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What Makes a Great President Great?


George W. Bush only ranks 34th in the recent surveys of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Since there are but 40-43 of these magnificents in total, Dubya is way down there. Why?

What is greatness in a U.S. President, hereafter simply called a President? There is no scientific definition, although the more scholarly polls have criteria of greatness. These need not detain us. The polls themselves tell us what Americans think makes a great President, and it is against the implicit criterion that we observe in the data that we discover that Dubya’s low standing is an anomaly.

The data on the greats that I use are from Wikipedia. The right hand column has aggregate rankings over all the polls. Guess who is number 1? Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas DiLorenzo published books debunking Lincoln in 2003 and 2006 (see here and here). These have had no perceptible influence on the polling results, not yet. I shall explain why they have had no influence.

The key fact about Lincoln is that he presided over the country during a terrible war. Wartime Presidents are regarded by Americans as the greatest Presidents. That is what we discover when we examine the polls. Time and again, Americans revere wartime Presidents. That’s the essence of my theory. To Americans, a great President is heavily associated with war.

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