The Right Way to Measure Presidential Success

To most Americans, the seven presidents who led the nation in these years of peace, prosperity and undeniable progress remain obscure or unknown mediocrities.

As long ago as 1935, the novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote about four chief executives in this group as "The Four Lost Men": "Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and Hayes -- time of my father's time, blood of his blood, life of his life, had been living, real, and actual people in all the passion, power and feeling of my father's youth. And for me they were the lost Americans: their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea-depths of a past intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable as the buried city of Persepolis. And they were lost."

This unjust disregard of the national leaders of the Gilded Age reflects the distorting statist bias among historians for whom the only accomplishments that count are the achievements of government. Without question, the major successes of the 30 years between 1870 and 1900 involved private business and individual initiative, rather than government programs or Washington, D.C. decisions.

But the presidents of the period displayed the consistent good judgment to avoid interfering with the creative energies of the market place or trying to "manage" (and thereby stifle) the nation's explosive growth. Despite passionate debates over tariffs and currency, the chief executives of that span consistently illustrated the wisdom in Jefferson's maxim about "that government governs best which governs least."

For the most part, they left major challenges to states, localities, corporations and individuals and Americans of every walk of life rose to the occasion.

Compare our current respect for a miserably failed leader like Jimmy Carter to the indifferent or contemptuous attitude to vastly more successful politicians like Grant, Hayes, Garfield and company.

The latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows that Americans rank Carter as "outstanding/above average" rather than "below average/poor" by a ratio of 38 percent to 22 percent. But by what standard did the pathetic, out-of-his-depth Georgian leave the nation better off than the way he found it?

Carter presided over appalling foreign policy disasters (Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua) and drove the U.S. economy to its gravest crisis since the Great Depression, with interest rates and inflation in double digits and unemployment of more than 8 percent. No wonder he lost 44 states in his feckless bid for re-election!

Michael Medved, best-selling author of "Right Turns" and "The Shadow Presidents," hosts a syndicated daily radio talk show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture. He blogs at

Those who express affection or admiration for Jimmy Carter may concentrate on his active (and controversial) life as an ex-president but they can hardly defend his administration in terms of the national welfare during his years in the White House.

By the same token, those who insist on describing George W. Bush as "the worst president in American history" clearly apply some standard of their own with no connection to the real well-being of the country.

After more than six years of Bush, America remains prodigiously powerful and fabulously fortunate, reaching the highest-ever levels of homeownership and college enrollment (to use two measures that touch people personally).

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