The dog that did not bark – a new look at presidential greatness

A new study on presidential greatness revisits some of the ground that has been covered in this blog. While authors David Henderson and Zachary Gochenour use data that have been utilized before, most prominently by Dean K. Simonton, they add the new variable of American lives lost during a president’s tenure. The main finding is that this variable is a strong predictor of presidential greatness – as ranked by historians. I’ll report in more detail, especially as I take issue with some of the older variables, but here is a telling excerpt that features our own favorite president:

(…) historians do tend to think a president is greater if, all other things equal, he has made “tough” decisions. Tough decisions often involve getting the United States into costly wars or, if other countries’ governments have initiated, not avoiding wars. Consider, for example, the following quote from law professor John O. McGinnis: “To be sure, Coolidge was not a truly great president, like Washington or Lincoln. While he successfully handled small foreign policy crises in China, Mexico, and Nicaragua without saddling the United States with permanent and expensive commitments, he was never tested by a substantial foreign war.”

McGinnis is a law professor, not an historian, but the tone of these remarks is similar to that of many historians. McGinnis judges Coolidge negatively because he was never “tested” by substantial foreign wars, rather than positively for having kept the United States out of major wars. McGinnis and many historians commit the mistake highlighted by 19th century economic journalist Frederic Bastiat of not paying attention to “what is not seen.” In this case the unseen is the wars that various presidents could have inserted the United States into but didn’t. Or, to take an analogy, when a president avoids war, it is like the clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze:” the clue was that the dog didn’t bark. It takes a clever man like Holmes to realize that the dog’s not barking is what’s important. It takes an historian different from the usual to realize that a president’s decisions that helped make a war not happen are also evidence of leadership and greatness.

As Zachary Karabell, biographer of president Chester A. Arthur has written: “Presidents who govern during a time of calm and prosperity often suffer the barbs of history. They are remembered as bland.” This indeed troubling. As the authors of the new study conclude:

Most presidents, after all, probably want to be thought of as great. When they spend resources on war, they are spending almost entirely other people’s money – and lives. They get little credit for avoiding war. Martin van Buren, for example, effectively avoided a war on the northern border of the United States. How many people know that today? Indeed, how many people have even heard of Martin van Buren? (…) We should stop celebrating, and try to stop historians from celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn’t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted.

If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.