April 5, 2004 

    Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, speaking at the annual Jim Ryan Symposium Monday night, offered a revisionist way of evaluating presidents which upgrades prior evaluations of lesser-remembered presidents and demotes others.

    Smith, who works as the director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, presented his method of presidential assessment as a system of 10 criteria:

bulletEffective leaders are risk-takers.
bulletPresidents who are chiefly concerned with being remembered by history are the ones it will forget.
bulletThere isn’t any one definitive evaluation of a president’s performance.
bulletAlthough individuals may judge presidents on whatever grounds they choose, they have to consider the leaders within the context of their time.
bulletIf there is any law that affects presidents as much as the Constitution, it is the law of unplanned outcomes.
bulletMoral authority and personal convictions must govern how a president exercises his power, or else it is just power based on norms.
bulletA good leader is one who can use his enemies to his advantage.
bulletA great leader does his own thing, including sometimes abandoning traditional methods of solving problems.
bulletA leader who is faced with a crisis ought to not only solve it but use it to establish feelings of trustworthiness with those he leads.
bulletThe concept of greatness is ultimately a subjective one.

    Smith’s first and foremost rule was, as he put it, “History rewards the risk-takers.” He cited numerous instances, from Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase to Clinton’s endorsement of NAFTA, as times when presidents were willing to put principle before popularity and take a chance. Smith cautioned that there is always a certain degree of danger when taking a risk—and some are simply not worthwhile—but he added that “sometimes the greatest risk of all is for a president to do nothing.”

    Smith continued on to his second criterion, asserting that “any president who actively campaigns for his place in history is engaged in a self-defeating exercise.” He juxtaposed it with his first point, explaining that two kinds of presidents will be poorly regarded: the risk-averse and the ones too concerned with their reputation. “History is not a focus group,” Smith steadfastly proclaimed, “nor can it be massaged by a White House spin doctor.”

    The third point was that “there is no single theory of presidential success,” as Smith explained it. “Bear with me as I take a few minutes to reintroduce you to our 30th president, a textbook example of how textbook history can be an oxymoron,” he continued, focusing his attention on “Silent Cal” Coolidge – whom he felt him a prime example of leaders who are unfairly overlooked because of various reasons. Smith argued that Coolidge, for example, was a humorous, smart, principled man who is just recently beginning to get noticed.

    Fourth in Smith’s list of rules was that “presidents can be judged by any criteria you choose – but they can only be understood within the context, conventions and limitations of their time.” He told the crowd that the situations in which presidents find themselves vary from year-to-year, decade-to-decade; that if you are going to rate leaders, you have to be cognizant of the circumstances that existed while they were in power. To show just how quickly things change, he said, compare the “whirlwind of progressive legislation” of Woodrow Wilson’s first term to the “foreign war, domestic upheaval and shameful outbreaks of racial and ethnic intolerance” that marked his second tenure.

    “If presidents are governed by any law beyond the Constitution, it is the law of unintended consequences,” said Smith as he introduced his fifth point. Expounding on his fourth rule, Smith’s argument was based on the belief that Wilson’s failure during his second term was not due to the fact that he had forgotten how to rule, but that he was essentially a victim of unfortunate circumstances. With the overwhelming responsibilities delegated to Wilson coupled with the “postwar wave of strikes, red-baiting and official repression,” stated Smith, “it will come as no surprise that voters in 1920 longed for what Warren Harding […] called normalcy.”

    The sixth component of Smith’s 10-rule system was “Presidential power, awesome though it may appear on paper, is purely normative without moral authority.” He talked about a number of presidents whose convictions allowed them to carry a lot of influence. Smith also added, however, that presidents like Reagan and FDR took advantage of the “bully pulpit” and that both were people who “brilliantly used the mass media of his day to enlist public support for his agenda.”       

    The seventh factor to consider, Smith said, is that “besides political acumen and gyroscopic balance, the presidency requires a talent for making useful enemies.” Citing presidents such as FDR and Reagan, Smith explained that a leader’s capability to cleverly manipulate his opponents makes him stronger and more capable. People like Roosevelt and Reagan, he said, “defeated a predecessor who knew considerably more than he did about the governing process” but yet “understood far less about the American people.”

    Smith introduced his eighth component: “Every great leader marches to the beat of his own drummer, and labels and even logic be damned.” He stressed the importance of having the courage of one’s convictions to do things differently and rely one’s own instinct, even if it means being criticized for challenging the norm. As an example, he illustrated the “belief that Washington must inevitably exert more control over personal and economic decisions” – which, although would likely be embraced by today’s leaders, was questioned and defied by Reagan.

    The penultimate statement in Smith’s list was that “the challenge posed by any crisis is equaled by the opportunity for leaders to forge an emotional bond with the people they lead – to gain moral authority as well as expanded powers.” Expanding on that point, he explained that when problems arise, leaders should not just give answers but also establish trust with the citizens. Lincoln and FDR, he said, were examples of people who earned the nation’s confidence – and presidents like that, he said, “establish credit to be drawn upon in the inevitable periods of testing that follow.”

    Smith’s last rule was a simple one: “Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” He turned to President Bush as a fitting example; his presidency has been an important one, he said, “but we will not know for years whether George W. Bush has anticipated or misjudged the historical wave.” He surmised that the president’s reputation will “rise and fall”; that Bush’s rank in history will, in truth, be determined by the person who writes the account.

    Smith challenged the audience before him to depart from the orthodox, formal systems of presidential evaluation, instead declaring that “the real question that should be asked of any president is, did he make a significant difference, not only in his time but for a long time to come?” Presidents we today look back at with high regard, argued Smith, were the targets of rabid criticism in their time because they took risks and did important things. He reminded the crowd that the final evaluation is up to the individual, but a truly great leader acts in the best interests of his country rather than himself – and that such leaders, “who embody timeless principles,” are the ones who transcend time.

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