Monday, May 15, 2017

Thoughts on Presidential Pets

First Lady Laura Bush's Scottish
 Terrier, Miss Beazley
Chelsea Clinton's cat Socks
President Richard Nixon's dogs,
but Checkers is not among them
(he died in 1964)
Warren Harding's Terrier,
Laddie Boy

George W. Bush's
cat, India

Ronald Reagan's Spaniel, Rex

Dogs, by far, are the most common animal companions of America’s presidents—rivaled only by horses and cats. In fact, rather than list the presidents who had dogs, it is far easier to list the nine presidents who did not have them—at least not while they lived in the White House:

James Madison:
Polly want a cracker?
James Madison (who only had a parrot named Polly), William H. Harrison (who kept only a cow and a goat), James K. Polk (who had no pets at all), Zachary Taylor (who had a horse), Millard Fillmore (who had two ponies), Andrew Johnson (see below), Chester A. Arthur (who kept a rabbit and three horses), William McKinley (who had a cat and three birds), and Donald Trump (with no pets so far).

In the first century of the Republic, presidents kept many barnyard animals for other reasons than companionship. Several presidents had chickens, goats, rabbits, cows or donkeys. Andrew Jackson even owned fighting cocks, which are far from being pets.

Other “pets” were more eccentric choices. James Buchanan owned an eagle, of all creatures (species unknown, so perhaps not a bald eagle, our national bird), but if you think that is unusual, how about the bears kept by Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge? Or Coolidge’s lion cubs, or Martin Van Buren tiger cubs?

Van Buren was given two tiger cubs by the Ottoman Empire, but Congress made him put them in a zoo, evidently because this present fell under the prohibition in the U.S. Constitution against American officials keeping gifts from foreign governments without the permission of Congress. (See Article I, section 9, clause 8.)
Two presidents had alligators

What is it about alligators that led two presidents (John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover) to own them? (Hint: These, too, may have been presented as diplomatic gifts.)

Andrew Johnson fed
mice in his cell -er,
 I mean, his bedroom.
Speaking of diplomatic gifts, Franklin Pierce seems to have gotten all of his pets, which included dogs and birds, from Asia around the time that the United States began trading with Japan. Commodore Matthew Perry was sent by Fillmore to Japan to open that nation to U.S. trade, but Pierce, who had succeeded to the presidency before Perry’s return, got most of the credit as well as the cool gifts.

Ronald Reagan:
The last president to own horses
The eccentricities of other presidents notwithstanding, Andrew Johnson could be the most peculiar in terms of his relationship with animals. While he had no pets as such, he regularly fed the mice that wandered into his bedroom. One wonders whether the first chief executive to be impeached meant to live like a prisoner held in solitary confinement.

As one might expect, presidential horse and pony ownership is concentrated in the early part of the nation’s history, and then it tapers off in more recent times. There are eleven horse or pony owners before 1900 and only three since then:

George Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, John Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

Abraham Lincoln:
First cat owner
Rutherford Hayes:
Second cat owner
The first president known to have kept cats was Lincoln, who had two of them and claimed that one was smarter than his whole cabinet. The next cat owner in the White House was Rutherford B. Hayes, who added a pair of the first Siamese cats in America to his collection of eight dogs and one cat. The Siamese were gifts from—who else?—the King of Siam.

The twelve cat owners in the White House are Lincoln, Hayes, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. (At least in the cases of Carter and Clinton, the cat seems to have belonged primarily to the president’s daughter, not the president.) Only McKinley had a cat without also having at least one dog, although he kept a parrot and some roosters, too, which must have fascinated his two cats.

Aside from Buchanan, several presidents showed an interest in birds, from the barnyard’s chicken, turkey and goose to the household’s canary and parrot to the wilder, more exotic owl and blue macaw (a kind of parrot)—the latter two both belonging to Theodore Roosevelt. Also, Jefferson and Grover Cleveland kept mockingbirds, Jefferson even naming his mockingbird Dick.

Some presidents had veritable zoos, while others kept more modest collections.

George Washington:
Named one of his many dogs
after nemesis General Cornwallis
Washington had quite a few animals, including at least eight dogs. One, a greyhound, was named Cornwallis, after Washington’s Revolutionary War nemesis, British General Charles Cornwallis. He also had at least eight horses. Martha Washington had a parrot. (Of the first seven presidents, three had parrots in their households, and at least two were rather unimaginatively named Polly.)

The Father of his country also had a donkey that was designated “Royal Gift,” which sounds rather more like a description of its origin than an affectionate name. Washington’s staghounds and coonhounds had names that seem whimsical if not suggestive: Sweetlips, Scentwell, Vulcan, Drunkard, Taster, Tippler (or Tipler) and Tipsy.

Thomas Jefferson;
Bear cubs, mockingbirds, dogs, but no cats
John Adams, in contrast, had only three dogs, one of which was named Satan. His two horses were named Cleopatra and Caesar, a classical pairing.

Jefferson added his pair of bear cubs to a modest collection of birds, dogs and horses. Of course, cubs do not stay cubs, but I do not know what happened to the bears when they became adults. It appears that a number of presidential “pets” were only kept while they were young, which is understandable in the cases of wild and especially aggressive species.

John Quincy Adams obviously did not cuddle with his “pets.” All he had were silkworms and an alligator, the latter being a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette. Where the Frenchman got it, I don’t know. BTW, Adams and Lafayette were both equally fluent in French and English. I wonder what language they spoke when the alligator was presented to the President. In any case, the same word, “alligator,” is used in both languages.
Tip of the iceberg: Theodore Roosevelt & family, shown with Skip, one of ten
dogs. Roosevelt also kept cats, ponies, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, and a hyena

Theodore Roosevelt practically had a zoo. Along with ten dogs, two cats, a pair of ponies, five guinea pigs, some chickens, rabbits, and pigs, he also kept a snake, lizard, macaw, owl, bear, badger, rat, and hyena.

Calvin Coolidge
was one of the virtual
presidential zookeepers.
Calvin Coolidge, too, had a zoo. Besides a dozen dogs, some canaries, a cat, donkey and goose, there were several animals that ordinarily belong in the wild or, at least, are more associated with zoos than executive mansions. These included two lion cubs, a bear, kangaroo, pygmy hippo, antelope, bobcat, and raccoon.

If someone were to drill down into the psyches of the presidents, a range of attitudes toward stewardship of the animal kingdom might be evinced, ranging from the matter-of-fact (W.H. Harrison) to the inquisitive (J.Q. Adams) to the callous (Andrew Jackson). Along the spectrum, we might expect to find several variations on the bizarre. At the same time, the sight of a lofty political figure with his or her animal companion tends to have a tender and humanizing effect.

More presidential pet pictures, courtesy of the wikipedia article "United States presidential pets":

Benjamin Harrison's Collie, Dash - He
also owned a goat & two opossums
Franklin Roosevelt with
Scottish Terrier, Fala
Herbert Hoover with
King Tut, a Belgian

First Lady Grace Coolidge with
Terrier, Laddie Buck, and
Collie, Rob Roy

Gerald Ford with
Golden Retriever,

First Daughter Susan Ford
with Siamese, Shan Shein

Barack Obama's Portuguese
Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny

Lyndon Johnson at his least flattering:
picking up one of his four beagles by the
ears. Good thing the election was over.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

16 Proposed Themes for Next Libertarian Convention

From an email that I received from Wes Benedict, Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of the United States:

Re: The 2018 Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans:

“Dear Libertarian,

“Our Convention Committee wants your help selecting a theme for the 2018 Libertarian National Convention.

“We're also raising funds to cover some early expenses in preparation for the convention.

“Please help choose the convention theme and provide early funds by clicking on the theme that you like the most and then making a donation in support of that theme.

“Each dollar donated counts as one vote.”

That is right. The voting will be determined by how many individuals give how much money to each theme.

This is not, in my opinion, a problem with this contest. The indivisible atom of politics ought to be the individual, and equality should mean equal opportunity to, for example, make money that you feel you have enough of to give away in this way, not equality of outcome so that each person has one vote regardless of how much they give to this fundraiser. (This is nakedly a fund-raiser, after all.)

Those who are willing to put their money behind an idea have the right to get more back in return and have more of a say. This is true of investment in any sort of endeavor.*

What interests me here is that none of the following themes is provided with an explanation, which is probably because any explanation could only create controversy and detract from the contributions to each theme. This way, each theme means whatever each investor wants it to mean. The trouble is that several of these themes potentially mean things that are undesirable, unconstitutional, and not even libertarian.

“All of Your Freedoms, All of the Time”

This slogan could mean that liberty on principle (which is what the word “libertarian” means to me) should be the ultimate value, and that it should always be the first consideration in all things. With the understanding that this means that my rights should not be infringed unless my actions violate the rights of others, this is a properly libertarian theme, but what if it is interpreted to mean that I can do whatever I think is my right, including my wholly fanciful right to infringe on your right? How do we determine when that is the case? Is this theme about libertarianism or libertinism? Who is to determine where my rights end and yours begin? The slogan could refer to classical liberalism as described, for example, in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but it could also be the Four Freedoms of New Deal (Progressive) Liberal Franklin Roosevelt, where freedom from want is a right no matter what the cause or consequence, or the narcissistic collectivist's right to safe-spaces and transgender bathrooms of today’s far left.

Competing theorists of the meaning of liberty:

John Wilmot, "The Libertine"
Thomas Jefferson, the Classical Liberal

FDR, the New Deal Liberal

“Am I Being Detained!”

Certainly, if you think that authorities are holding you for illegitimate reasons, you might be right, but if you are being held because you are a non-citizen whose feet are not even in the country you want to go to, and you have no proof that you are a law-abiding person, then the authorities do, indeed, have a right to detain you until they find out more about whether or not you have a history of infringing on the rights of others. What kind of theme is this for a convention, though? 

“Be Me, Be Free”

Is this another libertine theme? (See “All of Your Freedoms, All of the Time”
Above.) It could mean anything or everything to anyone. “Be me” could mean, to be a narcissist who violates the rights of others. It used to be reasonable to assume that Libertarians know the difference. I am not sure anymore.

“Building Bridges, Not Walls”

Milton Friedman
As Milton Friedman (the go-to economist for many, if not all, libertarians) once said, a nation can either have a welfare state or open borders, but not both. If you want to demolish the border between the United States and Mexico, you must first demolish the welfare state that seems to attract so many non-contributors to the United States. But Friedman never contemplated another problem: What if people wish to harm the United States and its citizens, and they have sent agents to terrorize the United States or to undermine our liberties? Don’t we want to limit immigration to those who do not mean to violate the rights of others? How do we make sure that would-be immigrants are not ill-intentioned?

“Empowering the Individual”

As slogans go, and acknowledging that any theme could be interpreted in a libertine rather than a truly libertarian direction, I would like to see this theme as the message of the convention, were I still invested in how the Libertarian Party looks in the eyes of the rest of the country. As always, we need to be ready to say what this means in terms of an agenda that offers America and the world what is needed today. Answer the question, how does individualism help to solve our problems?

“Free Lives Matter”

Ah, this seems like a narrowing reference to the current shibboleth “Black Lives Matter,” which many people, including many libertarians, regard as an exploitative movement aimed at attacking every aspect of civil society, including justice, under the guise of valuing the lives of the forgotten and opposing allegedly systemic injustice. (Blacks Lives Matter has been criticized for forgetting too many black lives when they were not lost in ways that could be politically exploited.) Any association with this meme-generating movement is problematic: Is the convention going to embrace Black Lives Matter or differentiate itself from it? If the later course is intended, then Libertarians set themselves up for a potentially fruitless confrontation. If Libertarians are going to do that, they had better think it through very thoroughly. What does this variation on a hot-button slogan mean? Can it be couched in terms that recognize how “free lives” provides a better solution to the problems that the leadership of Black Lives Matter has exploited?

“Future of Freedom”

If we agree that the Libertarian Party must be forward-looking, then this is a good theme, although it is not very original given that there already exists a group called the Future of Freedom Foundation. (I would hope that this group would be given pride of place at a convention that bears its name as a theme.) I would also hope that it is not forgotten that the future of freedom must be guided by the eternal principle of liberty.

“I'm That Libertarian!”

Whadaya mean by that? Is “That Libertarian” the one who is going to make a difference, or the one you don’t want your son or daughter to marry? This slogan has the potential to be catchy, but it means what you want it to mean. I wonder whether it would not be as well to make “#JeSuisLibertarian” both a hashtag and a convention theme. (Using French would have a special meaning for this convention, of course, because it will be held in New Orleans, a city that prides itself on its French origins.)

“Jazzed About Liberty”

New Orleans born Jazz
 musician Louis Armstrong
This is a catchy title for two reasons. First, it reminds us that New Orleans, the site of the 2018 LP National Convention, is widely regarded as the birthplace of jazz music. Secondly, it recognizes that excitement—another meaning of “jazz” in common parlance—is important to the promotion of any practical philosophy. A political party is nothing without enthusiasm. If that is all we are going to hear from the Libertarian Party, however, it might not be enough unless the convention is able to develop a consensus about what Libertarians mean by “Liberty” when they proclaim that they are jazzed about it.

“Liberty Here and Now”

This slogan is sufficiently vague so as not to tell us how successful it might be in practice. Everything depends on how it is developed. Otherwise, it has potential. The only question is, does it divorce liberty from its mooring to what it has traditionally meant? Past is prologue, and what we interpret liberty to mean today is going to determine what it will mean in the future. The Libertarian Party once had its bearings in this regard; I am just afraid that, nowadays, the party has, indeed, lost its moorings and that “liberty” could mean whatever the popular zeitgeist says it means.

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Stick to what Thomas Jefferson (pictured above) and the Founders meant by the phrase, and I think we should have a winner. Exploring this phrase in terms of its history and subsequent development could prove educational to delegates as well as to the public. Let us not forget that consideration of both internal and external audiences should inform the choice and development of whatever theme is ultimately picked.

“Make Taxation Theft Again”

Murray Rothbard was
among economists who argue
 that taxation is theft
This is a more pointed, perhaps even sarcastic version of the same theme given more straightforwardly below (See “Taxation is Theft”), being a parody, after all, of President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” If there were no other issues facing the nation or the world, this might be an excellent theme. Unless, of course, it could be shown that this idea does relate to everything, or at least to many of the things wrong in our world today. Taxation was one of the things that started the American Revolution and fueled the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Taxation ought not to be arbitrary, capricious or oppressive. Is every form of taxation unreasonable? Some forms of taxation are choices while others offer little or no choice. (If you choose not to buy a new hat, you do not have to pay a sales tax; if you choose not make more than a subsistence wage, then you will not have to file a tax return—and you will not get a refund, either.) Is the government entitled to financial support of its services? If so, which of those services is the legitimate function of the (or a) government?

“Pro-Choice on Everything”

 Well, there go the pro-life libertarians who regard an abortion as a violation of the rights of a human embryo (that has no other potential than to grow into a human being). Do all human beings have rights? (See “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” above.)

“Rise of the Libertarians”

Sounds like the title of a sequel to “Revenge of the Nerds.” What might this mean? It would be a nice if it meant that we should strive to see the worst members of Congress removed and elect Libertarians in their place, just to see whether they would do a better job. Understandably, the American people are not brave (or foolhardy?) enough to try such a gamble, even though it is fairly clear to some of us that many members of Congress are bad enough that the experiment might be worth the attempt. Who to replace, though? Another possible meaning of this theme/slogan has to do with looking back at the successes had by the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party. (The two overlap as in a Venn diagram but are not the same.) Think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have had more influence and gotten more bang for the buck than the Libertarian Party has, but the LP has won permanent ballot status in some states and has become a recognized third party. Has the LP sold its soul in exchange for its paltry percentage of the electoral vote total, though? Do Libertarians understand the difference between standing for something when it matters versus winning votes by not standing for much of anything?

“Taxation is Theft”

(See “Make Taxation Theft Again” above for virtually the same commentary.) If there were no other issues facing the nation or the world, this would be an excellent theme. Unless, of course, it could be shown that this idea relates to everything, or at least to many of the things that are wrong in our world today. Taxation was one of the things that started the American Revolution and fueled the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Taxation ought not to be arbitrary, capricious or oppressive. Is every form of taxation unreasonable? Some forms of taxation are choices while others offer little or no choice. (If you choose not to buy a new hat, you do not have to pay a sales tax; if you choose not make more than a subsistence wage, then you will not have to file a tax return—and you will not get a refund, either.) Is the government entitled to financial support of its services? If so, which of those services is the legitimate function of the (or a) government?

“The Power of Principle”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (center)
As Buffy the Vampire Slayer might say, “Can you vague that up more for me?” Yes, libertarianism is a powerful principle, but can the LP create a convention that is not, itself, too general on this theme? This would make a good theme if it becomes a framework for solutions and does not become a platform for platitudes.

A righteous theme needs to reflect what is really important at this time in national and world history, and should emphasize the aspects of the libertarian philosophy that point to solutions. With all that is going on in the world, libertarianism is relevant, but is the focus of the Libertarian Party on the relevant?
F.A. Hayek, much admired
among libertarians, wrote "The
Constitution of Liberty."

I notice that there is no theme called “The Constitution of Liberty,” which I might have been moved to support on the grounds that it might open the convention delegates to at least consider the United States Constitution as a document worthy of contemplation. (This theme also includes other ideas about the practical application of liberty beyond the U.S. Constitution.) My own apostasy from the Libertarian Party has more or less to do with the inability of Libertarians to hold the U.S. Constitution in much higher regard than do leftists or progressives who see the Constitution as a blank screen on which to project whatever they want to do according to some ideology that is inimical to that behind the Constitution.

* One of my favorite stories has to do with the development of television. The inventor of the analog television system that dominated the industry until the advent of digital, high definition TV only a few years ago, was Philo Farnsworth. Not being independently wealthy, Farnsworth had a consortium of investors that included Crocker Bank of California.

Philo Farnsworth
William Willard Bill Crocker
W.W. Crocker
RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, stole Farnsworth’s technology and began making its own television sets based on Farnsworth’s design. David Sarnoff, the president of RCA, simultaneous declared that he did not need Farnsworth and said he was willing to pay Farnsworth $5,000 for the rights to Farnsworth’s work. (In fact, the U.S. Patent Office later determined that Farnsworth did, indeed, own the patent on analog TV and Sarnoff and RCA had to pay him license fees, which ultimately led to a negotiated multi-million dollar payout from RCA to the Farnsworth Corporation.) At the time of the $5,000 offer, Farnsworth’s own impulse was to reject it out of hand,
David Sarnoff
but his investors had the last word. They agreed with Farnsworth because they had already invested far more than $5,000 in the development of television, and they deemed Sarnoff’s offer as much of an insult to them as it was to Farnsworth. If, however, his investors had decided to take the low-ball offer, Farnsworth would have had little to say about it. The point being that the amount of money that investors put into an endeavor entitles them to a larger say than the inventor who solicits their investment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

More Thoughts on Ranking Presidents

The 91 historians who recently ranked the presidents for C-SPAN used ten criteria to evaluate 43 of our nation’s 44 chief executives. (They wisely left out Trump who only just got started.) The categories seem to range from necessary and reasonable to overly subjective and therefore problematic. 

One category is “Performance Within [the] Context of [his] Times.” I am not sure how to apply this as a criterion. Some things might be justified by the context of the times while others are always right or wrong no matter how the Zeitgeist regards it. Determining the difference is a moral choice that historians are not necessarily fit to make. T. Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal civil service and screened the racist movie “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, thereby reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, while Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forbade individuals and especially state and local officials to help fugitive slaves, instead forcing them to help those returning slaves to their masters. 

Wilson was clearly enacting his own inner demons, but Fillmore, an anti-slavery moderate who had himself suffered indentured servitude as a child, appears to have been compelled by the outer political forces of his time. To the extent that Fillmore might have felt that he had to do what he did in spite of his conscience, does this mitigate what he did or not? Fillmore’s obituary in the New York Times in 1874 harshly declared that he was a politician when the country needed a statesman, but this has always seemed unfairly apodictic to me, since his refusal to sign the Act potentially could have sparked the Civil War ten years early, when the South might have been more able win than it was a decade later. Still, partial as I am to Fillmore—considering him to be one of the most underrated president—I regard his signing of that act to be his worst moment.

“Moral Authority” just happens to be another problematic category. I cannot consider “moral authority” to be a reasonably objective category. Most—if not all—of the presidents in my lifetime have divided the nation. For everyone who might have regarded any of them as a moral authority, there was another who did not. Some think their favorite president is “the greatest thing since sliced bread” bread, while they look at some other chief executive as the Antichrist. The C-SPAN historians recognize Abraham Lincoln as having great moral authority (ranking him number two after George Washington), but less than half of Lincoln’s contemporaries thought so in 1860. Most voters probably never gave moral authority a thought. Even today, there is an impassioned minority that dismisses Lincoln’s moral authority. It is no wonder that Lincoln does not come out ahead of George Washington on this score.

Does personal morality figure into this category? If so, how do we compare a John F. Kennedy’s moral authority against that of Bill Clinton? Both presidents were womanizers and yet the historians here gave Kennedy a rank of 15 for “Moral Authority” while Clinton was ranked 38. Is this because one’s moral recklessness came to light while the other one’s did not? I suppose that this category has to reflect public perception, but who gets to judge a given president’s moral authority, his contemporaries or posterity?


Other categories also seem doubtful. “Administrative Skills” seems like a straight forward category on the surface, but, surprisingly, such skills are not always obvious. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were long thought by historians to have been hands-off administrators—until it was discovered that they were the opposite: both were closet micromanagers. (One of the historians who participated in this survey, Paul Kengor—see below—still thinks that Eisenhower was hands-off!)

There is another category called “Crisis Leadership.” Perhaps only so many presidents have faced very serious crises during their terms in office. It is famously said of John Quincy Adams that his administration’s foreign policy was uneventful because Adams had resolved all foreign issues while he was the secretary of state under James Monroe. Abraham Lincoln faced the nation’s greatest crisis in the Civil War. Before him, James Madison faced an awful crisis in the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson faced the Barbary Pirates and other threats from abroad that ultimately played a part in persuading him to aggressively acquire territory for the United States. James Monroe established his eponymous doctrine in the face of territorial threats from Europe. There were domestic disputes as well as foreign woes for several presidents. Dealing with the Native American tribes, especially amid westward expansion, was often a crisis.

Even the little known and less well understood administrations of Zachary Taylor and his successor, Millard Fillmore, faced international crises that are now completely forgotten by most students of history. When Taylor died in office, there were unresolved conflicts with Great Britain, France, Mexico and Peru, any one of which could have led to war, but because none did, history neither remembers these conflicts nor appreciates that it required real skill and effort from Fillmore and his cabinet to prevent these conflicts from escalating.

President Washington’s major crises were not as severe as his generalship of the Continental Army during the War for Independence, but everything that this president did was at least a small crisis because he always had to be conscious of the fact that, being the first president, everything he did was a first. Washington’s departmental secretaries were at each other’s throats during cabinet meetings, especially Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This was a crisis in that it was a harbinger of the conflict between political parties, even though these did not yet exist. The president also led troops during the Whiskey Rebellion when Western Pennsylvania was in revolt over taxation and currency issues. (These rebels did not trust the new national currency and wanted, instead, to use whiskey as currency.)


Does managing a crisis count if the president creates it himself? James K. Polk was accused by then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln of manufacturing and provoking the Mexican War. There are still those among Lincoln’s detractors who think that he provoked the Civil War just by being elected, somewhat in the way that today’s narcissistic collectivists feel that President Donald Trump’s very existence provokes a crisis. (There is even a secessionist movement in California!) But the Civil War conflict between the slave and free states was, in my opinion, bound to occur, whether it happened in 1851, 1861 or 1871. That is, it happened on Lincoln’s watch but might just as well have happened on someone else’s.

Another category is “Pursued Equal Justice For All,” which might seem straight forward unless you reflect that there is a big difference between the goals of equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. The former is apt to run roughshod over private property rights while the latter is apt to consider them to be a necessary extension of civil rights. Different judges are going to rate the accomplishments of the same presidents quite differently if they each use these different definitions of justice.

Making my own list ranking the presidents is equally tempting and daunting. I suffer from both bias and ignorance. It is just that the scholars obviously do, too. I am convinced that they formed their judgments from biased assumptions and ignorance of the administrations they have not considered worthy of careful examination. Conservative historian Paul G.Kengor’s take on the C-SPAN survey serves as a valuable counter in this regard. I have also heard attorney and political writer Mark Levin’s comments on this topic. I cannot say that I would make the same picks as them, but I regard their choices as informative. (Levin is a big booster for James K. Polk, whose greatness I remain reluctant to admit.)

Kengor recommends an exercise. Just take the top ten or twelve from the C-SPAN rankings, and use the ten criteria to come up with your own scores. (He recommends a scale of 1 to 10, but I use 100 points because this appears to be what the C-SPAN has survey used.) I came up with the following.

President                     Score
1. George Washington            100
2. Abraham Lincoln                  96 (tied)
3. Thomas Jefferson                96 (tied)
4. Ronald Reagan                    92
5. Theodore Roosevelt             90 (tied)
6. Franklin D.  Roosevelt          90 (tied)
7. Dwight D. Eisenhower          90 (tied)
8. Harry S Truman                    89
9. T. Woodrow Wilson              78
10. John F. Kennedy                72
11. Lyndon Johnson                 66
12. Barack H. Obama              31

A. Johnson
Yikes! I could not grant Barack Obama any more points than C-SPAN’s bottom-most scorers, putting the recent president in the company of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Thus I demoted him from number 12 to around number 40, at best. Kengor (see link above) puts it pithily: Obama drove up the debt monumentally and gave our economy lower growth than Jimmy Carter did; he missed most meetings with his administrative staff, had no legislative or diplomatic achievements other than Obamacare [which will either be repealed and replaced or will otherwise go ignominiously bankrupt]; his reelection campaign had little else to brag about but, “Osama is dead, GM is alive.” He did not even marginally improve relations with any other country except Cuba. His relations with Congress were only good as long as Congress was held by his own party. Once that changed, he refused to get along with Congress.
Clinton, ranked #15

“Based on the criteria we were given for ranking these presidents,” says Kengor, “I cannot conceive how Obama could possibly score well. I don’t see how Bill Clinton didn’t rate higher than Obama…. This shouldn’t be a liberal-conservative thing. That’s the point. Literally half of my top 10 or 12 were Democrats, and I’m no Democrat. Clearly, the liberal scholars were not able to separate their partisanship when it came to objectively judging Obama. There’s no way that Barack Obama should rate the 12th-best president in U.S. history. Not a chance.”
L.B. Johnson
Similarly, Lyndon Johnson (ranked 10 by C-SPAN but maybe 12 or 13 by me) was a great arm-twister when it came to persuading others—in and out of Congress—to do his will, but his foreign and domestic policies got mixed results. Everything he did cost a lot of money, leading to debt and inflation, and his foreign policy was at least half a disaster, especially his undeclared war in Vietnam, which possibly could have been kept going much longer if popular support hadn’t dwindled (Johnson could not persuade the public), but the war was unlikely to have been won without better leadership—starting at the top. Johnson was so beat up by the media and members of his own party that he finally decided not to run for a second term. (The term that he completed after the assassination of President Kennedy was so short that Johnson was constitutionally allowed to run for a second term of his own.)

Daniel Webster, twice
Sec'y of State, but
never President
I can see just from my attempt at ranking the top dozen on the C-SPAN list that trying to fairly rank the rest of the presidents would be intensive. If I did try it, though, I would be tempted to consolidate the leadership categories. (Kengor thinks they are fair enough, but I do not.) I would reduce them to “setting an agenda,” “public persuasion,” “economic management,” and “relations with Congress (or other branches of government).” The quality of presidential appointments does say something for or against a president. Both judicial appointments and cabinet appointments can make a great difference. For example, Fillmore got into trouble for firing his predecessor’s cabinet, but an objective observer ought to admit that Taylor’s cabinet was corrupt, and Fillmore’s action was necessary. He wisely chose his own cabinet, hiring Daniel Webster and Edward Everett, who serially served as Fillmore’s secretaries of state. (It was actually Everett who deserves much of the credit for settling conflicts with both Britain and France.) Fillmore’s sole Supreme Court appointment, Benjamin Robbins Curtis, was no slouch; he was the author of one of the two memorable dissenting opinions in the Dredd Scott case.

I would give all of those presidents who died after less than two years in office an incomplete. The low rankings for some of those who died in office strike me as very unfair reflections on them, belied by their accomplishments before their presidencies. For example, James Garfield is ranked 21 in public persuasion. Although he obviously had little opportunity to exercise this skill before being assassinated only three months into his term, he probably would have been pretty good at it. Garfield was a much sought after preacher, college lecturer and a lawyer who only ever practiced law once and that was before the United States Supreme Court. (He won!)

As I have indicated before, I would rank Millard Fillmore somewhat higher and Zachary Taylor somewhat lower (if I did not simply give Taylor an incomplete). The middling ranking of Calvin Coolidge overall (27) and in each of the ten categories is just plain wrong. His highest ranking by the C-SPAN survey is in his relations with Congress (18), but it makes no sense that the man who kept the economy out of depression and had a clear vision of what the United States is and ought to be is ranked so low in economic management (22), administrative skills (25), crisis leadership (29), and setting an agenda (29). I would always put Coolidge above Obama.