April 5, 2004
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, in a lecture entitled “Ten Rules to Judge a President,” offered a revisionist way of evaluating presidents which reconsiders their success or failure as a leader – and elevates the importance of leaders who took risks and had the courage to be unconventional.
Smith gave his speech at the annual Jim Ryan Symposium at Benedictine University last Monday evening. 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 rules, some of the most significant including:
|Effective leaders are risk-takers.|
|Presidents who are chiefly concerned with being remembered by history are the ones it will forget.|
|Although individuals may judge presidents on whatever grounds they choose, they have to consider the leaders within the context of their time.|
|A good leader is one who can use his enemies to his advantage.|
|A 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.|
|The 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, explaining, “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.”
Another of Smith’s 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.
Another 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” and yet “understood far less about the American people.”
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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