One of the central themes of Gene Healy’s terrific book Cult of the Presidency is that the more U.S. presidents have exceeded their constitutional authority (that is, broke the law) the more enamored historians seem to be with them.
A new paper by David Henderson and Zachary Gochenour makes a blunter point:
In this paper we consider commonalities between highly ranked presidents and compare plausible determinants of greatness according to historians. We find that a strong predictor of greatness is the fraction of American lives lost in war during a president’s tenure. We find this predictor to be robust and compare favorably to other predictors used in previous historical research.
I’ll always remember Bill Clinton’s lament that history robbed him of potential greatness by not giving him a world villain to fight.