Presidential rankings: William Henry Harrison was robbed!

Thanks to Beltway Dem's diary, I saw that C-SPAN asked these 65 professional historians or observers of the presidency to rank the 42 presidents on the following criteria:  

   * Public Persuasion
    * Crisis Leadership
    * Economic Management
    * Moral Authority
    * International Relations
    * Administrative Skills
    * Relations with Congress
    * Vision/Setting An Agenda
    * Pursued Equal Justice For All
    * Performance Within Context of Times

Here are the overall scores and rankings. My comments are after the jump.

(There are lots of good comments in Beltway Dem's thread too.)

George W. Bush ranked 36th, ahead of Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin D. Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. Doesn't that strike you as unfair to William Henry Harrison? Granted, he didn't accomplish much in the six weeks he was president before dying of pneumonia. But it's not as if he turned a record surplus into record deficits or got this country mired in the longest war in U.S. history or anything.

Other notable findings:

Abraham Lincoln ranked first again, as any normal person would expect (even though none of the men who sought to lead the Republican Party named him as the greatest GOP president). Lincoln is even more remarkable when you view his leadership in the context of his times. The three presidents who immediately preceded Lincoln and his successor all ranked in the bottom six overall.

George Washington moved ahead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt this time to finish second. That is a tough call, and I could see it either way. The New Deal changed this country forever, but Washington's commitment to regular presidential elections and serving only two terms set enormously important precedents.

Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S Truman ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, as they did in the 2000 survey of historians. I'm no professional historian, but that seems high for Truman.

John F. Kennedy moved from eighth place in 2000 to sixth in this survey, putting him just ahead of Thomas Jefferson. They cannot be serious. Kennedy did more for this country as president than Jefferson did?

Dwight D. Eisenhower also moved up from ninth place in the last survey to eighth. Woodrow Wilson dropped from sixth in 2000 to ninth, which probably says something about current academic trends in the International Relations field, but I don't know what exactly.

Republicans will be pleased that Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson switched places; Reagan moved from eleventh into the top ten, while LBJ dropped down one notch to eleventh.

I have problems with putting JFK ahead of LBJ. I don't think Kennedy could have gotten such far-reaching civil rights legislation through Congress during that era. The great tragedy of LBJ's presidency was continuing the Vietnam policy begun by JFK. Johnson had serious doubts about this policy, but he stuck with it, and in doing so he was following the advice of almost all the Kennedy advisers who stayed on for his administration. I do not believe Kennedy would have kept us from deeper involvement in Vietnam, and I don't think he would have achieved nearly as much on the domestic front.

Speaking of which, ranking Reagan ahead of Johnson seems outlandish. I know Reagan is now a conservative cult hero (they whitewash his tax hikes during in his second term), but can his admirers explain to me which of his policies changed this country forever? Did he make the government smaller in some way? Did he manage the country's money responsibly?

Look at this list of LBJ's accomplishments, which Paul Rosenberg compiled at Open Left. Can anyone imagine this country without Medicare or Medicaid? Head Start or Food Stamps? The Department of Transportation? Republicans may hate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, but they have been unable to get rid of them. The long list includes consumer protection and environmental progress as well.

The war in Vietnam was a terrible mistake, but even so, Johnson made lasting changes for the good in so many policy areas, it's mind-boggling. The Republican presidents who followed him were unable to undo this legacy.

Getting back to the historians' survey, Bill Clinton looks a lot better now than he did before George W. Bush screwed up the country. As a group, the historians ranked him 21st in 2000, but he has moved up to 15th place.

George H.W. Bush moved up slightly from 20th to 18th place.

Did someone's book launch a revisionist view of Ulysses S. Grant during the last eight years? He ranked 33rd in 2000 but moved up to 23rd place. No other president showed as large a jump in the historians' rankings.

Jimmy Carter dropped from 22nd to 25th, and Richard Nixon dropped from 25th to 27th.

This is an open thread for any opinions about how the U.S. presidents should be ranked.

Tags: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, JFK, John F Kennedy, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, PRESIDENTS, Ronald Reagan (all tags)

Comments

19 Comments

Reagan did leave a legacy

but not a hugely lasting one, beacuse it is based off of a failed ideology. However judicially and economically he clearly shifted the country right-ward for the next 25 or so years.

Also, I think Washington gets a little too much credit. If you look at total contributions to our country clearly he would be number one, however the challenges he faced as the first president don't come anywhere near to what FDR faced. Similarly I think Jimmy Carter has made great contributions to our nation but he was not a particularly successful president.

Anyways, here would be my top 10.

Abraham Lincoln  
Franklin D. Roosevelt
George Washington
Theodore Roosevelt
Lyndon Johnson
John F. Kennedy
Harry S. Truman
Thomas Jefferson
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Woodrow Wilson

In addition I think Daddy Bush and WJC are rated too low.  

by Populista 2009-02-15 03:20PM | 0 recs
Re: Reagan did leave a legacy

As for Washington, simply the fact there was a second president at all is proof of his success in the office, especially in the times he lived. He also set the precedents of the office, managed his feuding advisors as well as he could, and managed to avoid a potentially disastrous war with Britain while gaining concession with the then wildly unpopular Jay Treaty. Oh, and the whole peaceful transfer of power thing was important too. Still, as is the case with Jefferson, it says something of the man that his competent presidency is not his most important legacy to the country.

But anyway, we can all take solace that Bush is seen as the worst two-term president ever (or not, because history will ask how our country could elect such a man twice, or twice* in his case) That men such as Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, and James Garfield (who served less than a year before being shot) are seen as better presidents than W. He's even lower than Hoover!

by ctman1638 2009-02-15 07:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Reagan did leave a legacy

As for Washington, simply the fact there was a second president at all is proof of his success in the office, especially in the times he lived.

For full context, it should be noted that Washington did something that no head of state in recorded history had ever done before him - he passed his power peacefully to a democratically elected successor who wasn't related to him.

It's something we all take for granted today, but 200 years ago such a thing had never been heard of.

by Obamaphile 2009-02-16 01:50PM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings: William Henry Harrison

I was pretty shocked to see Grant that high, let alone moving up. Hard to see how he isn't in the bottom ten, or even five, for his time as President (you have to think of the immense corruption under his watch in the White House, not his great leadership as a General).

by Jonathan Singer 2009-02-15 03:47PM | 0 recs
black civil rights

15th amendment, Reconstruction, etc.

It's pretty obvious Southerns have trashed him for generations and that has sunk in.

by John DE 2009-02-15 07:21PM | 0 recs
in the Daily Kos thread

someone said that Eric Foner's work on Reconstruction has somewhat rehabilitated Grant's legacy.

by desmoinesdem 2009-02-16 03:03AM | 0 recs
also in the Daily Kos thread

someone linked to this diary making a case for Grant as a decent president:

http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/5 /7/214329/7537

by desmoinesdem 2009-02-16 03:05AM | 0 recs
Re: also in the Daily Kos thread

Interesting read.  I think one of his biggest problems out of the gate with Grant was that he not only he sympathized with the radical republicans during the Reconstruction...he also led the Union Army during the end of the Civil War!

I'm won't say Grant was a saint or even a particularly good President -both political parties were certainly mired in corruption during the last half of the 19th century.  But given the success of the South in taking down the Reconstruction mandate from the Repubican Party, and the intense admiration by the public for the South in the Civil War well into the 20th Century, it's obvious why Grant's Presidential legacy has suffered.

by West of the Fields 2009-02-16 05:24PM | 0 recs
that's what I thought too

Near the very bottom--certainly well below average.

That's why I was wondering if someone wrote a book that cast a different perspective on his presidency.

by desmoinesdem 2009-02-15 03:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings

love that clinton leapt ahead of the first Bush. if the single unexceptional term that poppy bush had is really good for top 20, how bad must that bottom half have been? crike.

also telling that in his final year in office Clinton was ranked 21st while W was ranked 36th. will be interesting to see how people view Bush with 8 years hindsight. I mean, he can only go up, really. but how high? unlike clinton, though, who looks all the better post-Bush, one would think that Bush will look even worse post-Obama. one hopes anyway.

by Todd Beeton 2009-02-15 03:55PM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings

Actually, I think Bush will go down much further as ongoing efforts to disclose the extent of the corruption, deceitful manipulation, intentional neglect obscured by "compassionate conservative" sounding phrases, and greed that was wrecked on this country. Although the Republican stench can still be smelled throughout the country, especially from the losers and obstructioninists without any cause who were left in the House and Senate, they will be peeled back to expose the uniquely rare and fetid stankcheese at the core of the Bush administration.  

by Jeter 2009-02-15 10:51PM | 0 recs
GWB rankings depends on Obama

If Obama can't get the economy to jump start soon and the economy tanks to near depression levels, GWB's ranking will fall. Right now, historians believe that his actions in October may have saved the economy and is why he's not closer to the bottom. So in a way, GWB's ranking depends on Obama's ranking. However, it will be hard for him to be ranked higher than Obama because if the economy bounces back, historians will give Obama most of the credit.

by Zzyzzy 2009-02-16 10:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings:GWB = WAE

George W. Bush has surpassed the term Worst President Ever; to me King George = Worst American Ever, for all the damage he has done to our constitution and world opinion.  In 8 long years, we have gone from the guiding light for democracy and morality to the 4th most FEARED nation on earth.

 These rankings are also on Think Progress, with WAE's rankings in the bottom half of ALL categories.  His highest ranking was 24th best when it came to "Pursued Equal Justice For All"

 Now I have to ask, does this "Pursued Equal Justice For All" ranking exclude political prosecutions and keeping the DOJ from being the WH's puppet?  Obviously, or how else would he not be the lowest rated President in this category.  This category may be where WAE became the gutter scum that he is today, and will always be remembered as, except for Repugs in their alternative universe.

 Other than what I have stated, the rest of what I think about WAE is best left unsaid.

by barkleyg 2009-02-15 04:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings: William Henry Harrison

WH Harrison gets screwed.  he shouldn't even be counted in this ranking.  GWB is too high.  i honestly believe that he is one of the very worst that we've had, and i don't get the grant thing either.  the only thing that really leapt forward during his presidency that i'm aware of is massive corruption.  i think the whole exercise in ranking via  a point system is a little suspect...

by bluedavid 2009-02-15 06:12PM | 0 recs
Mr. desmoinesdem agrees with you

However, in the Daily Kos thread AdmiralNaismith had an interesting rationale for ranking him:

http://www.dailykos.com/comments/2009/2/ 15/192511/285/35#c35

   

William Harrison, it seems to me, ought to be the zero-point separating the net positive Presidents from the net negative Presidents. There's no question that Harding, Hoover, Nixon, Grant and Chimpy all belong below Harrison by that standard. And more time may need to pass before we can really assess Chimpy's place in history, but it's hard to see how he gets a higher ranking than ANY of the others, except for Andrew Johnson and Buchanan.

by desmoinesdem 2009-02-16 03:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings:

I'm studying to be a professional historian, and most historians I know tend not to like these lists.  It's unfair to judge presidents against each other from disparate eras.  Some simply had more momentous issues during their administrations.  Much of the ranking is driven by propaganda, ie: a case can be made that any of these presidents weren't really that great.  For me, Eisenhower jumps out as someone that doesn't belong in the top 10.  However, it's a fun exercise.

I'm always amazed at these lists for ranking Harry Truman as high as they do.  He did have some major accomplishments, but he also made serious mistakes.  He was about as unpopular as Nixon when he left office.  I've written on the negative legacies of Harry Truman.    

Truman was very down-to-earth and folksy, and that kind of attitude is popular, especially among conservatives, who usually also rank him highly.  With more time, he may move downward.

James K. Polk as #12!?  If you didn't like Bush going to war with Iraq, then you really shouldn't like James K. Polk, who was 10 times more blatant than Bush in the false pretenses for war with Mexico.

Bottom line is that these lists are more of a reflection on the politics of the day than the actual worthiness of any of the presidents.  

by redguard57 2009-02-16 09:27AM | 0 recs
Will be interesting to see where things stand

The next time they do this - hopefully after two Obama terms.

As much as I respect the leadership and charisma JFK brought to office, I still don't know how people can view his term and say he was one of the top 5 or 6 Presidents.  I'm not sure how Truman ranked 5th.

I think we will see Bill Clinton steadily move up as more time passes, particularly since Bill Clinton's influence can be seen in Obama's administration, so if Obama has a strong 8 years, I think we'll see Clinton get some push from that.

It'll be interesting to see how things change over time.  I look at Reagan's record (well, I guess I should say his administration's) and wonder what people will think a decade from now, or even a few years from now.  On paper, a lot of international and domestic issues can be traced back to the Reagan administration.  As more people from that era age, and newer perspectives are brought forth from the benefit of hindsight, I imagine Reagan could slide a bit.  That said, I think there's this popular notion of the grandfatherly Reagan that he won't tumble to far, but it will be interesting to see how Reagan and Clinton perceptions change through time.

by toonsterwu 2009-02-16 10:26AM | 0 recs
This Generation of HIstorians

How each generation of historians view the ranking of presidents is a reflection of the prevelant views of society at the time. Right now, we are fascinated with Lincoln because of his 200th birthday, which is probably raising Grant's ranking and decreasing A. Johnson's ranking. When I grew up, historians actually ranked Andrew Johnson quite high because they thought he had a lot of grit to stand up against the radical Republicans in congress. Another president that got high marks when I was young was Grover Cleveland. He was ranked about tenth, then fell dramatically and now has been making a mild comeback.

Woodrow Wilson was considered to be a great president when I was young. But because the Democratic Party was quite racist when he was president, he has dropped somewhat in the rankings.

Lyndon Johnson is now making a mild comeback. When I was young he was ranked high, but when Reagan was president he dropped dramatically in the rankings. He is making a comeback because the country is moving to the left. However, LBJ is limited because of Vietnam.

Why is JFK ranked so high? Probably because Barack Obama reminds people of Kennedy. It's been a long time since we had a progressive president that was quite articulate. Carter and Clinton did not make memorable speeches.

Truman is the facsinating one. Truman got a second look from historians when the Soviet Union fell. Historians were impressed that he had passed the Marshall Plan, GI Bill, created NATO and reorganized the intelligence agencies. They also believed that Truman did the right thing not to make war on the Soviet Union (As Patton suggested) and the Korean War would have had a better outcome had not McAurthur disobeyed him and bombed China.

Presidents ranked too high: Adams, Q. Adams, Bush, W. Bush, Nixon, Grant, JFK and Harding (There may be others after more thought)

Presidents ranked too low: Cleveland, A. Johnson, Carter, Wilson and A. Jackson.

by Zzyzzy 2009-02-16 10:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Presidential rankings

Well, if you consider averting nuclear war more than drafting the Declaration of Independence, yes they are serious.

As you know, Kennedy's decision to blockade, rather than invade Cuba was, to make a gargantuan understatement, a good one since it was revealed later that the Soviets had nuclear armed missiles aimed at the United States during the Missile Crisis and would have fired them.

Since it was the policy of the United States, as declared by President Kennedy to regard "an attack by Cuba on the United States as an attack by Russia, requiring a full retaliatory response," nuclear war would have ensued.

Kennedy's decision to not invade Cuba averted nuclear war, WWIII, as it is commonly referred to.

That outdoes signing some document or even forming a nation any day.

by eflteacher 2009-02-16 07:43PM | 0 recs

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