A biographer alone can't make a president great Excellence: Pundits' and public's passions are fickle, but perspective comes only with time.


In his 1982 memoir "Keeping Faith," Jimmy Carter recalled a White House banquet in the last week of his presidency: "Slava Rostropovich [the Russian cellist and human rights advocate] gave an excellent little speech pointing out that the masses of the people were often wrong. He pointed out that the masses made a mistake on Nov. 4, as they had when they rejected Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, rejected 'La Traviata' and 'Tosca.' said history was going to treat my administration the same way they did Verdi, Puccini and Beethoven. It was beautiful."

Beautiful -- but wrong.

Next year, the first volume of the first serious, scholarly attempt at a definitive biography of Carter will appear. Its author has a relatively high opinion of the Jimmy Carter presidency, but even he is not going to elevate Carter's reputation into the upper reaches. Couldn't if he wanted to.

That's Jimmy Carter the president. Jimmy Carter the non-president is another matter. The author, Douglas Brinkley, will confirm - underline, cement - the public's perception that as an ex-president and, to lesser degree as a pre-president, Jimmy Carter was an extraordinary and admirable person. In fact, the volume to be published next year is "Jimmy Carter: The Post-Presidential Years" (Random House). Then, in 1998, will come what would ordinarily be the opening volume of a multi-volume work, Carter in his pre-presidential years. Then, in 1999, the Carter presidency.

Volumes one and two are done. Brinkley says he expects to have number three completed in two years. He seems already to have outlined it in his own mind and come to conclusions. He delivered a lecture last March in which he predicted Carter would rise in the public's and in historians' assessments.

He based this on a more favorable reading of the Carter presidency than the public or most historians, political scientists and political journalists would give. But he based it more, as I read the lecture, on the Carter endeavors in the years since that Rostropovich toast. When Brinkley did praise President Carter it was along the lines that "he tackled difficult issues head on, indifferent to public opinion polls and pundit critiques."

Even if I weren't an ex-pundit, I would find that sentence troubling. A national leader indifferent to public opinion is never going to be successful in a democracy. Nor in history's perspective. (There's one glaring exception to that rule, which I'll get to a moment.)

In fact, Carter's reputation as a president has risen in recent years - but it had and still has a long way to go. In a poll of more than 800 academic specialists in American history and political science published in 1982, Carter was rated 25th among then-36 (Abraham Lincoln first; Warren Harding last). A similar poll published in 1995 had Carter up to 19th (with the same winner and loser). Nineteenth is not bad, but it is hardly Beethoven-esque. He still lags both the Adamses, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and James Polk, all of whom, like Carter, served significantly less than two terms.

He also lags well behind Harry Truman, who served only a month less than two terms, and who is the exception to the rule I mentioned above. Truman was rated seventh in the 1995 poll, eighth in the 1982 poll. Yet he left office with a favorable public opinion rating of only 25 percent. In that regard Carter was Trumanesque.

Truman has been most fortunate in his biographers. Robert Donovan's two-volume work dealing with his presidency, "Conflict and Crisis" and "Tumultuous Years," and David McCulloch's "Truman" and Alonzo Hamby's "Man of the People" were all positive in varying degrees. But many academics and the general public had gone from mild to wild about Harry before those books were published. The books had slight influence on his reputation. Truman was ranked ninth in a 1962 poll of academics.

Though Truman's personality in office and after seems to be what the public finds most attractive, academics and journalists who play the rankings game focus on the White House record first and foremost. The man who followed Truman had an attractive personality, too, but historians who have continually upgraded his ranking did so on the basis of studies of his #F presidential years. Dwight Eisenhower did nothing really significant - positive or negative - after the White House in the realm of public affairs.

A look at the presidential polls of 1982 and 1995 show Ike moving up from to 11th to ninth. It helped that Stephen Ambrose concluded in his 1984 book "Eisenhower the President" that Ike was a very effective (and lucky) president. But Ike's real move up - from 22nd to 11th - occurred between the 1962 and 1982 polls.

Relative greatness

Could Douglas Brinkley help Jimmy Carter take such a rocket ride upward? It would be a slight irony were he to. He is the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. He recently succeeded Stephen Ambrose in that post.

I assume, based on his lecture referred to above and on a couple of telephone interviews I recently had with him, that he will at least argue in volume three that Carter was a better president than the public and the pundits credited him with being during his tenure and in the decade and a half since.

But he said an intriguing thing to me at one point. "No one will ever make the claim that Jimmy Carter was a great president, as some will about Ronald Reagan."

Reagan's reputation as a president who had a great impact on government and national life is not very good among academics generally. That 1995 poll put him at 24th -- five spots behind Carter. Reagan may rise in the future, if the pundits warm up to him and if he gets the right biographers.

The first is doubtful (I know pundits) but scholars are awaiting a big biography of Reagan by Edmund Morris. He is the author of a highly regarded and massive biography of Theodore Roosevelt's pre-presidential years ("The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt"). He probably is going to be positive in his assessment of Reagan, which he expects to finish next year.

He declined to comment to me "on a work in progress." But he was given the enormous advantage over other biographers of personal access to Reagan, beginning during his second term in the White House and continuing until the former president's Alzheimer's became advanced. Without in any way suggesting this access compromises his integrity, it is fair to conclude that he would not have been granted it if Ronald and Nancy Reagan had suspected he might be adversarial. (The same can be said of the Brinkley project. He was granted interviews with Jimmy Carter.)

Time heals

Because biographers as often follow public - and scholarly - opinion as they shape it, it is as a rule unlikely that a biographer will rescue a president from a poor reputation. At least a relatively recent president. Ancient history may be another matter.

The theory that a lowly regarded president of long ago can become revered because of a book about him is likely to be tested in a few years. That president is Herbert Hoover, and the biographer is George H. Nash.

Nash has been at work for 21 years on what is sure to be the definitive life of Hoover. The third volume, "The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918" (W.W. Norton, 656 pages $45), came out this fall. It ends 11 years short of the onset of the Hoover presidency. This is not a book I would recommend for summer reading at the beach, but it is a remarkable and, to me, engrossing description of Hoover both as a human being and as a master bureaucrat soldiering on the peace front during World War I. And it is not only a "life" but a "times."

When Nash finally gets to Hoover's presidency, and if he is as positive about that as he is about the run-up to it, maybe Hoover's reputation (he always ranks around 20th in academic polls) will move up.

My guess is, though, that Hoover and Carter, admirably decent and humane engineers and businessmen and public servants before and after the White House, whose presidencies were regarded as failures at the time, will both remain around the 20th ranking they currently occupy.

Not Beethovens. Not Puccinis. Not Verdis. Not Trumans.

Theo Lippman Jr., a retired editorial writer and columnist for The Sun, is the author of several political biographies, including "The Squire of Warm Springs," about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is ranked second to Abraham Lincoln by American academics.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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