The Presidents: History's Judgment
(TIME, April 13) -- When TIME asked nine presidential historians to rank, from best to worst, the 17 American Presidents of the 20th century, we left some questions to their discretion: What do we expect from our leaders? Are effective Presidents also the most significant ones? What constitutes greatness? Here is our panel's consensus:
1 FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
Chief accomplishments: Rescued country from Depression; led U.S. through its greatest foreign war
Biggest blunder: Tried to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937
Historians' comments: "Changed the landscape of American life"; "In a class by himself"; "Indisputably the century's greatest"
2 THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Chief accomplishments: Busted trusts; expanded public lands; increased U.S. influence abroad
Biggest blunder: Somewhat unlawful meddling in Latin America
Historians' comments: "The great prophet of affirmative government"; "The best example of an 'activist' President. Bully!"
3 WOODROW WILSON
Chief accomplishments: Created Federal Reserve System; led country through World War I and devised League of Nations
Biggest blunder: Failed to secure domestic support for League
Historians' comment: "A great visionary who presided over major domestic advances"
4 HARRY S TRUMAN
Chief accomplishments: Launched Marshall Plan, NATO; desegregated armed services
Biggest blunder: Overreached in the Korean War
Historians' comments: "Architect of the winning strategy in the cold war"; "A decent human being with homespun virtues"
5 DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
Chief accomplishment: Quietly presided over period of peace and unprecedented prosperity
Biggest blunder: Reluctance to tackle civil rights issues
Historians' comments: "Articulated clearly the values shared by Americans"; "No hint of scandal either. The good old days"
6 RONALD REAGAN
Chief accomplishments: Confronted Soviet threat; gutted Great Society programs
Biggest blunders: Iran-contra; national debt; "We begin bombing in five minutes..."
Historians' comments: "Brought about sea change"; "Maybe ended the cold war"; "Jury still out"
7 LYNDON B. JOHNSON
Chief accomplishments: Passed Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act
Biggest blunder: Vietnam War
Historians' comments: "America would have found a way to give blacks the vote without him, but don't ask me how"; "Greatest domestic legislator in history"
8 JOHN F. KENNEDY
Chief accomplishments: Inspired nation and created Peace Corps; defused Cuban missile crisis
Biggest blunders: Bay of Pigs; increased involvement in Vietnam
Historians' comments: "Might be first-tier if he had lived longer"; "Averted a nuclear war"; "Foreign policies were disastrous"
9 GEORGE BUSH
Chief accomplishment: Assembled international coalition in Gulf War
Biggest blunders: Broke "no new taxes" pledge; made few domestic initiatives amid recession
Historians' comments: "A skilled and decent administrator"; "Lacked the 'vision thing'"
10 BILL CLINTON*
Chief accomplishments: Signed balanced-budget deal; ended federal welfare guarantee
Biggest blunders: Failed to pass health-care plan; Administration plagued by scandal
Historians' comments: "Jury out here too--maybe literally!"
*Only seven opinions given
11 WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT
Chief accomplishment: Signed many antitrust laws, including corporation tax
Biggest blunder: Ineffectual "dollar diplomacy" interventions in China and Latin America
Historians' comment: "Achieved nothing good with excellent situation left him by T.R."
TIE 12 GERALD FORD
Chief accomplishment: Ended "long national nightmare" of Watergate; got U.S. out of Vietnam
Biggest blunders: Mishandled Nixon pardon; resisted easing New York City financial woes
Historians' comments: "Returned nation to normality"; "Essentially a do-nothing President"
TIE 12 CALVIN COOLIDGE
Chief accomplishments: Slashed federal taxes and spending; scaled down German reparations
Biggest blunder: Failed to anticipate economic disaster
Historians' comments: "Left little historical legacy"; "Could have been greater if faced with challenges"
14 JIMMY CARTER
Chief accomplishment: Camp David accord brought temporary Middle East peace
Biggest blunder: Botched attempt to rescue 52 American hostages from U.S. embassy in Iran
Historians' comments: "Victim of events beyond his control"; "Should have been a preacher"
15 RICHARD NIXON
Chief accomplishments: Opened relations with China; pursued detente with Soviet Union
Biggest blunder: Watergate--only President in history to resign
Historians' comments: "The most difficult President to assess"; "Uniquely a failure among American Presidents"
16 WARREN HARDING
Chief accomplishment: Negotiated international armaments treaty in 1922
Biggest blunders: Teapot Dome oil-leasing scandal; other instances of Administration graft
Historians' comment: "Whatever personal shortcomings, presided over a period of economic growth"
17 HERBERT HOOVER
Chief accomplishment: Introduced programs later copied in the New Deal
Biggest blunders: Signed Smoot-Hawley tariff; ineffective in alleviating Great Depression
Historians' comments: "Approach to Depression rigid and dogmatic"; "Victim of bad luck"
THE JUDGES Stephen E. Ambrose, Alan Brinkley, Robert Dallek, David M. Kennedy, William E. Leuchtenburg, Ernest R. May, Walter A. McDougall, Herbert S. Parmet, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.