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UIC News Tips
University of Illinois at Chicago Office of Public Affairs (MC 288)
601 S. Morgan St., Chicago, IL 60607-7113, (312) 996-3456, www.uic.edu/depts/paff

October 6, 2000 Contact: Bryant Payne (312) 355-2523; bpayne2@uic.edu
Margaret McCarthy (312) 996-8279; mmm@uic.edu

SCHOLARS RANK THE BEST AND WORST U.S. PRESIDENTS

The University of Illinois at Chicago recently gathered a nationwide panel of 75 distinguished scholars to explore the characteristics of what separates the great presidents from the not-so-greats and complete a survey that evaluates presidential leadership, job performance and historical impact.

The survey will be discussed in detail at the two-day symposium, "The Modern Presidency: FDR to Clinton," Oct. 13-14 at the Chicago Illini Union, 828 S. Wolcott Ave. Free and open to the public, the symposium will provide voters with a timely discussion of the limitations and possibilities in modern America.

"This study evaluates the effectiveness of the modern presidents, in a more objective and scholarly approach to analyzing performance in office," said Fred Beuttler, associate UIC historian. "By examining several facets, we hope to provide better and broader criteria for judging past presidents, which hopefully will help the public in this upcoming election."

Scholars were asked to choose the 10 best chief executives and rate 39 presidents on a five-point rating system in five categories -- leadership, foreign policy, domestic policy, character and impact. The overall ranking is based on the total.

"The polls show that many scholars believe that the most effective modern presidents, from FDR to Clinton, were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower," said Melvin Holli, professor of history at UIC. "However, when these same scholars were asked to name the 10 best overall chief executives, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt were named."

President Clinton's overall ranking fell in the middle of the nation's presidents. Clinton received high marks for political leadership, but low ratings for character brought down his overall score. "Predictably, many of the scholars polled were rather harsh on Clinton, giving him a ranking in 'character' as one of the worst presidents, surpassed by only Nixon and Harding," said Beuttler. "On the other hand, he was ranked quite high on political leadership and his domestic policy accomplishments."

When asked about the current and past presidents, some scholars surveyed had this to say:

University of Texas government professor Walter Dean Burnham:
On Carter:
"Incapable of working effectively with heavily democratic congress [and] no clear agenda, when you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."
On Bush:
"He lacked 'the vision thing' and knew it. No domestic agenda."

University of Texas historian Robert Divine:
On Reagan:
"He made the presidency an effective office again and helped pave the way for the end of the Cold War".
On Clinton:
"A tragic waste of great political talent His contemporary popularity, like that of Coolidge in the 1920s, was largely the result of a fortuitous economic boom."

Columbia University historian Henry Graff:
On Clinton:
"He wasted a historic opportunity during a great period of peace and prosperity to solve a variety of domestic problems."

Ohio University historian Joan Hoff:
On Clinton:
"He squandered his understandings of foreign and domestic problems by refusing to make hard decisions on controversial domestic issues and making too-little-too-late decisions in foreign policy."

Russell Weigley of Temple University:
On Kennedy:
"One of the most effective presidents, less for his accomplishment than for challenging the nation to be better in aspiring to realize its highest aspirations."
On Clinton:
"His personal failings compromised any accomplishments he managed, [for] he always had trouble in keeping to a consistent policy course."

View the complete list rating the 39 U.S. presidents.

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