Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Presidental Rankings

Noon says most all of what needs to be said about the C-SPAN presidential rankings. It's a pretty worthless exercise to begin with and when you include William Henry Harrison and James Garfield in your count, both of whom served less than a year, it's hard to take it very seriously. These lists also tend to glorify popular presidents over a realistic analysis of what these people did in office in the context of what opportunities and challenges they had. On top of that, most of the voters are presidential biographers and often love their own subject. It would be more useful I think to poll a bunch of non-presidential historians, but people who would take the job seriously.

A few points were interesting. George W. Bush starts out low at #36 and despite the claims of Cheney and the boys, he's just going to drop. That one of the presidents below him is Harrison is absurd and should just be thrown out. That leaves us with Fillmore, Harding, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Buchanan. Fillmore and Harding were bad, but it's hard to argue they were as utterly disastrous as Bush. There are no doubt some conservatives on that list who are probably bumping Bush more than they should.

Wilson has taken a bit of a drop from the last poll in 2000, a direct result of Bush's Wilsonian foreign policy being shown as laughable as Wilson's was. That it's only from 6 to 9 reflects how little these rankings change at the top because of the iconic status of the presidents. Grant is a big riser, from 33 to 23. That's largely a reflection of his attempts to ensure African-American civil rights, which is all fine and good except that he totally failed to do so, that he allowed corruption to dominate his administration, and that he presided over the Panic of 1873 with very ineffectual results. Clinton is also on the rise, from 15 to 10, a nice slap in the face to Bush. I'm not sure I agree with this because on the economic front, many of the problems of the Bush administration started under Clinton. So I wonder how this will hold up in the long run. Still, compared to the last 8 years, the previous 8 look pretty sweet. Interestingly, John Adams barely moved, showing the limited influence of David McCullough to change people's minds. I actually think Adams was a somewhat better president than this, largely because he did peacefully give up power to the opposing party in 1801.

A couple of years ago, I did my own ranking of 10 best and worst presidents. Might be worth revisiting if I want to waste some time.