Presidential rankings fluctuate over time. Each generation struggles to understand themselves and find consensus and community by reinterpreting their collective past, which is one of the most vital and noble functions of history. On the downside, our historical figures most often ascend or diminish in our estimation as a result of how we view their actions through the lens of our experience and culture rather than viewing their actions in their own time and place.

If all rankings are slightly deceptive and self indulgent, then attempting to rank contemporary presidents is pure folly. For example, see the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. poll (circa 1996) that ranked Ronald Reagan in the thirties, which apparently rested on the political views of Schlesinger and his cronies much more than their historical judgment. Although I greatly admire Schlesinger as a scholar, his dismissal of Reagan as a president of note was not only petty but proved silly and embarrassing as well (and he is at it again, read his latest blend of history and politics here).

Other “conservative” polls have come along since then that tried to place Reagan much closer to the top of the list, but part of the problem with rating presidents on whom we voted (for or against) is that we seek to push our objectivity beyond normal human limits. History is best understood and cataloged and interpreted by dispassionate and disinterested practitioners of the art.

Having said all that (and mindful of my hypocrisy), let me indulge in some speculation in terms of ranking President George W. Bush.

All observers agree that Bush will rise or fall on the success of Iraq. Obviously, Iraq today is not what the Bush brain trust was hoping for in the spring of 2003. Notwithstanding, the manifest fact that the Bushies were naïve and sanguine about the Iraq aftermath does not necessarily preclude ultimate success. Being there has a momentum and imperative all its own.

Iraq remains an open question, a 50-50 proposition. If Iraq works and a few other cards in the Middle East fall, which might happen, Bush will look very good in the decades to come. If the “Civil War” actually breaks out and spreads instability throughout the region, Iraq will have been a gigantic error with myriad horrific ramifications. Also, while presidential legacies are generally not built on economic success, an economic collapse on Bush’s watch or immediately following would certainly injure his historical standing. We can only wait and see.

Bush backers, who have their own reputations to think about, hope that the current 30-something approval ratings are Truman-like. They see Bush making the tough and unpopular but correct foreign policy choices that will prove ultimately successful. In the Truman mold, Bush is setting forth a bold, courageous and transformative American policy that, like containment, will emerge triumphant at some point in the decades to come.

The President’s opponents see him more like Nixon, tangled in a web of secrecy and paranoia and shady dealings. Or like Johnson, fecklessly and tragically prosecuting an ill-conceived war that is draining the life blood out of his presidency and his credibility. Or like Warren G. Harding, who woke up one day to the realization that his clear-cut view of the world and his simple notions were not sophisticated enough to combat the problems of the modern presidency. We’ll see.

Some things to think about: Bush is one of only twenty presidents to win election after serving as president. Of the previous nineteen, four of those presidents won election while finishing the unexpired terms of their predecessors (T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman and L. Johnson). Grover Cleveland won back the presidency four years after having lost it as an incumbent. Richard Nixon won reelection after a full term but resigned before completion of his second term. Lincoln and McKinley won reelection after a full term but fell to assassins in the second.

If President Bush completes his second full term he will join an exclusive club of eleven reelected-full-term presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Wilson, F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton). History has been kind to most of the names mentioned above, especially the elite eleven.

For just a touch of historical perspective, please consider the following ultra-concise summary of the presidents and my own personal unofficial ranking (in chronological order):

GEORGE WASHINGTON: the absolute best. NUMBER ONE. “Sine Qua Non.” Two-term president. He gets a career achievement award in addition to kudos for a near-flawless turn as president, as he was the most important man in America from 1775-1797. One of the longest and, arguably, the most important public career in American history.

JOHN ADAMS. Great American but only an average president. Defeated for reelection. He is probably a Top-Twenty man. Alien and Sedition Acts happened on his watch—bad. Could not control his own party (didn’t really believe in a party). He gets credit for resisting a war with France and turning over power to the opposition after electoral defeat.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Great American and Top-Twelve president. Two-term president. I rank him a bit lower than some, but certainly I am not one of the neo-Jefferson haters. Great intellect. Louisiana Purchase (phenomenal peaceful acquisition of territory). Great pre- and good post-presidential career.

JAMES MADISON. Great American. Two-term president. Father of the Constitution, but a disappointment as president. I agree with the historical consensus: Top Twenty.

JAMES MONROE. Great American. Revolutionary War veteran. Great public servant. Two-term president. He gets high marks from historians for the Monroe Doctrine, the Transcontinental Treaty, the Convention of 1818 and the Missouri Compromise among other things. Most of that is because he surrounded himself with an uncommonly brilliant cabinet. John Quincy Adams served eight years as secretary of state and deserves the credit for most of the foreign policy successes. No matter. Monroe is in the Top-Twelve.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS. Perhaps the most brilliant of all the presidents, but defeated for reelection. Great pre-presidential career and great post-presidential career, but a huge disappointment as president (maybe even worse than his dad). He was not political enough to succeed as president; he hankered for the old ideal of nonpartisanship, and that spelled his doom. I love him. I have his picture up on my wall, but the best I can do is rank him a Top-Twenty man (and that is with some fudging).

ANDREW JACKSON. Top Five. Two-term president. He is a very important bridge to the modern presidency. He saved the union during nullification and set many of the precedents Lincoln employed during the Civil War. He was Old Hickory. The Hero. He was the first great American everyman. Even with all his negatives (and there are a ton), Jackson is tremendous.

MARTIN VAN BUREN. Bottom Ten. Van Ruin (Panic of 1837). Although he was a great coalition builder (he should get credit for bringing together the modern Democratic Party), he could never shake the reputation as a scheming manipulator. The “American Talleyrand.” Defeated for reelection.

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON. Not there long enough to rank.

JOHN TYLER. Completely ineffective as president. Lost support from every one in Washington except John C. Calhoun. Gets some credit from me for pushing Texas (pro Texana)—but fairly low on the list. Completed unfinished term and unable to secure nomination for his own term.

JAMES K. POLK. Dr. A always called him the dark horse president in the Schlesinger rankings. He is the guy that no one can ever name but who consistently places in the top-ten. The only one-termer consistently in the top-ten. Mexican War and Oregon. Independent treasury and tariff reduction. Top-Twelve. One-term president; elected not to run for reelection.

ZACHARY TAYLOR. Died midterm. Not a big fan.

MILLARD FILLMORE. He gets a lot of bad press, but he was instrumental in making the Compromise of 1850 happen. Completed unfinished term; could not secure a nomination for his own term. He is probably a Top Twenty-Fiver. Bad post-presidential career. He ran as a "Know-Nothing" in 1856. You don't have to know much to know that wasn’t good.

FRANKLIN PIERCE. “Handsome Frank.” Bottom Five. One-term president; unable to secure renomination. “Doughface” Democrat. Anthony Burns and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which are prime candidates for the worst two missteps during the first American century. Bad news.

JAMES BUCHANAN. Bottom Five. Another “doughface” Democrat. In the loop on Dred Scott and presided over the Lecompton mess. Also, dithered unforgivably during the early days of the secession crisis. One-term president; unable to secure renomination.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. “Father Abraham.” NUMBER TWO on the all-time list. Doesn't get any better than Lincoln (except for GW). Saved the Union. To say he was a great speech writer is a gross understatement. Incisive legal mind. Great pol. Understood when to compromise and when to stand on principle. Log Cabin president. Another great American story. Won reelection but assassinated early in second term.

ANDREW JOHNSON. Bottom Ten. Completed unfinished term. He goes up and down with historians. He is down right now, and I don't care enough to make a case for him. He was an Orval Faubus-, George Wallace-type Southern populist.

U.S. GRANT. Great American. Poorest of the two-term presidents. There is a movement underway to reassess Grant's presidency. I hope it works. He was evidently an honest man, and, of course, a great hero of the CW (and a good writer). Top Thirty?

R.B. HAYES. "His Fraudulency." Tough spot--okay guy, evidently. Top Thirty-Two. One-term president (in fulfillment of promise).

JAMES A. GARFIELD. Assassinated very early. No ranking.

CHET ARTHUR. Underrated. Did a competent job serving out an unfinished term. Pushed civil service reform, which was a major accomplishment. Top Twenty-Five.

GROVER CLEVELAND. Not a bad guy. Competent president. Reformer. Honest. Elected to two non-consecutive terms (although he won the popular vote all three times). Top Twenty.

BENJAMIN HARRISON. Failed presidency. Defeated for reelection. Economic turmoil. Bottom Ten.

WILLIAM McKINLEY. Well-liked. Won reelection but assassinated early in second term. Good economic times and acceded to American imperialism. Good and bad ramifications to the imperialistic bent. Top Twenty.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT. Brilliant. Excellent. Bigger than life. "Square Deal." "Bully Pulpit." "Big Stick" diplomacy. Panama Canal. Cowboy president. Boundless energy. Top Five. Finished uncompleted term and elected in his own right overwhelmingly. Opted not to run again but changed his mind four years later and ran strongly but lost as Bull-Moose candidate.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT. Great American and vastly underrated as a public servant. Not very successful as president, although Teddy gave him something of a bum rap. Defeated for reelection. He fits in as a dedicated Progressive. Greatest combined pre-presidential and post-presidential career. Top Twenty-Five.

WOODROW WILSON. Progressive. Visionary. League of Nations. Presided over a civil liberties crackdown during WWI. Federal Reserve Act. Even with all his failings and ego and hubris and nineteenth-century sensibilities, I still give him Top-Fifteen status. Two-term president.

WARREN G. HARDING. I could plead early exit (died in office) and not rank him, but he was miserable. “Throw him overboard.” Bottom Five.

CALVIN COOLIDGE. Finished uncompleted term and won overwhelmingly in bid for his own term. "Chose not to run" again.I like him more than most historians. He did nothing and saw it as an accomplishment (for this he is a favorite among modern conservatives). Presided over a great economy. Top Twenty-Five.

HERBERT HOOVER. Nice, decent, honest, compassionate and incredibly brilliant man--but a failed president. Defeated for reelection. Good marks on pre- and post-presidential career. Nevertheless, Bottom Ten.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT. NUMBER THREE on the all-time list. Won election four times. One of the “crisis presidents.” Like Washington, he enjoyed a long public career (twelve years as president) during which he was able to guide the USA through the Great Depression and win the Big One. Double prizes! Most influential American elected official of the c. 20.

HARRY TRUMAN. Finished uncompleted term and then won his own term; did not stand for relection to another term in the face of popular dissatisfaction with his administration ("Korea, Communism & Corruption"). At the helm during an incredibly significant time. Containment. The Bomb. The Fair Deal. The Four Points. "The Buck Stops Here." Another everyman made good. Early commitment to civil rights (much more progress on race than FDR). Desegregation of the military. Good family man. Top Twelve.

IKE. Two-term president. Great American hero. Steady president. Good moderating influence on America during the 1950s. "Hidden Hand Presidency." Interstate Highways. Reinforced containment theory. Earl Warren. Honest. Good natured. Top Twelve.

JFK. Really too brief a career to rank with the greats and near-greats. Great communicator. Great politician. Quick-witted. Great TV president. Very good 1000 days. Top Twenty.

LBJ. Vietnam bad. Finished uncompleted term and won his own term; did not seek another four years in the face of growing anger over the War. Civil Rights awesome. Great Society mixed. Top Twenty. Of all these guys, you will not find a more intriguing figure. Top Five in terms of entertainment value.

RICHARD NIXON. Failed president. All good overshadowed by egregious character. Bottom Five. Reelected to second term but resigned on the eve of imminent impeachment in the light of the Watergate scandal.

GERALD FORD. Okay caretaker. Too brief to rank.

JIMMY CARTER. Failed president. Defeated for reelection. Bottom Ten. Some successes but overshadowed by impotency in the face of failing economy and international affairs. Give him credit for supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan and for Camp David.

RONALD REAGAN. Two-term president. He "won" the Cold War with a departure from the status quo. He presided over a dramatic economic turnaround. He inspired a political realignment--if not revolution. And he restored a flagging American self image. He "made America great again." "Morning in America." Some are good at explaining all of these accomplishments away, but, those counter claims are almost irrelevant, for, even if true, perception is more important than reality in this instance. Top-Twelve president.

GEORGE BUSH 41. (Based on my own criterion, I should not rank him or Reagan because I voted on them—but rules are made to be broken.) Great American. He deserved better than he got (or will get) in terms of recognition. Defeated for reelection. Great pre-presidential career. Great public servant. War hero. Nice guy. Gulf War I (coalition builder). Tax increase. ADA. Some things to hang your hat on. However, he is the only president to go from 88 percent approval rating to 39 percent at election time.

BILL CLINTON. Two-term president. Too soon to comment. I personally recuse myself.

GEORGE BUSH 43. Two-term president? 9-11. War on Terror? Plan to remake the Middle East? Supporting Democracies? No Child Left Behind? Medicare Drug Benefit? Big Government Conservatism? Compassionate Conservatism? We will have to look at all of this stuff twenty years from now and see if he was bold or just stupid.

One more bonus. As long as we are talking presidents, here is a thumbnail on POTUSes and military service. We were certainly concerned about military experience in 2004. We may still be concerned about that in 2008. Here is a quick sketch of presidential war records.

Presidential War Records

Great National War Heroes:
Gen. George Washington
Gen. Andrew Jackson
Gen. William Henry Harrison
Gen. Zachary Taylor
Gen. US Grant
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower

Distinguished or Exemplary Military service:
James Monroe
Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Benjamin Harrison
William McKinley
Teddy Roosevelt
Harry Truman
Jack Kennedy
Gerald Ford
George Bush (41)

Military service:
John Tyler
James K Polk
Gen. Franklin Pierce (undistinguished, as he kept falling off his horse in battle--Mexican War)
James Buchanan (dissented loudly against War of 1812--but fought honorably)
Abe Lincoln
Chet Arthur
Lyndon Johnson (won a sliver star--but see Robert Caro for an alternative history and ugly details; brought back early on FDR's request for Congressman to return to Congress)
Richard Nixon
Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan (bad eyes kept him out of combat--already a movie star--did a lot of Army PR)

No military service:
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
JQ Adams
Martin Van Buren
Millard Fillmore (although he served in CW after his term as pres.)
Andrew Johnson (although he did hold a military rank)
William Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Hoover
FDR (requested active duty during WWI--but was not allowed to leave his post as Asst. Sec'y of Navy)

Controversial Military Service (or evasion of military service):
Grover Cleveland (legally paid a substitute to fight for him in CW)
Bill Clinton
George W. Bush