Wednesday, December 1, 2010

RANKING OF THE PRESIDENTS: How the Historians Have it Wrong (Part I)

(Also see Parts II and II.  See below comments for analysis.)

Historians can also be lazy or incompetent.  The graduate student prodded to write his master’s thesis on the settlement of Albemarie County in Virginia probably spent less than five minutes studying the Presidency of Zachary Taylor.  As a university professor the historian may have lost his first job due to budget cuts and somehow came around to blaming it on the President of the United States.  He may be a constitutional scholar and holds in esteem only the Presidential administrations of the founding fathers.  He may be familiar with crisis in American history while only paying attention to the Presidents at the time of war or economic turmoil.  He may find Watergate and Teapot Dome particularly odious because he is oblivious to all other Presidential scandals.  Though marginally aware that the platforms of political parties have changed over times, he cannot forgive Taft for choosing to be a Republican or Wilson for being a Democrat.

By organizing the historians into commissions or panels the problem becomes even more exasperated.  The head of the commission likely has his own personal bias and will choose members accordingly.  The members, grateful for the opportunity to make easy money, may want to please their new boss by never saying anything disagreeable.  The conclusions of panels set up for whatever reasons are suspect to begin with and the results are usually never compelling or surprising.  By its very nature a commission requires compromise, and the compromise generally leads to the wrong conclusions.  The votes of knowledgeable members are cancelled out by those of the ignorant members.  The objective vote is cancelled out by the biased vote.  The votes of a maverick historian are countered by the meek individual unwilling to buck any trend.  Plus, many of the panel members are never known to the public and we seldom know what data they use to come up with their opinions.

We had Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. conducting polls of historians in 1948 and 1962 concerning who were and were not the best Presidents.   Schlesinger’s rankings show up in high school history books with little explanation as to why we should accept the panel’s findings.  The panel held to many questionable assumptions.  For example, the one sentence consensus of the historians involved in the 1962 survey was that Franklin Pierce was an indecisive President - ignoring the fact that most of Pierce’s vetoes were overridden.  Though Schlesinger claimed to downplay ideology in his historical rankings of the Presidents, most of the historians polled had progressive leanings like Schlesinger's - and Presidents such as Eisenhower, Coolidge and Harding did not fare well in the rankings.  Since Schlesinger’s polls were the first of their kind (and the first are usually the least reliable), probably every ranking since has been influenced by the panel’s conclusions.  As far as the mass media is concerned, being the first to be prominently published always makes the study authoritative.  The historians in any case have committed themselves in print.   The published results will not be altered, even if certain members of the original panel change their mind.  No panel will ever publicly admit that it was wrong.

Historians are subject like everyone else to popular prejudices that seldom wane.    Take a few examples: Wilson has long been considered our first progressive President, though there was little in his domestic agenda that would make him appear anything like a progressive thinker.  Wilson was ruthless in his treatment of dissent, and he came down most heavily on dissent from individuals politically left of the Wilson' administration.  On the other hand, Taft was more notorious in breaking up trusts than his predecessor, yet Taft (and his many descendents) were members of the Republican Party and by proxy associated with corporate interests.  If historians spent a little more time studying what actually happened during administrations rather than identifying policies by party affiliations (along with taking single quotes as representations of the character of that particular President), the published rankings would be far different.

There’s been interest in Presidential rankings lately because, in our polarized society, such rankings stir up controversy.  Intense partisanship (not something new in this country) has been intensified during the Bush, Jr. and Obama administrations.  We like to argue as to who makes better Presidents - Democrats or Republicans.   We're seldom disillusioned to discover that one administration is not that different from another, and that the individual in the White House that we voted for did not keep any more promises than the President we opposed.  The admirers of politicians are generally blind.  Most Presidents are brilliant men that are not up for a job in which they are expected to know everything.  Some Presidents are credited for accomplishments that only came per chance.  Others are blamed for failures that were beyond their control.   Our Presidents are expected to be workaholics, politicians, historians, socialites, good family men, scholars, and great public speakers while also expected to remain charming, humble and likeable.  It’s just not possible to be all of these things.  Though some politicians are as narcissistic as the worst celebrity, no President is going to be universally popular.  Since no President has picked up more than sixty-two percent of the vote in any election since the votes have been counted, at least one-third of the country never supported even the most popular President to be in the White House.  Unsurprisingly, the Presidency is not a healthy occupation.  Eight of our Presidents did not survive their term.  A number of other Presidents didn’t live five years after leaving office.  Almost all looked youthful and energetic coming in and worn-out and old when leaving. 

But before feeling sorry for them, remember that they sought the position.   Royalty had more appeal to them even than wealth.  Outside of Grant, almost all of them died with large amounts of cash in the bank, and since 1900 most of them came from families that were highly connected.  Almost all of our early Presidents were landed gentry.  We did have a period where military leaders by the names of Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant and Garfield worked their way to the top office.   Lincoln was more of an anomaly by never rising to major military rank.  During the 1800s, there was a time when voters did not understand that they were supposed to vote in career politicians.  But with the onset of the 20th Century we saw dynasties come to power with the names of Roosevelt, Taft, Kennedy and Rockefeller.  It’s surprising with all of that we even had Presidents with names like Truman, Reagan and Clinton seeing how much money it now costs to finance a Presidential campaign.

 I decided to create my own ranking of the Presidents (see below and my Part II and Part III comments concerning this) as an exercise in revisionism.  In doing so, I’ve attempted not to be partisan.  Please notice that the top 15 Presidents in my rankings all varied from being politically conservative to moderate to liberal.  You may also want to note that the bottom 15 in my rankings were all Presidents that could be considered politically conservative, moderate or liberal.  (I’m guessing there will be conservatives in any case who will take exception to my high ranking of Franklin Roosevelt and liberals that will be offended by my high ranking of Ronald Reagan - if anyone even bothers to read my list or my comments.)  To defend myself from those thinking that I'm trying too hard to remain neutral, I did take policy considerations into account.  Our four most visionary Presidents had their faces carved upon Mount Rushmore and are appropriately listed high within my rankings.  But I do need to point out that the terms conservative, moderate or liberal are misleading as definitions for any of our Presidents as these concepts have changed over time.  (Remember that conservative Republicans at one time were isolationists advocating high tariffs while many liberal Democrats remained indifferent to the Jim Crow laws legislated in the south.)  I do favor what I consider positive, relaxed, and sociable individuals that have inhabited the White House such as Monroe, Grant, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton.  Uptight individuals such as John Adams, Pierce, Wilson and Nixon did not fare well on my list.   (As an aside, I tried not to punish a President in my listing because they happened to die in office.  Garfield and William Henry Harrison were gifted men that could have been some of our better Presidents.  Though they did not accomplish enough in their administrations to be placed among the top 10, they did much less damage than did Pierce or Buchanan.)

Take my rankings for what they are worth or make an argument that can change my mind.  I know that not all of my choices are conventional.  Contrary to other rankings, I’ve placed Taylor, Grant and Harding high upon my list because I think the historians focused in too narrowly on isolated events during those administrations.  Likewise, I’ve rated Madison, McKinley and Wilson low on my list (when they’ve traditionally achieved high rankings) because these ambitious men strived to self-righteously achieve goals that were unattainable and more aimed at the greater glory of their own legacy than the good of the nation.

Below are the rankings from best to worst.  My remarks concerning each individual President are contained in Part II and Part III of this commentary.  Do at least read the commentary before you criticize my choices.

(1)           Abraham Lincoln
(2)           Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(3)           George Washington
(4)            Ronald Reagan
(5)            Grover Cleveland
(6)            Thomas Jefferson
(7)            Theodore Roosevelt
(8)            Harry S. Truman
(9)            Ulysses S. Grant
(10)           Zachary Taylor
(11)           Dwight D. Eisenhower
(12)           James Monroe
(13)           Warren G. Harding
(14)           William Jefferson Clinton
(15)           John F. Kennedy
(16)           Calvin Coolidge
(17)           Martin Van Buren
(18)           Andrew Jackson
(19)           William Henry Harrison (only President 30 days)
(20)           James Garfield (only President for six months)
(21)           Chester Arthur
(22)           William Howard Taft
(23)           Gerald R. Ford
(24)           John Quincy Adams
(25)           Andrew Johnson
(26)           Lyndon Baines Johnson
(27)           George H.W. Bush
(28)           Rutherford B. Hayes
(29)           James Knox Polk
(30)           John Adams
(31)           Richard Milhous Nixon
(32)           George W. Bush
(33)           James Earl Carter
(34)           Benjamin Harrison
(35)           Herbert Clark Hoover
(36)           Milliard Fillmore
(37)           John Tyler
(38)           James Madison
(39)           William McKinley
(40)           James Buchanan
(41)           Franklin Pierce
(42)           Woodrow Wilson

Barack Obama – Not rated (still in office)

July 26, 2010

(Also see Parts II and III)

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