Friday, July 2, 2010

Ranking the Presidents

The Siena Research Institute, which has been ranking U.S. presidents since 1982, yesterday put out its 2010 list, compiled by surveying historians and other presidential scholars. [238 presidential scholars, historians and political scientists, their press release says in a footnote. Now what are these presidential scholars who are neither historians nor poly sci professors?] Presidential Rankings. (For the complete list, follow the links until you get to "Rankings.")

For the fifth time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has topped the list “as the top all time chief executive.” Barack Obama is in the survey for the first time and came in at fifteenth. That’s 15. One-five. A man who has been president for a minute and a half.

Lincoln, after three consecutive stints in the number two slot on the survey, has been replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. That’s two Roosevelts at the top of the survey. (What are the odds?)

Jefferson has gone from number two in 1982 to number three in 1990 to number five in the three subsequent polls including yesterday’s. T. Roosevelt was number five in the 1982 poll. There can be few explanations for changes like these other than a sea change in political thinking among scholars. Perhaps they have drifted from being progressive to being hyper-progressive in their political orientations. Jefferson was not a very great friend of progressive-like thinking, although his incorporation of the Louisiana Territory into the United States, and even more, the imperial way that he went about it, have long endeared him to the cult of the State. So he must remain in their top ten.

George Washington, the man who defined the presidency, has been steadily in the number four slot since 1982. On the other hand, while Madison has jumped from number nine to number six, Woodrow Wilson has gone from a seemingly secure position at number six to number eight. This seems to undercut my explanation because Wilson is the patron saint of American progressivism, but you do not want to look too closely at his record of racism and xenophobia in this day and age, and perhaps the scholars have; so that might explain his slight fall from former grace.

John Kennedy has gone from number eight in the first poll, to ten in the subsequent two polls, to removal from the top ten yesterday. He is now eleventh.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who didn’t appear in the top ten until the third poll, is now in tenth place. Eisenhower's stock has gone up ever since scholars realized that he was not the hands-off chief exec that he deliberately made everyone think he was. Like Washington, he cultivated an image of aloofness from the day-to-day that disguised the near micromanagement of his administration's affairs.

From these poll results, you get the impression that if you looked at topics discussed by historians and political scientists at their conventions over the year or two before each of these polls came out, you would see a trend: whichever presidents were the topics of panel after panel would rise or fall in stature in the collective minds of scholars depending on the consensus arrived at through groupthink.

Here are the top ten for this year with a + or – after each name to indicate whether the reputation of that president has risen or fallen since 2002, the last time the poll was taken. (The absence of any symbol indicates that the ranking is the same as it was in 2002.)

1. F. Roosevelt
2. T. Roosevelt +
3. Lincoln –
4. Washington
5. Jefferson
6. Madison +
7. Monroe +
8. Wilson –
9. Truman –
10. Eisenhower

It is curious that, occasionally, the presidents are listed in chronological order in the poll as are Jefferson, Madison and Monroe above. However, they were not in this order in previous polls.

The Loudonville, NY institute’s press release says, “Teddy Roosevelt had, more than any other president the 'right stuff', and tops the collective ranking of a cluster of personal qualities including imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, background, and being willing to take risks. Lincoln, according to the experts, demonstrated the greatest presidential abilities while FDR ranks first in overall accomplishments.”

The release goes on to quote Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, professor of statistics at Siena College and a co-director of the institute: “In nearly thirty years, the same five presidents have occupied the first five places with only slight shuffling. Despite decades of new research on former presidents and the accomplishments or lack thereof of the current chief executives, scholars display amazingly consistent results.” Well, of course, groupthink produces consistent results, but that does not mean that it reflects common sense. On the other hand, how consistent are these changing results, really? "Slight shuffling" might not be the right term since the shuffling among the top five might rather reflect Richter-scale shifts in collective thinking. That is, if these rankings were reasonably objective, they should remain more stable ESPECIALLY nearest the top. Lonnstrom goes on to say, “Only eight names have appeared in the second five over the years. Wilson and Truman hold onto membership in this club while Kennedy, John Adams and Jackson fell, Eisenhower holds on and Madison and Monroe have seen their stock rise.”

The press release adds, “The current president, Barack Obama, while highly rated on imagination (6th), communication ability (7th) and intelligence (8th) scores poorly on background (family, education and experience) [32nd] and enters the survey in the 15th position."

This attention to background seems rather classist, especially in terms of family and education, but Obama must, indeed, score poorly on experience, having never before held a leadership role. His ability to compromise, though, is ranked delusionally high at ten. Who has he compromised with? Other like-minded Democrats? Venezuela's Hugo Chavez?

Again from the press release: "George W. Bush, had entered the survey at 23rd when the study was last conducted one year into his first term. Today, just one year after leaving office, the former president has found himself in the bottom five at 39th rated especially poorly in handling the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments and intelligence. Rounding out the bottom five are four presidents that have held that dubious distinction each time the survey has been conducted: Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin Pierce. Andrew Johnson leads the ‘worst ever’ in both abilities and accomplishments finishing below both Buchanan and Harding, but Harding tops the worst in personal attributes including integrity where he finishes just slightly ahead of Richard M. Nixon.”

The release claims that the bottom five are relatively stable, but just as Kennedy and Jackson pop in and out of the top five, Ulysses Grant and Millard Fillmore pop in and out of the bottom five. Grant is now 26th after having sunk to 38th in 1994. Professor Tom Kelly, the other co-director of the survey says, “Aside from the newest entry in the ‘Bottom Five’, George W. Bush, the others have a firm hold on this ignominious distinction. Three, Pierce, Buchanan and Andrew Johnson wrap around one of our finest presidents, Abe Lincoln[,] and those three perennial poorly ranked are held responsible for a failure to avert the Civil War in the case of Pierce and Buchanan, and perhaps even more shamefully in Johnson, prolonging the national disgrace with a prejudiced, Jim Crow, reconstruction.” Kelly goes on to say, “Harding, well, no one appreciates corruption nor accepts ineptitude as an excuse.”

Except that Warren Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, deserve reconsideration for their successful routing of the depression of 1920, which most historians—if they know of it at all—dismiss as a fluke rather than the result of swift action by these maligned presidents who stopped it and kept it at bay, respectively. (Note that Herbert Hoover, who presided over the inception of what became the Great Depression, has never made the bottom five although he is near the bottom.)

One of the most unfairly maligned presidents, Millard Fillmore, ranked 38th, made the bottom five list only in the 2002 survey, but just missed it this year, edged out by George W. Bush. To show the fickleness of the survey, consider how Fillmore and his predecessor Zachary Taylor were ranked in previous polls:

1982
Taylor(29)
Coolidge (30)
Benjamin Harrison (31)
Fillmore (32)

1990
Fillmore (32)
Tyler (33)
Taylor (34)

1994
Taylor (33)
Tyler (34)
Fillmore (35)

2002
Taylor (34)
Grant (35)
William Harrison (36)
Tyler (37)
Fillmore (38)

2010
Taylor (33)
Benjamin Harrison (34)
William Harrison (35)
Hoover (36)
Tyler (37)
Fillmore (38)

Not only can these scholars not make up their minds, but they are demonstrably wrong in these rankings.

Robert Rayback, in "Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President," shows why Zachary Taylor was a much worse president than Fillmore. Fillmore, whose worst "accomplishment" was the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act—for which he may be granted excuses but no good reasons—nevertheless made excellent foreign policy moves for which he has almost never been given due credit. Certainly not by this poll which ranks him 33rd in foreign policy. It ranks his predecessor, Taylor, only slightly worse than Fillmore in foreign policy at 34th and better overall at 33rd, even though the Taylor administration dithered over foreign policy crises that were never resolved until they were dumped into Fillmore’s more capable lap. And why does Taylor rank 28th for executive appointments when his appointees were riddled with corruption (I guess corruption can be overlooked, Kelly to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas Fillmore ranks 35th for replacing them with more honest and able men?

The Fillmore administration skillfully avoided wars with Peru, Mexico, England, France, and Spain, not to mention that Fillmore passed on a chance to indirectly participate in an attempt to overthrow the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A “greater” president might have seized upon any number of these opportunities for blood and glory (Four of the top ten presidents in the Siena survey were actually wartime presidents but three others were military commanders during wars before their presidencies; furthermore, Washington actually led troops to quash the Whiskey Rebellion during his presidency, and Eisenhower was commander in chief as the Cold War escalated.), but Fillmore judiciously gave up the admiration of posterity in exchange for international peace even if his efforts to keep peace domestically ultimately failed.

Yet Taylor's ranking has only risen in the Siena poll. I suspect that Taylor is given a sympathy bump because he died in office or because he was a successful general before his presidency or because of some other irrelevant consideration. Or perhaps this just tells us something about the ignorance of the participants. Yes, they are scholars, but who studies the administration of Millard Fillmore? Most of the scholars are more likely to be versed in, say, the Lincoln administration. When it comes to Fillmore, there are few scholars familiar with the primary sources and many who would be more familiar with the hearsay spread by Fillmore’s contemporary detractors (such as one-time ally and later enemy Boss Thurlow Weed; I think a politician should gain points just for being on the enemies list of a man known as Boss Weed) as well as later detractors. In the latter case, his detractors had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in recognizing, for example, that Fillmore’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act did not prevent the Civil War (though it very likely postponed it).

On the other hand, how many historians know that when President James Buchanan let the South capture federal arsenals without resistance, Fillmore declared that he would not have been so passive. Had Fillmore been president in Buchanan’s stead, the Civil War might have begun a year earlier than it did; but it did not start when he was actually in office, even though passions were high among Southern secessionists in 1850. (Of course, as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, passions were high among secessionists in Massachusetts and other Northern states that justly found the act an imposition on their states’ rights.)

The Siena Institute release goes on to say, “Over two hundred presidential scholars ranked the 43 U.S. Presidents on six personal attributes (background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five forms of ability (compromising, executive, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment including economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing supreme court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy. T.R. led the attribute category and was tops in imagination and willing to take risks. Lincoln leads in ability with first places in ability to compromise, executive ability and overall ability. FDR not only is the overall top rated president but also leads in accomplishments topping the list in party leadership, handling the U.S. Economy, and foreign policy accomplishments.”

One wonders how these evaluative criteria are thought to work. How do you measure “luck,” and what are the dimensions of “imagination”? (See a previous post of mine wherein I lampoon a silly ad campaign by UVA Medical Center that poses just such questions.) President Jimmy Carter loses points for having bad luck, says the press release. Does the poll take into consideration whether or not a president makes his luck or merely reacts to circumstances?

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton moves up because of reevaluation of his background (family, education and experience) and executive appointments. How do you decide to reevaluate such things when they have not changed? When all that could have changed are the obviously fickle minds of the scholars who were surveyed? (No doubt, the individuals who are surveyed have changed since 1982, as scholars retire and die and are replaced by younger scholars.) Also, the first George Bush is steady at 22nd in the rankings while Ronald Reagan has fallen from 16th to 18th. Carter has fallen even further, from 25th to 32nd.

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