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Presidential Rankings

[ 65 ] December 2, 2012 |

Brooks Simpson, the noted biographer of Ulysses Grant, makes some good points about the problems with presidential ranking polls. Among them, what are we supposed to evaluate?

I also wonder about the criteria for evaluation. First, are we evaluating a president’s effectiveness in achieving his agenda, without regard as to what that agenda might be? Take the case of James K. Polk, who was very effective in meeting his goals. Does that make him a great president? Or take the more complicated case of Andrew Johnson. The seventeenth president is currently considered one of the worst chief executives. Certainly his presidency was a damaging one. But was it ineffective, or was he something of a Tim Tebow in the White House, who got the job done in an ugly fashion? After all, Johnson wanted to preserve white supremacy while restoring the Union. One could argue that his obstructionist behavior undermined efforts to pursue a more fundamental reconstruction of the nation that established a sounder foundation for the future of the emancipated. Yes, a Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation and two constitutional amendments, but it also rushed to restore civil government and spent a great deal of energy in seeking to handcuff Johnson. The result was the construction of a structure on unsound ground that soon collapsed in the 1870s.

Is the criteria getting your agenda accomplished? Fitting the moral strictures of 2012? Leadership? Ability to handle a crisis? Simpson also notes that these polls way oversample biographers of famous presidents, leaving voices evaluating, say, William Howard Taft way behind.

Comments (65)

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  1. Johnny Sack says:

    Wilson! Jersey represent!

    • Bruce Vail says:

      Hey! Virginia claims Woodrow!

      Be sure to stop by the birthplace museum in Staunton sometime. Staunton needs the tourist dollars.

    • JoyfulA says:

      And for some reason, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, holds the longest-running annual Wilson birthday party.

    • Manju says:

      You’d think Sack would prefer Harding. Is there a War on Harding I’m not aware of?

      • The Dark Avenger says:

        Harding didn’t get much respect from anyone, including his father, who allegedly told him:

        “If you were a woman you’d be in a family way all the time. You just can’t say no.”

        Also, his offenses to the English language in his speeches. See Mencken, Henry Louis, for more details.

  2. Robert Farley says:

    To my understanding, such lists are intended to generate 250+ length comment threads. Although throwing in Ralph Nader at 17 (just behind Dwight Eisenhower) helps ensure you’ll hit 350.

  3. UberMitch says:

    Rank ‘em by BMI; that’ll make Taft’s standing skyrocket.

  4. hylen says:

    Klout score.

  5. Semanticleo says:

    Oliver Stone ranks Truman as worst POTUS….Why?

    This…http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Act_of_1947

    First we have CIA which JFK said he would break into ‘a million pieces’ because they fucked him in Bay of Pigs. Then we get NSA.
    Now, DIA. Where is the pushback against Authoritrianism?

    When I see signs of Civil Rights from Obummer, mebbe he’ll redeem hisself.

  6. montag says:

    There is the postulation that the very act of list-making is invested with subtle or overt bias.

    Much of the South, for example, still thinks Lincoln is the embodiment of evil, though Lincoln ranks highly on such lists. McKinley largely gets a pass because of his assassination, but was to an inordinate degree a god-botherer and a shill of Mark Hanna, who held the paper on his entire political life. Teddy Roosevelt gets generally good marks, even though he was an unabashed imperialist, and it was Taft who actually got a bit more done than Roosevelt in the trust-busting department for which Roosevelt was generally known (it was also Taft who actually put Dollar Diplomacy into play on a wider scale, thus successfully alienating much of Latin America and setting the stage for much hardship in that region in later decades).

    Maybe we ought to be ranking Presidents not on what happened in their terms, but on the relative damage their policies caused in the years after they left office. Reagan would certainly rank near the bottom by that standard. So would Clinton, if only for his capitulation on welfare and banking “reforms.” Both Bushes would be disasters by that standard, and so would Carter.

    But, even that standard has an implicit bias in it which is akin to the first tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, to do no harm, something which I doubt is within the ability or aim of any American President.

  7. Semanticleo says:

    something which I doubt is within the ability or aim of any American President

    POTUS has made an oath to do what is in the Country’s best interest. Whether they are more concerned with their legacy in the present environment, or for the sake of History’s recorded facts, they fail that vow when they pander to political expediency.

    • Presidential Oath:

      I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States

      Perhaps the framers left out the phrase “Country’s best interest” because no one could agree on what that would be.

    • witless chum says:

      Nobody who uses the abbreviation “POTUS” should be listened to about anything. It’s four letters shorter than the word “president” and 17 times more annoying. It’s probably that useless corncob Aaron Sorkin’s fault.

  8. Hogan says:

    POTUS has made an oath to do what I think is in the Country’s best interest.

    FTFY

  9. stabby says:

    I would go with who ever won that knife fight a few months ago.

  10. bobbyp says:

    Taft’s love for the game of golf makes him the best evah’. Ike a close second.

  11. calling all toasters says:

    If the qualifications were based on doing what seems good in retrospect there would be no one but liberals on the list. Oh, wait….

  12. Bitter Scribe says:

    Of course things like this will always be subjective, but it should generally be a relatively straightforward process of deciding 1) how worthy were a president’s goals and priorities, and 2) how successful was he in implementing them? (Maybe throw in a 3 for handling unexpected situations.)

  13. Decrease Mather says:

    Does anyone argue that they should be ranked on meeting their goals, even if their goals are regrettable?

    Who has ever made the argument Simpson suggests for Johnson? Why even ponder that?

    • Decrease Mather says:

      Or, to answer Simpson’s question directly:

      First, are we evaluating a president’s effectiveness in achieving his agenda, without regard as to what that agenda might be?

      No

      Take the case of James K. Polk, who was very effective in meeting his goals. Does that make him a great president?

      No.

      Or take the more complicated case of Andrew Johnson. …was he something of a Tim Tebow in the White House, who got the job done in an ugly fashion?

      No. He sucked as President.

    • witless chum says:

      I’ll suggest using that standard, just to be different. That’s a more honest and interesting standard then the sorta mishmash used by most of these lists. Plus, you’ll learn more about history if you have to figure out just what the fuck James Buchanon thought he was trying to accomplish.

      Also, it would mitigate against the hero-worship of presidents if we tried to think of them in a more score-card way with less trying to find things to admire about say TR. Rounding off the edges of what people in the past actually believed so as to make people today think better of them is the lowest thing to which historians sink and is disrespectful to boot.

      Also, it always gives me a nice chuckle when libertarians get into this game and rank Harding as the best president ever because he’s judged to have done almost nothing, (of course, he was somewhat elected to do almost nothing as he was campaigning against Wilson for having done to much, broadly so maybe he needs to move up the list) with some arguing for Coolidge based on wit and a few holding out for William Henry Harrison on literalism.

  14. Belle Waring says:

    Belle Buchanan Waring: We’re #44! We’re #44! We’re #44!

  15. Aren’t these lists just for passing the time or starting arguments?

    I respect academics, but don’t they have better things to do with their time?

    • Pestilence says:

      Well …. no

      • ajay says:

        Aren’t these lists just for passing the time or starting arguments?

        Well…. no.

        Yes they are!

        No, they aren’t!

        • rea says:

          M: I came here for a good argument!
          O: AH, no you didn’t, you came here for an argument!
          M: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
          O: Well! it CAN be!
          M: No it can’t!
          M: An argument is a connected series of statement intended to establish a
          proposition.
          O: No it isn’t!
          M: Yes it is! ’tisn’t just contradiction.
          O: Look, if I *argue* with you, I must take up a contrary position!
          M: Yes but it isn’t just saying “no it isn’t”.
          O: Yes it is!
          M: No it isn’t!
          O: Yes it is!
          M: No it isn’t!
          O: Yes it is!
          M: No it ISN’T! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just
          the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
          O: It is NOT!
          M: It is!
          O: Not at all!
          M: It is!

    • LosGatosCA says:

      You’re obviously not an academic, so you are not cleared to get the correct answer to your question.

    • NonyNony says:

      Aren’t these lists just for passing the time or starting arguments?

      Yes. And for starting discussions (which are kind of like arguments but with 100% less “Yo Momma” jibes).

      I respect academics, but don’t they have better things to do with their time?

      Better things to do with their time than discussions and arguments?

      Hmm…

      I suppose they could be writing. But without the arguments what’s the point of doing the writing?

  16. Bruce Vail says:

    I’m channeling George Will, but if the standard is effectiveness in achieving the goals a president sets for himself then Coolidge is just the greatest.

    He didn’t think a president should do anything – and he didn’t!

  17. wengler says:

    US Presidents are almost all mediocre to bad. The US electoral system generally rewards empty suit puppets from a certain battleground state.

    Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Truman are probably the most important Presidents. Washington for defining the traditions associated with the office, Lincoln for reuniting the country, FDR and Truman for getting through WW2 and transitioning the federal government into the one we have today.

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