Ranking the Movie Presidents

Four distinguished historians rate our celluloid Chief Executives
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In 1948 Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a professor at Harvard, asked fifty-five historians to rate the American Presidents. The results, published in Life magazine, placed Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the top of the list, and Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and Warren G. Harding at the bottom. In 1996 Schlesinger's son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., repeated the exercise.

But these surveys made some grievous omissions: they failed to take the measure of movie Presidents who had—for better or worse—led the nation through moments of great crisis. To address this lacuna, we convened a panel of top historians to rank America's Hollywood Presidents. We asked our historians to use the same categories the Schlesinger surveys did—Great (4 points), Near Great (3), Average (2), Below Average (1), and Failure (-2).

Our board of historians consists of Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University; Robert Dallek, a professor of history at Boston University; David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for history; and Ernest May, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University.

Although for the purposes of this survey we did not include television Presidents, we did ask our historians about President Josiah Bartlet, of The West Wing: he would have topped this list, scoring considerably above Presidents Shepherd and Marshall.

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Name:
Andrew Shepherd
(Michael Douglas) 7 points
The American President, 1995

Film plot:
Widowed President Shepherd must balance his demanding job with his love life. When he falls for a smart and charming lobbyist, his Republican antagonist carps about family values and threatens Shepherd's re-election.

Actions:
Supports environmental bill (promoted by girlfriend) that requires a decrease in fossil-fuel emissions; withdraws his own ineffective crime bill; proclaims love of his country and of his girlfriend in an impromptu speech to the White House press corps.

Historians' evaluations:
"Shepherd deserves high marks for doing the right things in the face of counterpressures," Dallek writes. "He could have been one of JFK's profiles in courage, but a great President has to leave a remarkable legacy. I don't see it here." Near Great

"Shepherd jeopardizes his political future with an ill-timed romance, unrealistically claiming a right to privacy," Brinkley writes. "But he shows courage in changing course, rejecting cynical symbolism, and choosing substance." Average

"Shepherd evidently has no mind of his own," May writes. Below Average

"Shepherd pathetically muddled his personal and private lives," Kennedy argues. "He was a weak leader who succumbed to the admittedly abundant charms of Sydney Ellen Wade [Annette Bening] and made himself a pawn of the environmental movement." Below Average

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Name:
James Marshall
(Harrison Ford) 7 points
Air Force One, 1997

Film plot:
Kazakh hijackers seize the plane carrying the President, but he (an ex-soldier) works from hiding to defeat the terrorists.

Actions:
Outlines a new zero-tolerance policy on terrorism and tyranny; remains on board his hijacked plane to defend his family and the integrity of the nation; hides while his aides are executed; compromises his principles in order to save his wife and daughter.

Historians' evaluations:
Kennedy calls President Marshall a "can-do, take-charge, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy": "Undeterred by the timid counsel—or even the deaths—of his advisers, Marshall provided a model of what single-minded determination can accomplish." Kennedy speculates that Marshall might be a model for our current President Bush. Great

May is similarly admiring ("superb" in the crisis), though he points out that Marshall may have found congressmen and reporters less tractable than the terrorists. Near Great

Brinkley and Dallek have more jaundiced views. Brinkley: "Marshall takes a reckless stand against terrorism without sufficient military or political preparation. He jeopardizes global stability by staying on the plane to save his family." Average

Dallek: "Marshall's personal heroics in defense of his family are no substitute for making his presidential duties his first priority." Failure

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Name:
Thomas J. Whitmore
(Bill Pullman) 6 points
Independence Day, 1996

Film plot:
Enormous spaceships appear on July 2, severely disrupting global communications. After the aliens destroy Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, the President and survivors stage a triumphant counterattack on July 4.

Actions:
Wary of calling for evacuations, waits nearly until first attack before clearing U.S. cities; poorly informed about security and intelligence; delivers moving speech to rally his troops; leads a successful battle against the aliens.

Historians' evaluations:
Brinkley accords greatness to Whitmore for recovering from his Administration's intelligence failures to "show real leadership in the fight for world survival." Great

Dallek's admiration for Whitmore's "ability to rally the country" after the alien invasion is tempered by the President's "failure to evacuate the major cities" quickly enough. Also, Dallek says, "his ignorance of national security speaks poorly of this President's skills and judgment." Near Great

"Whitmore should have stuck to flying airplanes," Kennedy writes. "As President, he dangerously tried to leverage a threat to America's national security into an effort to promote the discredited doctrine of one-worldism." Kennedy deems this President "high on bravura, low on brainpower." Below Average

May faults Whitmore for his initial timidity, likening him to Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan. Failure

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Name:
Jordan Lyman
(Fredric March) 5 points
Seven Days in May, 1964

Film plot:
After the President signs a nuclear- disarmament treaty with the USSR, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs plots a coup. Once convinced of the threat, Lyman quashes the coup and upholds the Constitution.

Actions:
Signs nuclear-disarmament treaty; enlists others to foil coup; thwarts mutinous plotters and forces military insurgents to resign.

Historians' evaluations:
Dallek: Lyman "deserves high marks for upholding the Constitution against a military coup" but low marks for his poor political skills, which prevent him from anticipating the coup or building sufficient public support for the disarmament treaty. Near Great

Brinkley agrees: "Lyman takes a courageous stand against Cold War orthodoxy, although he lacks the political skill to persuade the public to support him." (Brinkley also gives Lyman credit for overturning the coup.) Near Great

Kennedy and May are harsher. "Lyman is rescued from a full Failure ranking," Kennedy declares, "only because he eventually rescued the Constitution. But history judges him to have personally invited the disaster that nearly overcame him by foolishly trying to do business with the Evil Empire." Below Average

May calls Lyman a President "with no sense of the presidency," adding that "he handled the crisis the way Andrew Johnson might have." Failure

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Name:
Leslie McCloud
(Polly Bergen) 4 points
Kisses for My President, 1964

Film plot:
While Leslie McCloud makes history as the first female President, her spouse must cope with his duties as First Man. McCloud's tenure is largely successful, but she resigns when she becomes pregnant.

Actions:
Fends off sexual advances of a Latin American dictator and deplores the undemocratic nature of his government; battles with male members of her Cabinet; combats a Senate subcommittee led by a powerful political enemy who wants to discredit her.

Historians' evaluations:
Kennedy: "McCloud's own most courageous decision while in office deprived her of the chance to be recognized as one of the truly great Presidents. But she easily earns a Near Great ranking by selflessly relinquishing the reins of power, thereby resoundingly reaffirming the supremacy of family values." Near Great

The other historians look less favorably on her decision to step down when she becomes pregnant. "McCloud's status as the first woman President is enough to give her a memorable place in presidential history," Dallek writes. "But if she didn't think she could be both a President and a mother, why did she run for the office in the first place?" Average

"She undermines her achievements by resigning, reinforcing popular ideas of female incapacity," Brinkley writes. Below Average

"She didn't do the job she was elected to do," May concludes. Failure

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Name:
Tom Beck
(Morgan Freeman) 3 points
Deep Impact, 1998

Film plot:
An astronaut crew is sent to blow up a comet heading straight for Earth. When the crew fails, Beck announces that one million Americans will move into giant caves designed to survive the catastrophe.

Actions:
Suppresses news of comet until contingency plans prepared; declares martial law; confronted by a tidal wave that threatens to wipe out the East Coast, selects 200,000 leaders and scientists for underground bunker; initiates national lottery for remaining spots.

Historians' evaluations:
Brinkley ranks President Beck among the greats, saying that "although the real heroes of his presidency are astronauts, Beck deserves credit for not panicking and preparing for contingencies." Great

"The first African-American President," Kennedy writes, "Beck restored the vitality of the Middle American heartland and ended forever the tyranny of the bicoastal elites who for so long corrupted American life, though some would say he paid too high a price for doing so." Near Great

Dallek and May judge Beck poorly for, as Dallek writes, "failing to solve a big problem and then acting in conflict with the country's democratic traditions to give a small part of the population a chance to survive." Failure

"Hoover on a galactic scale," May writes. Failure

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Name:
Robert Fowler
(James Cromwell) 3 points
The Sum of All Fears, 2002

Film plot:
The President of Russia dies and is replaced by a controversial politician. When a bomb explodes at the Super Bowl, Americans quickly blame Russia. Tension escalates before European neo-Nazis are found to be responsible.

Actions:
Survives bombing of Super Bowl; blames Russians for attack; consults with staff to plan U.S. response; withdraws offensive forces and reconciles with Russians—but only after nearly causing nuclear war.

Historians' evaluations:
President Fowler, according to Kennedy, was "an effective crisis manager, but devoid of the vision thing." Average

According to Dallek, though Fowler's "rush to judgment nearly sparked a nuclear war," his restraint ultimately saved the world (and his reputation). Nevertheless, "it is difficult to see anything here that makes him more than an average President." Average

According to Brinkley, Fowler's standing was hurt by his "demagogic recklessness" in responding to the terrorist detonation before pulling back in the face of new evidence. Below Average

May: Fowler damaged his reputation by "leaping before looking." Failure

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Name:
Dave Kovic
(Kevin Kline) 1 point
Dave, 1993

Film plot:
A look-alike is hired to impersonate the President and, when the President suffers a stroke, is asked to stay on indefinitely. The double, Dave Kovic, takes over the presidency and immediately sets the body politic in order.

Actions:
Micromanages budget in order to pay for programs that combat homelessness; entertains a lonely child at a shelter; makes Dagwood sandwiches for a Secret Service agent.

Historians' evaluations:
Though the typical American may have been impressed by Dave's ability to solve so many policy problems so quickly, our historians were dismayed by his willingness to ignore the Constitution by serving as Chief Executive in the Vice President's stead when the President was incapacitated. May refuses to rank Kovic at all, on the grounds that he was never actually the President.

Brinkley writes that Kovic "deserves low marks for his fraudulent assumption of office," but grants that he does redeem himself somewhat by giving up that office voluntarily. Average

Kennedy writes that Kovic's "performance was easily trumped by that of the only other unelected President, Gerald Ford, who, unlike Kovic, had the good sense to do nothing while in office." Below Average

Dallek: "Did Dave never hear of the Constitution and the elected Vice President's right to replace the incapacitated President?" Failure

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Name:
Merkin Muffley
(Peter Sellers) -3 points
Dr. Strangelove, 1964

Film plot:
A psychotic general schemes to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. Muffley attempts to thwart the plan, but a series of missteps lead to nuclear disaster.

Actions:
Warns Soviet Premier of impending attack; learns of Soviet defense mechanism—a doomsday device; initiates a nearly successful recall of bombers; gives no forethought to bunkers.

Historians' evaluations:
May gives this President the second highest rating, explaining that Muffley "faced one great crisis and concentrated on it." Near Great

The others deem him a failure. Dallek says, "He lost control of his Administration and was unable to rein in the renegade generals." Failure

Brinkley calls Muffley "well-meaning but ineffectual," and says that Muffley's weakness "produced epic global catastrophe." Failure

Kennedy calls Muffley "a pathetically moralizing do-gooder who dithered away a matchless opportunity to end the Cold War and the Soviet Union with a single bold stroke." Failure

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Name:
The President
(Henry Fonda) -3 points
Fail-Safe, 1964

Film plot:
American nuclear bombers are accidentally sent on an irreversible mission to obliterate Moscow. The President must convince the Soviets that it's a mistake in order to avert a global nuclear holocaust.

Actions:
Confers about prospect of nuclear war; attempts to persuade a pilot to abort bombing mission; negotiates with Soviet Premier; sends planes to destroy errant U.S. bombers; agrees to destroy New York City as penitence for destroying Moscow.

Historians' evaluations:
Brinkley thinks highly of this President. "Faced with a possible nuclear holocaust, the President selflessly sacrifices electoral votes in New York by nuking Manhattan to avoid a wider war. But he does deserve some responsibility for creating the crisis in the first place." Near Great

May thinks this President allowed himself to be imprisoned by circumstances, "like Buchanan or Hoover." Failure

Dallek says that the President "would have been better advised to promise Moscow full reparations and help in rebuilding the devastation caused by our attack, rather than promising to destroy New York City." Failure

Kennedy writes that the President "paid an enormous price for his cheese-paring budget policies that fatally degraded the military's command-and-control structure." Unlike Brinkley, Kennedy believes it was foolish for the President to "permanently lose New York's votes for his party." Failure

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Name:
The President
(Alan Alda) -3 points
Canadian Bacon, 1995

Film plot:
The President's popularity begins falling because of high unemployment and an overall economic downturn. In order to boost his poll numbers he starts a war with Canada.

Actions:
Pushes the United States toward war with Canada; initiates anti-Canadian propaganda campaign; fails to prevent factory closings, offering inspiring Bob Dylan quotations to unemployed workers.

Historians' evaluations:
"The only President to give Canada its due," Kennedy writes, "and therein lies the measure of both his achievement and his failing. He had an acute sense of the role of foreign policy in defining a President's historical reputation. He falls short of greatness only because he did not take up arms against a more formidable foe." Near Great

Dallek accuses this President of operating outside the Constitution. Failure

Brinkley agrees, describing the President as "a feckless leader trading on cynical charm" who deserves impeachment. Failure

May says that if Richard Nixon had been as bad as the worst of the Nixon haters thought him to be, he would have been like this President. Failure

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