Monday, February 16, 2009

The new presidential poll by historians.

You may have read about the poll of historians ranking the U.S. Presidents, which you can read for yourself on the C-SPAN website. News reports have focused on George W. Bush's ranking, 36th of 42, and many people in the group known as "the angry left" are upset that he isn't in dead last. Well, that isn't going to happen. Americans are allowed to forget some of our presidents, but it's frowned upon when historians do, and we had some truly useless stinkers just before Lincoln gets into office. The bottom spots are reserved for guys like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, and they aren't getting dislodged by someone with even Bush's track record, though things do change over time.

So, you can head over to the website and browse the lists of numbers, or you can let me give you the highlights.

Long lists of numbers of dubious usefulness. This is what Matty Boy keeps track of so you don't have to. Am I right?

Seriously. William Henry Harrison? As a devotee of an odd fetish that is only rarely commercially exploited, it must be said that some of My People are insane completists. I once wrote this on a website dedicated to My People and Our Agenda, and someone wrote back "Matty Boy! You say 'insane completist' like it's a bad thing!" I had to apologize profusely and make it clear it was not meant as an insult, merely as a descriptive phrase.

But sometimes it is a bad thing. There are 42 names on the list of presidents being judged in ten categories. Though GWB counts as the 43rd president, this is by counting Grover Cleveland twice for his two nonconsecutive terms. There's one guy that the historians should agree to give a "Not Applicable" answer to all questions and move on.

William Henry Harrison was president for 31 days. For the last 10 of those days, he was ill, then deathly ill, then dead. In 1841, people didn't get a lot done in three weeks; he was still in the middle of meet and greets when he caught the cold that killed him. It doesn't make sense to rank him on Administrative Skills or Vision And Agenda or International Relations.

Just give the guy an incomplete and let it go.

The big climbs and drops. The last time this poll was taken was in 2000, and in the nine intervening years Bill Clinton climbed seven spots, from 22nd to 15th. In some ways, this isn't surprising, because historians like to take their time in evaluation. One should expect re-evaluations of presidents from the past thirty or even forty years. But since the last such poll, Ulysses S. Grant rose 10 positions, from 33rd to 23rd, while Rutherford B. Hayes took a seven position plummet, from 26th to 33rd.

This positive re-appraisal of Grant is a real surprise to me. I took American History in high school and college in the 1970s, and back then we were taught the most corrupt administrations in history were Grant and Harding, with Nixon maybe, sort of in the same league. I'd like to find out what these folks see over 100 years after the fact that make them a little kinder to the great general who was, by most accounts, a very bad president.

Let's take a closer look at the rankings of some of the presidents from the past 100 years that people will list as the worst: Nixon, Harding, Hoover, George W. Bush and, just to be fair and balanced, Jimmy Carter.

James Carter. Ranked 25th of 42, score of 474 of a possible 1000. There are ten categories and in each category, the president can get a score from 0 to 100. For practical purposes, the highest scores in most categories are in the high 90s, the lowest scores in the teens and twenties. Carter is listed in the bottom half of presidents, but it is not completely fair and balanced to put him on this list of the worst in a century, because he actually ranks above someone that almost no one puts in dead last from the past century, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was dull as dishwater, but he is sandwiched between Harding and Hoover, and anybody paying attention is going to think one of those guys is worse than Coolidge, and probably both.

Don't expect Carter's numbers to fall very far in the long run. Two of the categories judged are Moral Authority and Equal Justice for All, and The Man From Plains scores in the top half in both, while the rest of the guys we will look at get very bad marks on those criteria.

Richard Nixon. Ranked 27th of 42, score of 450 out of 1000. I have to say as a liberal/progressive/whatever, there are a lot of ways that Nixon looks better over time. In the category of International Relations, the historians give him very high marks, but not surprisingly, his scores in Moral Authority and Relations With Congress are always going to drag him down.

The historians like Ronald Reagan a lot more than I do. Reagan cracked the top ten on this list, where as I would rank him as the second worst president of my lifetime, only better than Bush the Lesser.

Herbert Hoover. Ranked 34th of 42, score of 389 out of 1000. As the present day GOP minority praises the palliative power of doing nothing in the face of grim economic numbers, their trashing of FDR and mimicking of Hoover may bring a more thorough searching of Hoover's record, and given our times, that search is likely to go against old Herb. While he is currently ranked 34th, those numbers could still go lower.

In the name of fairness, it is also possible he will get a jump some day in the appraisal of his efforts. After all, Ulysses S. Grant has pulled his name out of the mud somehow in the eyes of modern historians, so stranger things have happened.

Though not much stranger. Hoover is in the bottom half for the foreseeable future.

George W. Bush. Ranked 36th of 42, score of 362 out of 1000. Some people may be disappointed he isn't 42nd out of 42, but this is a miserable first draft of history for GWB, and there is a possibility it could go lower. In seven of ten categories, he is ranked very near the bottom, but he gets middle of the pack scores in the categories of Crisis Leadership, Vision and Agenda and one I find mystifying, Equal Justice for All. If any of the investigations into his cronies turn into criminal matters and they do jail time, I think there is still a chance he could sink below Warren G. Harding as the worst president of the past 100 years.

He's safe from being dead last, though. Historians really hate James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. Did you know GWB is related to Pierce on his mama's side? Yes, the worst presidential blood in our country's history courses through this man's veins.

Warren G. Harding. Ranked 38th of 42, score of 327 of 1000. Well, duh! If historians had decided to polish both of our most corrupt president's legacies, if both Grant and Harding were lifted out of the bottom ten muck, then I would have to question if history was any more valid than astrology. In all ten categories, Harding's best ranking is 32nd of 42, in Public Persuasion. This is the kind of true stinkitude that GWB will have to beat in the race to the bottom, and the boy may not be up to it.

Boy, that's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a public holiday.


CDP said...

I thought the same thing about WH Harrison; it was silly for them to even evaluate him based on a month. I expected Harding to be dead last, but I guess the pre-Lincoln gang were even worse.

Karlacita! said...

Speaking as a nascent social scientist, the C-Span poll data were jp silly.

Every category is flawed, because every one is based on subjective opinions. Multiplying each outcome by ten does nothing but blow up the opinions. Historians are just as subject to ideological bias as anyone else.

I call bullshit on this C-span poll. Dubya doesn't have to be the worst president ever for me to think he was a failure, but I'd like to see a poll like this that's based on actual data and stats.

What would the baseball-ish, measurable stats of a president be? The economy? No, because that isn't truly under his control, considering that he inherited the financial structures created before he got there.

The number of pet bills passed by Congress? The number of programs created?


Let's make a better one.

Matty Boy said...

Number of programs created would be a minus for the modern Republican party.

How about starting a war based on nonsense? By that measure, LBJ, Reagan, Bush the Elder and Bush the Lesser all get bad marks.

How about not being able to finish a war you got the country into? I'll give FDR a pass because he died as WW II was finishing, but Truman didn't get us out of Korea, LBJ didn't finish Vietnam and Bush the Lesser didn't finish either Afghanistan or Iraq. At least Grenada and Panama were quick little in and out affairs, even if they were based on garbage.

And while it may be completely subjective, the guys before Lincoln were weaklings who did nothing to bring free and slave states closer to some resolution.