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Grading on a “Change Agent” Curve

Historians, as a profession, are understandably fascinated by change. Civilizations, as a phenomenon, are properly concerned with conservation. Tension is inevitable when the former apply criteria of success and failure ill-suited to the goals of the latter. The best recent evidence: C-Span has just released its Presidential Historian’s Survey for 2017. It is proof that historians celebrate Presidents the more change they achieve while consigning them  to obscurity for governing prudently according to circumstance.

It should be said, to C-Span’s credit, that as such surveys go, this one reflects a reasonably broad range of historians. The survey’s designers—Douglas Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford, and Richard Norton Smith—represent an ideological span, and the participants include Stephen Knott, Walter McDougall and Jack Pitney, all familiar to the readers of this site.

The problem lies not with the raters but with the methodology. The historians were asked to give equal weight to 10 categories: “public persuasion,” “crisis leadership,” “economic management,” “moral authority,” “international relations,” “administrative skills,” “relations with Congress,” “vision/setting an agenda,” “pursuing equal justice for all,” and “performance within context of times.”

Lincoln, Washington and Franklin Roosevelt topped the survey; Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan brought up the rear. Those are all typical results for such surveys, as was the inflated ranking of eighth for John F. Kennedy and 12th for Barack Obama.

The intrigue, though, lies neither at the top nor at the bottom but at the middle of the pack. This is where the champions of prudent governance calibrated to circumstance, not transformational leadership—Calvin Coolidge and George H.W. Bush come to mind—shake out.

Yet prudence, strikingly, was not among the criteria the historians were asked to rate. The criterion of “performance within context of times” only obliquely captures the idea that some moments in history do not require transformation. Indeed, that category’s bias in favor of an expansive rather than a limited notion of “context of the times” is illustrated by the fact that the same prudent Presidents wound up in the same place in the middle of the pack even on that individual rating.

The idea that leaders should be willing to curb their appetites for greatness when circumstances do not require it comes to the American tradition through the person of a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln spoke of his time (the year of his speech was 1838) as one of relative prosperity and calm compared to that of the Founding, and recognized the danger: Leaders with ambitions for greatness, finding no avenue for it in adhering to the ways of their predecessors, would instead try to bulldoze their own avenues by claiming—even creating—crises.

The Founders, Lincoln said, had become immortal by establishing constitutional freedom. “But,” he went on,

the game is caught; and I believe it is true that with the catching end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they too will seek a field.

Indeed we have seen “new reapers” unable to gratify their desire for fame by “supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others”—from Barack Obama (see messianic formulation here) to Donald Trump with his “American carnage.” Whether stated as inspiring visions or as crises, these pursue invariably the same object: power.

To be sure, what prudence dictates is not always restraint. On an Aristotelian understanding, phronēsis is concerned with the ability to achieve the right ends, which sometimes requires daring and sometimes does not.  In the classical sense, and also in the Burkean one—in which prudence is more, although not entirely, inflected with caution—Lincoln was the model of the prudent statesman.

Similarly missing from the C-Span survey, yet vital to prudence, was the ability to gauge the long-range impact of one’s choices. Thus such notoriously imprudent Presidents as Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—the implementers of measures that were sufficient to attain a crown of achievement for them but that entailed heavy consequences for later generations—earned relatively high ranks.

Clearly the Presidential Historian’s Survey was not designed to capture prudential factors. Its criteria lean hard toward a formula of presidential success that might be expressed as success equals change divided by time (s=c/t): that is, the more one changes and the faster one does it, the better a President one is.

At least two of its 10 criteria—“crisis leadership” and “vision/setting an agenda”—are more or less explicitly geared toward change. While “public persuasion” is necessary regardless of whether a President  wants to change or to conserve, one suspects those who employed it in the service of change ranked higher on that score. The same is true of “relations with Congress.” An innocent reader of The Federalist might think “relations with Congress” would mean institutional competition. But those who exceled in the survey, like Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, succeeded not in competition but in pushing programs of substantial change through the legislature.

Two other categories—“moral authority” and “equal justice”—are inkblot tests. International relations and administrative skills are entirely appropriate but do not answer the question of whether the international polices or the administrative skills are put to prudent or ambitious ends, and one suspects the survey rewarded the latter. “Economic management,” meanwhile, reflects a supremely modern view of the presidency that systematically disadvantages early executives and in which Clinton Rossiter’s view of the job trumps Publius’.

The most serious omission from the survey is any measure of whether a President adhered to or even entertained a constitutional understanding of the office. Here earlier Presidents might fare better than later ones. Washington would top that category. Madison and Monroe would not be far behind. Presidents who consider their own performance almost solely in terms of the power they exercise, and not their authority to exercise it, would rank—and belong—in the basement. This is not to say that Presidents must construe the office narrowly. It is to say they would have to consider its boundaries thoughtfully.

The difficulty, of course, of including a criterion explicitly about the Constitution is that it requires a capacity in the members of the historical profession to take inaction morally seriously. This hardly seems to be asking too much. Baseball writers do it. And so do some of today’s historians—namely, those who consider issues of prudence and not merely of power. Knott is among them.

It must be conceded to such surveys, and to the human experience, that great times reveal greatness. Churchill was Churchill, but it was the Second World War that showed him to be so. A prudent statesman in inconsequential times may possess greatness of soul, which may consist in disciplining that greatness by calibrating it to the moment, as the Lincoln of 1838 counseled. Such a statesman will probably never rank alongside the Lincoln of 1861.

Still, those who measure history solely in terms of change should consider the incentives their method generates. Historians might, for instance, be chastened by the observation that Donald Trump, who certainly qualifies as one of Lincoln’s reapers in the field of ambition, can be accused of many things. Not changing circumstances rapidly in his first month in office is not among them.

Reader Discussion

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on February 28, 2017 at 13:48:36 pm

[H]istorians celebrate Presidents the more change they achieve while consigning them to obscurity for governing prudently according to circumstance.

Fair enough, as far as it goes.

But it is often said that desperate times call for desperate measures. So it is that Weiner disparages “ambitious” politicians putatively driven by a hunger for power, and praises the prudence evidenced by Lincoln in 1838. Yet this same Lincoln would subsequently press the authority of the executive well beyond any bounds previously asserted. Shall we conclude that Lincoln was simply one more ambitious politician hungry for power? Or shall we conclude that he acted prudently under the circumstances--and he just happened to face extraordinary circumstances?

What should historians say about presidents who maintain the status quo, even as they acknowledge the evilness of the status quo? Coolidge acknowledged that great scourge of lynchings that were sweeping the nation, and even spoke out publicly for civil rights and to make lynching a federal crime. Yet he lacked the skill or pull with Congress to pass any legislation related to these objectives. And unlike his rivals for the presidency, and even his running mate, Coolidge could never bring himself to publicly condemn the KKK.

Thus did Coolidge maintain the status quo. Black people were terrorized and murdered without limit or recourse, and Coolidge responded ineffectually--or, as Weiner would characterize it, prudently under the circumstances.

But if you had a different view about the circumstances under which Coolidge governed, you might draw a different conclusion about what kind of leadership those circumstances warranted. You might even go so far as to advocate--*gasp!*--change.

Ok, ok—picking on a president’s failure to correct a culture of racism is pretty facile. But I hope this illustrates the point: Every era could benefit from reform. To suggest that there are ever circumstances which could not benefit from reform is merely to indicate your indifference to the suffering being endured by others in your era. Yet reform is hard. Unless a politician sets ambitious goals, he is unlikely to achieve anything; with ambitious goals, he might be fortunate to achieve a little.

Thus I am not so swift to condemn ambition in the executive. Yes, ambition can lead to bad outcomes—but bad compared to what? Was the nation blessed to have lynching proceed unabated, just so white people could comfort themselves that their interests would not be disturbed a president with sufficient ambition to change the status quo?

(Of course, I write this with trepidation: The US is currently blessed with perhaps the most ambitious president we've ever had. Tomorrow I fully expect to be singing the praises of those who would maintain the status quo, and Weiner will be able to feed my words back to me syllable by syllable. )

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nobody.really
on February 28, 2017 at 13:52:58 pm

Greg:

Fair enough, re: faulty criteria for historical assessment and the tendency to rank according to the "great man " theory rather than prudential governance.

Yet, I would not place The Trumpster (not YET, anyway) on a par of "reaper" with obama.

"Historians might, for instance, be chastened by the observation that Donald Trump, who certainly qualifies as one of Lincoln’s reapers in the field of ambition,..."

Can it not be argued that what The Trumpster is currently engaged in is an effort to "make smaller" the government he inherited from the Obama Administration.

Is this not his expressed intent?
The clumsiness of his EO on immigration notwithstanding, can it not be argued that The Trumpster was (is) simply attempting to insure that the laws are faithfully executed unlike his predecessor who possessed an overly expansive view of prosecutorial discretion in this matter?

Is not his stated intent to reduce the size of the Fed Admin State also an indication that The Trumpster seeks to lessen the sway of Executive Agencies upon the citizenry?

I could go on (see recent statements on Waters of the United States and EPA) - but I'll skip it.

To date, it would appear that The Trumpster, rather than being a "reaper" of contrived glory, is actually acting prudentially to reduce the *fruits* (such as they may be called) of his predecessors prodigious *reaping* and the sundering of certain constitutional norms.

Greg, methinks you are just a tad bit early in your judgment of The Trumpster. He may very well turn out to be the megalomaniac / egotist that his rather unique dialect / vernacular may suggest - BUT, I will wait upon his future actions (prudential ones, I hope).

take care

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gabe
on February 28, 2017 at 14:17:43 pm

nobody:

yep, you may be right about Coolidge lacking the legislative skills to "end" lynching. Of course, one could go on to argue that whether he succeeded in passing a law or not, the miscreants in the south would have probably continued in their errant and horrid ways.

But what I must take issue with is your (willful?) failure to note the "lack of ambition", as it were, of a *paragon* of virtue (to those on the Left, of course) and ambition, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man whio may NOT be said to have lacked either the Legislative skills or the wherewithal to assure passage of Anti-Lynching Laws. Clearly, FDR could manage to pass anything through the Congress AND he did, repeatedly.

Yet, it must be recalled that such Legislative success was possible only with the help of Sam Rayburn, legislative titan / tyrant from Texas, and mentor to LBJ. No, FDR a) knew of the problem of lynching, b) understood the evil of it, c) CHOSE to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it in order to maintain a stranglehold on the Legislative votes of the Southern Democrats. (Check out biographies of Rayburn, LBJ, etc.)

So are you still convinced that "ambition" will assure fair treatment and that the "non-reapers" of the political world deserve a greater share of the blame for our collective failures.

There is a line from one of my favorite singers, Jackson Browne, in his song "These Days" that I think is appropriate for some of your commentary when it drifts into its "narrative" mode.

"Don't confront me with my failures,
I have not forgotten them"

I would add that one should also properly attribute those failures.

I think the singer is reminding us in the song that while we may not constantly express regret (guilt) over past failures, we surely are not unaware of them - but also, I think he is cautioning us that a constant repetition of such failures is not likely to win friends and garner influence. This becomes more important when one also considers that such "failures" occurred long before many of us were even conceived.

But then again, it is just another ballad? What shall you sing?

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gabe
on February 28, 2017 at 15:14:06 pm

But what I must take issue with is your (willful?) failure to note the “lack of ambition”, as it were, of a *paragon* of virtue (to those on the Left, of course) and ambition, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man whio may NOT be said to have lacked either the Legislative skills or the wherewithal to assure passage of Anti-Lynching Laws. Clearly, FDR could manage to pass anything through the Congress AND he did, repeatedly.

Yet, it must be recalled that such Legislative success was possible only with the help of Sam Rayburn, legislative titan / tyrant from Texas, and mentor to LBJ. No, FDR a) knew of the problem of lynching, b) understood the evil of it, c) CHOSE to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it in order to maintain a stranglehold on the Legislative votes of the Southern Democrats. (Check out biographies of Rayburn, LBJ, etc.)

First, it’s not accurate that FDR could get whatever he wanted from a compliant Congress. Recall the fate of his court-packing plan?

But more to the point, you’ve just argued that FDR declined to use political capital for the purpose of opposing lynchings because he had the ambition to use his scarce political capital—the “stranglehold on the Legislative Votes of the Southern Democrats”--for some other objective. He wasn’t exercising restraint; he was simply pre-occupied with taming the Great Depression and fight off Nazis.

In contrast, Weiner appears to praise Coolidge for simply exercising restraint—even when confronted with circumstances in which lack of presidential restrain would not seem to be the greatest ill afflicting the nation. That’s a rather different circumstance.

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nobody.really
on February 28, 2017 at 15:56:39 pm

No, I made no claim re: restraint.

I argue that FDR DELIBERATELY chose to SIDE with the Southern miscreants in order that he would be able to "reap" the glory (such as it was) that would surely follow from his transformative Presidency (remind you of anyone else and "transform".

And that FDR was an *active* President, an overly ambitious one, who also CHOSE to do nothing even though he had it within his power, i.e., legislative votes and muscle, to pass an effective anti-lynching law.

And it was willful on your part to ignore FDR's complicity in this matter. To include FDR would not dovetail with your narrative which is as the singer says is to "confront [us} with [our{alleged]] failures" on a continuing basis.

I mean surely you were aware of the Legislative history of anti-lynching laws and the difficulty in obtaining passage. It was part and parcel of an FDR - Foley initiative to secure southern votes and included some fancy finagling with the setting of minimum wage levels in order to deny protections to black southerners.
You are too well versed in these matters to have not known of this - and too smart to have not considered its import.

So yes, sometimes restraint may lead to bad outcomes - so may actions taken OR NOT TAKEN while in PURSUIT of an ambitious agenda.

Fair enough, brudda?

"These Days" we should look for proper attribution, wouldn;t you say (or sing)?

take care
gabe

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gabe

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