Update: Read the comments under my Daily Kos cross-post for lots of good insights. There are also some fascinating comments in Beltway Dem’s thread; for instance, Charles Lemos makes a case for Arthur as one of the great presidents.
Thanks to Beltway Dem’s diary at MyDD, 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. 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. 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. (I hope he will forgive me for posting the list after the jump as well.) 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. UPDATE: In the Daily Kos thread Judge Moonbox says:
Such a revision is almost certainly due to Eric Foner’s Reconstruction; which wiped away nearly a century of the racist received history–a legacy which proves that history is not always written by the victors. Here it had been written by the Mugwumps.
Also, ORDem linked to this diary by NNadir on how Grant wasn’t a bad president.
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.