Ranking the Movie Presidents

Four distinguished historians rate our celluloid Chief Executives

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.


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.

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


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.

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


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.

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


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.

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


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.

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

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