation above himself personally and politically, will almost certainly continue to doom him in future polls.
What about the economic gains Mr. Trump crowed about throughout his term? Economic policy has enormous political implications for a president, but it’s rarely a major factor in historical evaluations. Warren Harding presided over a thriving economy but is widely seen as a failure, ranking 37th in the current poll.
For some presidents, archival material has surfaced that prompted a new look, like Reagan’s reflective diaries or Lyndon Johnson’s revealing telephone tapes. That’s not expected for Mr. Trump, who likely shied away from recording his presidency for fear that it could later be used against him in a legal proceeding. Will historians come to a greater appreciation of Mr. Trump’s character as many did of Truman after David McCullough’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography? Again, probably not. Mr. Trump left ample evidence of his character through his more than 24,000 tweets and the over 30,000 lies he told throughout his presidency.
All things considered, it’s difficult to see Mr. Trump emerging from the ratings basement — even when the forest of the Trump era can be seen for the trees.
As president, Mr. Trump took on anyone and anything that got in his way. As a former president, he’s sure to dismiss the view of historians or anyone else who condemns his presidency. But as Kennedy knew, history will just as surely have the last word.
Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian and the author of “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.”