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RANKING PRESIDENTS - Utter Nonsense Or Useful Analysis?


Friday, May. 11, 2001

Americans love ranking everything, it seems part of our genome. Competition is the America way. We have top ten everything. You name it, we rank it. But for the most part our endless classifying, grouping, and arranging is nothing but high-grade hokum, mixed with a lot of bunkum.

When recently looking at a number of rankings of our presidents, I found myself asking whether this was utter nonsense or useful analysis. A closer look at polls and studies on the topics yielded some interesting insights.

Leading Presidential Ranking Polls

Polling knowledgeable scholars to rank past presidents began in 1948, when historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. solicited the views of 55 historians for Life magazine. Dr. Schlesinger repeated this drill in 1962 for the New York Times Magazine. And his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., followed in his father's footsteps in 1996, for the New York Times Magazine.

each President (omitting W. H. Harrison and Garfield because they died so soon after taking office) in one of five categories: Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average and Failure."

Employing a Justice Potter Stewart type standard (you know pornography when you see it), each of the fifty-five selected scholars decided for themselves how to judge greatness.

The first Schlesinger poll (1948) produced six greats: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Wilson, Jefferson and Jackson. There were two failures: Grant and Harding.

The last Schlesinger poll (1996) found only three greats: Lincoln, Washington and FDR. There were five more failures, though, for a total of seven: Pierce, Grant, Hoover, Nixon, Andrew Johnson, Buchanan and Harding.

Other Presidential Ranking Polls

Given the media attention generated by the early Schlesinger polls, others soon followed. In 1970, there was a poll of 571 historians. Based on accomplishments of the administration, the top and bottom rankings were vitally identical with the first and last Schlesinger polls.

In 1979, Robert E. DiClerico polled 93 historians to find the ten greatest presidents. He reported them in his The American President: Lincoln (greatest) Washington, FDR, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Jackson, Truman, Polk and J. Adams.

The flip side of DiClerico's ten greatest was offered by Nathan Miller in his 1998 work Star-Spangled Men: American's Ten Worst Presidents: Nixon, Harding, Buchanan, Pierce, A. Johnson, Grant, Coolidge, B. Harrison, Taft and Carter.

The most recent ranking I've found was undertaken by the ubiquitous Federalist Society, joining forces with the Wall Street Journal in November 2000. This study involved 78 presidential scholars - 30 historians, 25 political scientists and 23 law professors. The scholars were selected in such a way as to assure that the jury was politically balanced.

Remarkably, the findings of this study are almost identical to those of the 1996 Schlesinger poll (which was perceived to be a jury of the left). Greats: Washington outranked Lincoln, with FDR holding the third slot. Failures: A. Johnson, Pierce, Harding and Buchanan. No other ranking (so far) has put Buchanan at the bottom.

Ranking presidential greatness is a parlor game for presidential scholars. Who else can distinguish the relative greatness of any outside their memory?

Look, for example, at Time magazine's longtime presidential pundit Hugh Sidey, who narrated the ten hour PBS series on all 41 former presidents. "Who the heck knew about Tyler or Fillmore or Hayes," he admitted.

Not only is ranking the presidents a game, it is one without any real rules. Each scholar uses his own criteria to rank. While a few ranking efforts have sought to establish criteria, the measurements have nevertheless remained vague and totally subjective. Moreover, the fact that few — if any — scholars have true expertise outside a few presidencies means that even scholars individual assessments may be suspect.

In short, viewed objectively, these rankings tell us almost nothing.

Can We Learn Anything Worth Knowing From Ranking Presidents?

These rankings do make one interesting point, however. One man has been consistently found to be "great" for each century in our nation's history: George Washington for the 18th, Abraham Lincoln for the 19th, and Franklin Roosevelt for the 20th.

The constancy of this judgment over almost a half century is very striking, given the diversity of criteria, and the uniqueness of each judging panel. It unquestionably shows that these three figures have established our norms for presidential greatness: They set the standard to which the wise and honest can repair.

The other end of the spectrum is less definite, and far more subjective and variable. Those ranked as failures are constantly changing their positions, both up and down.

For example, in the 1948 Schlesinger poll, Andrew Johnson was ranked 19th, but he fell to 22nd in the 1962 Schlesinger poll, to 37th in the 1996 Schlesinger poll, and to 36th in the 2000 Federalist Society-Wall Street Journal ranking poll. One can almost hear him protesting: "What did I do?"

While Andrew Johnson has been heading downwards, Ulysses Grant has been steadily rising. He moved from being tied with Harding as one of two failures in 1948 to being rated as simply below average in 2000. Given the new interest in him, he may go higher in the next poll.

Warren G. Harding Is Not A Role Model for a Failed Presidency

Meanwhile, everyone's long-time worst president, Warren G. Harding is anything but a role model for failure.

Indeed, at the time of his death in office, he was widely respected and greatly loved. He was a president who actually cut taxes while helping the nation accomplish the transition from a wartime (WWI) economy. And he created new agencies of government that remain with us to this day: Veterans Affairs and the Bureau of the Budget.

Harding, a highly articulate president, spoke out against the plight of blacks and against racism when it was highly unpopular to do so. He hired for his cabinet men who were among the best and brightest, such as Herbert Hoover, his Secretary of Commerce, and Charles Evans Hughes, his Secretary of State.

The criminal scandals that engulfed Harding's presidency — after his death — were not of his making nor was he complicit in them. His alleged extramarital activities surfaced after his death, too. That meant, of course, that he thus had no opportunity to explain or apologize, to take or deny responsibility. Moreover, if infidelity determines the rank of a president, many who followed should have their ranking adjusted.

The polls' unfortunate tendency to confine Harding to history's dustbin has long made me highly suspicious of this parlor game's significance. A presidency well worth studying is ignored and disparaged.

Good Entertainment Value

I would be the first to admit that these presidential rankings are great fun, and good entertainment. That is about it, however.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has spent a life-time studying the presidency. Few, if any, know more. When he agreed to another round in the "game of ranking" it seemed to me he did so with reluctance. He noted that "making judgments about some of the Presidents since Eisenhower stumped" him. And if he had difficulty, who would not? Only he is candid enough to admit it.

Still, the game of ranking is, it must be said, a good game. But remember the words of H. Allen Smith: "The human animal differs from the lesser primates in his passion for lists of Ten Best" -- including the ranking of presidents.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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