The Presidential Ratings Racket
In our capital city’s darkest hour, C-SPAN again rode to her rescue. Amid a mass outbreak of Trump Derangement Syndrome, the public programming cable channel has released its third rankings of U.S. presidents. C-SPAN’s rankings are not an antidote, exactly, to the TDS epidemic, but this exercise is a welcome distraction as well as a needed reminder that, in the words of famed screenwriter William Goldman, “nobody knows anything.”
Goldman was talking about the secret to making a Hollywood hit. But the same principle applies to judging presidents, an even more subjective subject. If it didn’t, the rankings wouldn’t be as static as they are. Well, somewhat static. Abraham Lincoln is still first, and George Washington second, with Franklin Roosevelt third, as they were in C-SPAN’s 2009 survey. (In 2001, C-SPAN had Washington at No. 3 and FDR at No. 2, for some reason. To my mind, GW should be No. 1, on account of winning the war that created the country and then inventing the office of presidency itself. I think Henry Lee, America’s first evaluator of presidents, had it right when he eulogized GW as “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”)
In any event, Lincoln, Washington, and Roosevelt comprise the Big Three on nearly every list of presidents. But there’s enough difference of opinion—and periodic alterations in the rankings—below the Big Three to keep political junkies talking for hours.
Moreover, the ability of past presidents to move up and down these lists argues for more humility among the chattering class. Until very recently, liberal elites confidently assured anyone who would listen that George W. Bush was the “worst” president in American history. Yet barely a month into Donald Trump’s term, these hysterical critics would give anything to have Dubya back in the Oval Office.
The “worst” commander-in-chief, by the way—in nearly every presidential ranking survey—is James Buchanan. Not seeing the Civil War coming turns out to have been a big flaw. So the very top and the very bottom seem secure. But what about the 40 men in the middle? Should we defer to the experts about them? The short answer is no.
Let’s start with the first such rankings. They were done in 1948 and again in 1962 under the aegis of Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a prominent Harvard historian who was an ardent New Deal Democrat. His surveys, which formed a mold for everything that came later, asked historians to put every previous president into one of five categories: great, near great, average, below average, and failure. In 1996, his son and namesake, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., started doing the same thing, with similar results.
The Schlesingers’ methodology was, to put it mildly, problematic. First, because no objective criteria were established, the conclusions are impressionistic, almost by definition. Second, under their system, there’s no way to assign a president credit for a success and give him demerits for a failure. For that reason, their ratings are incomplete and misleading. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, is lauded for his civil rights record and faulted for his disastrous Vietnam policies, but the only way to reconcile the two areas is to give him an “average” grade. This is particularly discordant for LBJ, who didn’t strike anybody who knew him as average on any day of his life.
The third weakness in the Schlesingers’ ratings racket is their obvious ideological bias. They basically polled their pals, which is to say, fellow liberals—and political activists at that. How liberal? How activist? Schlesinger Jr. co-founded the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action. He also worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and was such a Democratic Party partisan that he wrote an acclaimed biography of Andrew Jackson without mentioning the Seminole Indians or Cherokees or the Trail of Tears.
The younger Schlesinger’s jury of experts in the 1990s included several historians who were signatories to a partisan and inflammatory newspaper ad attacking Republicans for daring to impeach Bill Clinton. Also among his panelists were two Democratic politicians, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
A former newspaperman and amateur Lincoln historian, Simon’s inclusion might have been defensible. But Cuomo made his national reputation at the Democrats’ 1984 convention with a fiery attack on the Reagan Revolution. The upshot of fielding such partisan panels isn’t hard to detect: In Schlesinger Sr.’s 1962 survey, he ranks Dwight Eisenhower one spot below the unprepared nonentity Chester A. Arthur. In 1996, Schlesinger Jr. gave Ronald Reagan about the same ranking, at the low end of the “average” presidents. Placing Ike and the Gipper that low is, in a word, goofy.
The academic who blew the whistle on the presidential ratings racket was Alvin S. Felzenberg, who not only directly took on the question of bias, but concluded that it was folly not to differentiate among various presidential traits. Felzenberg turned his study into a superb 2008 book, “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.” It evaluates presidents in six separate areas: character; vision; competence; economic policy; preserving and extending liberty; and defense, national security, and foreign policy.
The different categories allow for a richer consideration of America’s past. Ulysses S. Grant, invariably adjudged as a mediocre president in the one-size-fits-all surveys, earns a top score (along with Lincoln and LBJ) in Felzenberg’s “preserving and extending liberty” category. Without the Schlesingers to cover up his genocidal Indian policies, Andrew Jackson flunks this class. In the foreign policy category, Reagan gets an A (along with seven others), while Lyndon Johnson gets an F.
The C-SPAN survey follows suit in providing a richer portrait than the typical rankings, while also seeking to minimize the prejudices of the day. Its 91-member panel of historians, presidential biographers, and other professional observers of the presidency is ideologically diverse. And its panel of advisers (Richard Norton Smith, Douglas Brinkley, and Edna Greene Medford) formulated a list of 10 presidential attributes to judge, ranging from “moral authority” to “performance within the context of his times.”
This attention to detail and fairness pays off. Eight years ago, Reagan finally cracked the Top 10 in C-SPAN’s survey. (He’s No. 9 this year.) The always steady Eisenhower has risen from ninth in the 2009 survey to fifth. Even though “I Like Ike,” to quote his campaign slogan, this feels a little high. Barack Obama weighs in at No. 12 in his first appearance on the list, while John F. Kennedy ranks No. 8 (one place behind Thomas Jefferson, who trails No. 6 Harry Truman). But why is Theodore Roosevelt No. 4, a position he’s kept all along?
Two obvious reasons are that Roosevelt busted the corporate monopolies that were a bane of the turn-of-the-century U.S. economy and greatly expanded the nation’s parks and national forests. These are popular positions today, but should they propel TR ahead of Thomas Jefferson, who bought half the country from France? Or Harry Truman, who brought WWII to a close, integrated the armed forces with a stroke of his pen, and reorganized the modern White House?
Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson is sinking like a stone: He went from 13th place to 18th in just eight years in the C-SPAN survey. George Bush, according to C-SPAN’s judges, is not nearly the “worst” president—and is viewed better than when he left office.
Although I happen to agree with both of those judgments, the larger point is that no system of assessment is infallible. Differences of opinion flow out of our personal experiences, prejudices, and preferences—and those of the judges as well. “That Obama came in at number 12 his first time out is quite impressive,” said Brinkley. “And the survey is surprisingly good news for George W. Bush, who shot up a few notches.”
That’s one view. But Howard University professor Edna Greene Medford, Brinkley’s fellow C-SPAN advisory team member, expressed disappointment that Obama wasn’t higher. “I am especially surprised that he was ranked at 7th in ‘moral authority,’ despite heading a scandal-free administration,” she said.
Conservative groups targeted by the Obama administration IRS, and protected by his highly politicized Justice Department, would surely disagree with her “scandal-free” description, but in the old racetrack expression, such differences of opinion “are what makes horse races.”
In the era of the polarizing, and fascinating, Donald Trump administration, we are wise to remember the admonition of Calvin Coolidge (27th in the C-SPAN survey, and about the same in the Schlesingers’). “Unfortunately, not all experts are entirely disinterested,” Coolidge said. “Not all specialists are without guile.”