More Death = “Better” Presidents

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

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.

(Hat tip.)

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25 Responses to “More Death = “Better” Presidents”

  1. #1 |  pichachu | 

    Where would the yankees be without the red sox? Where would Ali have been without Frazier? Historians are pretty shallow if they judge president’s this way but Clinton was right.

    In history look at Richard the first of England. A horrible King who persecuted the Jews out of the country and got the nation in miserable debt and spent only a few months in England itself because his entire reign was spent overseas pursuing pointless wars for personal glory and yet he has a statue in Trafaglar square and is known today as Richard the lion hearted or more often “good King Richard.”

  2. #2 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    I’ve suspected for a long time that when “great” is applied to politicians and government leaders, part of it means “got a lot of people killed”.

  3. #3 |  Warren Bonesteel | 

    History is replete with such ‘greatness.’

    Keeping well in mind that the winners write the histories, of course. If Hitler had won WWII, in their history, the Allies would be the bad guys and evil beyond belief… If Alexander had been defeated by the Persians…Alexander would not now be known as “The Great.”

    If the Russian Februrary ‘revolution’ of 1917 had succeeded…Kerensky would’ve been “The Great” leader.

    In our own history, G. Washington and fellows – if they had lost – would be remembered as failed revolutionaries and not as heroes. King George would be known as “The Great Hero.”

    Lincoln would be known as an evil dictator and failed tyrant had he lost the Civil War.

    Question everything. Look at things from an entirely different pov.

    Our human civilization is founded upon blood and death…and lies, fraud, cheating and theft.

    We need to re-think everything we think we know and take for granted.

  4. #4 |  CyniCAl | 

    Correlation is not causation.

  5. #5 |  FridayNext | 

    Warren: Point taken. On the other hand, how does that explain the near deification of Confederate Generals in the South. Major losers one and all, yet statues aplenty.

  6. #6 |  FridayNext | 

    Cynical: Maybe, but even in non-political professions and walks of life we tend to remember and admire people who attempt great things or react well to exceptional events. Someone who spends their life quietly tending their own garden will be quickly forgotten.

  7. #7 |  Jack Dempsey | 

    For those who have not had the opportunity, Cult of the Presidency is a great book and well worth the read.

  8. #8 |  CJ | 

    Nice try at smearing Clinton, but he was merely recognizing perception.

    “The question now is how to persuade people they could do things when they are not immediately threatened.”

    His desire to be great was backed up by a sense of duty, rather than, let’s just say, the cynical narcissism of an incompetent like W, who actually followed through on manufacturing a villain.

  9. #9 |  Jerryskids | 

    Well, damn, I got sucked in by the headline. I thought “More Death = Better President” was somebody finally agreeing with me that the best president we ever had was William Henry Harrison.

  10. #10 |  Waste93 | 

    And what villain did Bush ’43 invent? Osama bin Laden? They guy behind the 1993 WTC attack? The Khobar towers attack in ’96? The USS Cole bombing in ’00? The US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in ’00? Who was President during those and during the time the 9/11/01 was being planned for the most part? Clinton had an opportunity and reason to go after OBL prior to Bush ’43 but he seemed to have failed to do so.

    Clinton was not driven by a sense of duty. He was driven by a sense of self and ego. And he wanted something to be remembered for besides Monica Lewinsky.

  11. #11 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Just think, if instead of doing his damndest to ignore any and all opportunities to fight terrorism, Clinton had reacted to the first attack on the World Trade Center by chasing the terrorists back up into the trees, he would be as well though of as George Bush!

    Wait a minute……

  12. #12 |  Scott Lazarowitz | 

    It takes loyal underlings to carry out the presidents’ crimes. Laurence Vance wrote an article along this theme: “U.S. Presidents and Those Who Kill for Them”:

  13. #13 |  Chris | 

    Clinton had a major enemy to overcome and he lost to that enemy in a major way.

    Clinton’s greatest enemy was his own hubris and he lost because he thought he could get away with lying so much to the constituency.

    Who needs a “bad guy” when your character flaw is more diabolical than all of history’s plethora of villains?

    It is a lesson that Obama needs to take to heart because his own worst enemy is HIS hubris. That the media chooses not to go after his multiple public lies is only going to lead him further and further into the trap of being the worst president in U.S. history.

  14. #14 |  el coronado | 

    So if the notion of ‘Gittin us in a War is what makes a President Great’ is wrong, might not the opposite be true also? Look at the standard-issue list of ‘worst’ Presidents. You see the same names again & again: Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, Harding, Hoover, Nixon, & Carter. (We’ll stop in 1979 so as not to inflame current passions.)

    Most seem to be considered ‘bad’ because their administrations were tarnished by some kind of scandal/screwup, true. But off the top of my head, I don’t *think* any of ’em took us into war, either. Hmmm.

    (Note: gotta be intellectually honest, and historically accurate: Whatever else one might say about the other gents listed above, Buchanan and Carter weren’t nothing but World Class Fuckups, and will rightly be forever stuck with the job of ‘pissboy’ in Presidential Valhalla. The worst *possible* idiots seem to arise at the worst *possible* time.)(cue comparisons to present day.)

  15. #15 |  Mattocracy | 

    I think Carter is a perfect example of why people like him aren’t considered great presidents. On the one hand, you can say that Carter had no wars, no real scandal, wasn’t caught fucking people he shouldn’t have been or did anything grossly unconstitutional. But a lot of people see that as a lack of balls. No balls, no worship.

  16. #16 |  Mattocracy | 

    Not that I’m a huge Carter fan. I think the only reason he was elected was because the Nixon resignation caused people to go for the exact opposite of Tricky Dick.

  17. #17 |  EH | 

    My impression is that Carter was the most book-smart President. How that affects your sense of having “balls,” is up to you.

    That said, historians have a conflict of interest here, because a President exceeding their authority gives historians more to write about.

  18. #18 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Grant’s stock is rising. He’s getting major points as historians revisit his handling the overeager “we gotta punish those Johnny Rebs” people in his own party, and his putting down the first iteration of the KKK.

  19. #19 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 


    Over the years I have come to the conclusion that Carter was scr*wed by history. In the aftermath of Watergate the Democrats felt that they could win if they nominated a talking dog, and (by my reading of accounts of the campaign) the major factions of the party could not agree on whose turn it was, so Carter got the nomination as a compromise candidate that nobody on his own side was thrilled with. So he arrived in DC with his own party controling Congress, but seriously cheesed off that He was in the White House and not some other Democrat. He had no allies in Congress, and (I’m told) lacked the charm to heal the rifts in his party. He was, effectively, a third Party President.

    If the Democrats had closed ranks behind him he might have been just as ineffectual a President. He was on the receiving end of an economic train wreck that had been rolling down the tracks since the Kennedy Administration, and he held the wrong economic views to do what Reagan did that (seems to have) fixed it. He had a military that was demoralized and blunted, and so in no way ready to respond to the Hostage Crisis. But I know one thing he gets stuck with the blame for that is A) not his fault and B) not really a failure. He let the Panama Canal go, because it was the end of the U.S. lease period, and there was no strategic reason to keep it – you can’t get a carrier group through the locks.

    I think that Carter gets the blame for some things beyond his control, for the intransigence of his Party in Congress, and for not walking on water after the Watergate mess. I think that the lack of respect he got as President has made him more than a little neurotic, too. He wasn’t as bad as, say, James Buchanan (who fiddled while the Union smoldered) or Andrew Johnson (who thought that Lincoln’s death made him God’s wrathful deputy).

    I think Jug-ears, I mean Obama, is getting stiffed, too. He was thrust into an office for which he had scant qualifications. His party had demonized his predecessor to an amazing degree, yet in too many cases Obama had little choice but to continue where Bush left off. He seems, frankly, to be so far in over his head that the fish swimming around his shoes generate their own light.

    But my frank reaction to the outcome of every election since I started paying attention (1972) has been “Oh you poor bastard. You wanted it, and now you’ve got it.”

  20. #20 |  NMissC (Tom Freeland) | 

    I’ve wondered why people who link this chart don’t start questioning its conclusions by the fact that George Washington is ranked in deaths per capita with Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Washington? He gets that rank by counting the deaths in the Revolutionary War. That is completely bogus.

    If you zero out his Military Deaths Per Capita, then he’s over there on the other side of the graph with him near the top and Buchannan at the bottom (where he deserves to be, yet not credited with any of the Civil War deaths he helped provoke).

    Then suddenly you have two presidents with very high ratings but low deaths (Washington, Teddy Roosevelt). I haven’t done the calculation, but would bet that the fitted value line that supports their conclusion would go pretty flat and no longer support it.

    There’s also this: The “greatness as president” evaluation has a lot to do with handling crisis. Lincoln gets at the top for that. Franklin Roosevelt had two (and Hoover and Buchannan get pretty far down there for handling their respective crises so badly).

  21. #21 |  NMissC (Tom Freeland) | 

    After “explaining” why Washington gets charged with the Revolution but T.R. doesn’t with the Spanish American War and Eisenhower doesn’t with WWII (they don’t mention Grant and the Civil War), they do make this observation: “The reader will certainly note some arbitrariness here.”

    No joke.

  22. #22 |  Andrew Roth | 

    The rest of you can give me as much flak as you want for saying this, but I consider Carter an underrated president. He was hamfisted on foreign affairs (e.g., the Iran hostage crisis) and the economy, and his micromanagement of the White House was a pathetic waste of time, but I have to give him credit for being one of our most honest presidents and for having a mostly functional moral compass. Since the presidency has been held or sought by so many pathological liars and moral degenerates, I mean this as genuine praise. Carter is a good model for leadership that is decent, in every sense of the word.

    The cult of Reagan, on the other hand, has turned into a sickening Orwellian scam. Reagan was a great diplomat and a very effective negotiator with Congress. Yet instead of praising him for what he actually did as president, the right wing has fabricated a self-serving hagiography based on its own policy objectives, studiously ignoring instances in which Reagan pursued opposite policies. The “Great Communicator” meme is overwrought, too. By the time he publicly addressed Iran-Contra, Reagan was either descending into senile dementia or playing the part masterfully in order to evade responsibility for a deal that made him look bad. Either way, his response when called out was terrible.

    Speaking of things that Bill Clinton was robbed of, I have to add my favorite: cake. Or, as the Big Dog called it, “my fucking cake.” According to a former White House pastry chef, Clinton came into the kitchen one morning to finish some leftover cake from the previous night. When the pastry chef told him that he had thrown it out because it was a day old and he was making fresh desserts, Clinton pounded his fist on a table and yelled, “I want my fucking cake!” This story is consistent with others about the Clintons treating the permanent staff like shit, e.g., the Travel Office bloodbath. They’re much more revealing of moral character than voyeuristic tales of cigars, semen stains and, forgive the crude pun, interns-cum-mistresses.

  23. #23 |  freedomfan | 


    Nice try at smearing Clinton, but he was merely recognizing perception.

    Nothing in Radley’s post smeared Clinton, and neither did anything in Healy’s linked Examiner op-ed. Seems like you are inventing an anti-Clinton strawman to justify your anti-W rant.

    BTW, I have no issue with Clinton’s desire to be well-remembered or his observation that a President can push more of his agenda through when the populace is frightened of something. Combined with a opposition party congress, Clinton’s presidency seems like the least harmful of the last three (excepting the Stephen Breyer confirmation). And, I certainly have no admiration for W’s overreach in the name of security (or for his presidency as a whole, but that’s another topic). Frankly, I doubt that anyone even vaguely familiar with Radley or Healy’s writing would conclude they were pro-W, unless the conclusion was drawn from blind political tribalism.

  24. #24 |  Andrew Roth | 

    Re: #5:

    Good point. Southerners have never been ones to let the Damn Yankees force their victor’s history on the country. This has been a mixed blessing. It keeps good men like Robert E. Lee from getting the Benedict Arnold treatment in the history books, but it also gives cover for the cryptoracist asshattery that has become synonymous with the Confederate Battle Flag, especially for Northerners. Lee actively opposed that sort of bigotry; his latter-day aficionados, not so much.

    I’m reminded of a poem that I saw on a friend’s Facebook wall. That friend’s profile has been deactivated, so only Mark Zuckerberg and the NSA can read the poem now, but it goes something like this:

    “The South shall rise again,
    clad in low-rise jeans,
    Shenandoah sloping to luscious greens,
    Washington, the crack.”

    Also, if anyone needs proof that Lincoln was a great president, behold:

  25. #25 |  James | 

    Kings are popular.