The rankings game

This Presidents’ Week, it seems appropriate to return once more, albeit briefly, to the subject of rankings of presidential greatness, especially as I just peruse the results of a new Gallup poll ranking “the best U.S. presidents” (incidentally, this particular poll suffers from a pronounced “recency effect”, given that 4 recent Chief Executives rank among the ten best).  Generally, the public takes its cue from the opinion of so-called presidential experts, i.e. historians. One problem with expert surveys, such as the famous ones by Arthur Schlesinger père and fils, is that, in the words of Calvin Coolidge, “unfortunately, not all experts are disinterested. Not all specialists are without guile.” Some have in fact claimed that there is a distinct left-liberal bias evident in the selection of experts, and, consequently, in the rankings they produce. Beyond that liberal bias, historians also appear biased toward activist, expansive presidents, without taking into account the effects of that activism.

In his 2008 book, The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn’t), Alvin Felzenberg uses a new system of categorizing presidential greatness along the criteria of Character, Vision, and Competence (=three things a president brings to the office), and Economic Policy, Preserving and Extending Liberty, and Defense/National Security/Foreign Policy (=three central areas of what a president accomplishes while in office).

This overall more balanced approach takes a few favorites (Andrew Jackson, FDR, Woodrow Wilson) down a peg or two, and raises a few others (Ulysses Grant, JFK, and, yes, our own Calvin Coolidge*) up a bit. Obviously, even with a balanced approach such as Felzenberg’s, the weighting of each criterium is still debatable. Writing from a libertarian perspective and a focus on peace, prosperity and liberty, Ivan Eland comes to yet a different assessment in Recarving Rushmore – perhaps all these different lists only prove that ultimately, all rankings are subjective.

*I do not have the book before me, but if memory serves, Coolidge, earning high marks in Character, Competence, and Economic Policy, comes in at #11 out of the 41 presidents Felzenberg surveyed (the book does not include George W. Bush or Barack Obama, nor the 2 presidents who served less than a year, William Henry Harrison and James Garfield)

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