One of the running jokes in W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s classic parody of English schoolbook history 1066 and All That (1930), is that each British monarch is presented as a Good King, a Bad King, or a Weak King, a judgment occasionally modified by an assessment of whether he was a Good Man or a Bad Man. For example, Sellar and Yeatman inform their readers that “[a]lthough a Good Man, James II was a Bad King and behaved in such an irritating and arbitrary way that by the end of his reign the people had all gone mad.”
Although, the particular schoolbooks that it parodies were written almost a century ago, 1066 and All That remains hilarious, in part because we’ve all experienced the reductive kind of historical judgment captured by the book’s obsession with Good Kings and Bad Kings. In the absence of monarchs, Americans tend to apply these kinds of judgments to presidents.
Even excellent historians sometimes talk about presidents in this way. I was reminded of this twice recently.
At the OAH meeting, I attended a generally terrific panel on “The Age of Carter,” which, as the title suggested, concerned evaluating the Carter presidency in the larger context of the 1970s. But for all the care and subtlety of their analyses, many participants in the panel tended to frame their assessment of the presidency in absolute terms. Stanly Godbold argued that Carter was a Good President. Scott Kaufman of Francis Marion University argued that Carter was a Bad President. And Leo Ribuffo argued that Carter was a Weak President…or rather that Carter’s performance as president made little difference given the international crises of the late 1970s.
Earlier this month, Michael Kazin and David Greenberg argued about LBJ in similarly dichotomous terms in The New Republic. In a piece entitled, “Stop the Revisionism: LBJ Was No Liberal Hero,” Kazin made the case that LBJ was a Bad President. Greenberg argued that LBJ was a Good President (“I’m OK with Calling LBJ a ‘Liberal Hero’ (and, No, I’m Not Ignoring Vietnam”).
The histories offered by the scholars discussing Carter at the OAH and LBJ in The New Republic are subtle and complex, but their felt need – and willingness – to offer a simplified bottom line is still notable.
As historians we are usually prone to emphasizing that the past is complicated. But when discussing presidents, we often participate in the game of giving simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. In the context of this post, I’m less interested in the political historical / historiographical dimension of this habit (i.e. what would be a better way to talk about presidents?) than I am in the intellectual historical aspect of it: why do we historians try to assess presidents in such black-and-white ways?
Some of the answer, I suspect, has to do with our political culture, two crucial aspects of which favor this kind of assessment of presidents. First, as citizens we are, every four years, called upon to make a similarly absolute assessment of presidential candidates. A vote is, in its very nature, a blunt form of evaluation. And it may encourage a similar bluntness when Americans – including American historians — are called upon to assess presidents in other contexts.
Secondly, partisan politics has encouraged extremely exaggerated assessments of presidents. There have been nine presidents in my lifetime – LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. There have been public intellectuals willing to argue that each of these men, with the exceptions of Ford and George H.W. Bush, is either among the greatest or the worst presidents of all time. Some have been called both among the greatest and among the worst…at different times and by people on different sides of the political divide, of course.
At least in the public sphere, the professional historical discussion of presidencies is often dominated by self-described “presidential historians,” who, as Leo Ribuffo pointed out in the “Age of Carter” panel, tend to exaggerate the power of the presidency and the ability of presidents to be masters of their fate. And a lot of hagiography goes on in the name of “presidential history.”
Finally, I think historians want to address a larger, engaged public. Presidents are among the aspects of history that many outside the profession are interested in. And I suspect that the general public really does want to hear who were the Good Presidents and who were the Bad Presidents…and even sees us historians as being unusually qualified to offer this judgment.
Under these circumstances, perhaps it’s not surprising that we sometimes play along.
 This title, participant and panel organizer Leo Ribuffo made a point of telling the audience, was intended somewhat satirically. Ribuffo expressed a concern that the field of history had lost its sense of humor. I think that as long as Leo Ribuffo is giving papers at major conferences, we will not have done so entirely!