As a prelude to his disquisition about how careful historians are when they think about ranking presidents, Wilentz writes this puzzling sentence:
From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all.
So, which is it? Is it serious work by a historian using his professional expertise to answer a burning question? Or, is it just the compilation of the "idle" thoughts of a historian off the clock?
To answer these questions, we must ask another: what is it that separates the historian from the history lover, the political scientist from the politically attentive, the scholar from the buff? It is not the title of "professor," it is not the number of books from prestigious publishers, it is not the doctoral degree hanging on the wall. It is only this: the scholar uses a method of inquiry that the buff does not, and he operates in a community where adherence to that method is (or at least should be) of paramount importance. This, and this alone, is what should endow the social scientist, as opposed to the buff, with the status of "expert." The social scientist has spent time thinking not just about the question at hand, but also how to think about the question at hand.
This is why I was so aggrieved to read Wilentz's piece. He is a great historian who should know better than to devolve into the idle speculations of the history buff - but that is exactly what he does.
This becomes evident with a careful reading of his eighth paragraph. Wilentz gives three criteria for differentiating the good president from the bad. These are: (1) did they divide or unite the nation? (2) did they govern erratically or "brilliantly"? (3) did they leave the nation more or less secure? I shall take these as they are given - but I will say that I have serious objections to all three (particularly the second, which seems to present a false dichotomy and, with "brilliant," uses a word so hackneyed that it is almost bereft of meaning).
It would seem to me that using the above criteria Abraham Lincoln would not come off so well.
Great presidents have done some very unpopular things, in fact often that is what makes them great. The Jay Treaty was wildly unpopular, but it was necessary. George Washington did what was best for the country in the long term. But it was divisive in its time.
Let us imagine that Al Gore had been given the keys to the White House. The Court had gone his way. What then? Would Republicans have felt he belonged there? And when those planes hit those buildings on that September morning who would have been held responsible? After all the Democrats would not have had Bush to make movies about and cast blame on. No the buck would have stopped with Al Gore. Am I supposed to believe that would have made me more secure or the country more unified or for that matter that Al Gore was capable of brilliant rather than "erratic" rule?
I think it is too soon to know what kind of president George Bush has been, but I think we are forgetting that we the People bear some responsibility for our country as well.