American Heritage recently asked historians—including all members of the Society of American Historians—as well as journalists, politicians, and a few others to answer this two-part question:
- 1. In all of American history, whom do you consider the single most overrated public figure?
- 2. Most underrated?
Strangely enough, many journalists and public figures seemed reluctant to make such judgments. The Washington Post ’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, responded, “I can get into trouble quite well by myself—I don’t need help from you, pal.” Howard Baker, the White House Chief of Staff, wrote: “I ain’t making no enemies living or dead.” But historians accepted the challenge with relish—and their answers constitute the bulk of what follows.
How seriously should this exercise be taken? Clearly, summary judgments can appear unjust or frivolous if you disagree with them. If you agree, they seem very apt. But there’s no need to agree or disagree with the results of this poll; you may simply be fascinated by the rise and fall of reputations as measured by those who should know.