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.

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