Matt Bai complained in the NYT Magazine on Sunday (yeah, as usual I’m a bit behind on the Sunday papers)* about the proposed Ike Memorial, saying “I mean, Ike was a terrific general, but was he really one of our greatest presidents?”
Assuming we’re talking here about just the world of public affairs (so leaving aside Louis Armstrong, Willie Mays, Martin Scorsese, Bob Mould, and other great Americans from other walks of life), are your really going to top Ike? Let’s see…for the twentieth century, the consensus Greatest President is certainly FDR, and there’s probably something very close to a consensus that King is the greatest non-president. Both have memorials. But I think an excellent case can be made for Ike as a logical third choice.
First, his value added as president. It’s pretty high. The consensus of academic and other expert surveys puts him at 5th among 20th century presidents, behind FDR, TR, Wilson, and Truman. Since I think Wilson belongs somewhere, er, below that…I think you can make an argument that Ike is in a group for #2, and it’s hard to argue he’s much lower than 5th. That’s pretty good! But then his value added outside of his presidency is extremely high for a president. Not, I’d say, as high as King. But in a group there of the other important non-presidents of the twentieth century, along with Warren, Humphrey…I don’t know; pick your favorites. Want to argue Thurgood Marshall? George Marshall? Fine, but Ike is going to be at the very least in the running for top ten — this, again, just for outside of his presidency. No? (Remember, we’re just considering public affairs, so no So we have a top-five president who may well be top-five for outside of his presidency as well. Certainly puts him above, say, Truman and TR, not to mention Wilson, at least unless you put a lot of emphasis on having a pre-political career as a political scientist.
Now, I can understand an argument that warriors should be de-emphasized in our political culture, but that would be a real change, for better or worse. And Bai’s concerns about Taft notwithstanding, I don’t think we’ve really gone overboard on twentieth century figures, at least so far. So, yeah, Ike seems like a pretty reasonable choice to me. I don’t know that it’s necessary for him to have a major memorial, but neither do I think of him as a marginal case to celebrate in some serious way.
[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]