Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ranking the Presidents, Again

Over at Cliopatria KC Johnson brings his insight to C-SPAN's second survey of presidential leadership. He is particularly interested in exploring why there was so much relative volatility in the assessments from the last survey to this one. Some of his examples do not bother me: Why did President Clinton leap past George H.W. Bush? I dunno -- probably because by just about any measure he was a more successful, a better, a more important president? But his larger point about the temporal, indeed presentist, nature of these rankings is well worth remembering.

These exercises, however methodologically sound or flawed, are best viewed as parlor games and cocktail party fodder and are not worth much more. I've always been more interested in presidential impact than on presidential "greatness." That said, here is my "top ten" list, with all of the vagaries that term implies, with the recognition of my own clear biases -- I am a 20th century historian and I am a liberal and a Democrat -- and which could be different tomorrow and may have been different yesterday:

1) Abraham Lincoln
2) Franklin Roosevelt
3) George Washington
4) Harry Truman
5) Theodore Roosevelt
6) Lyndon Johnson
7) Woodrow Wilson
8) Thomas Jefferson
9) Dwight Eisenhower
10) Andrew Jackson

One lesson I draw from coming up with my own list is that the depth chart for United States Presidents does not go all that deep. That surely speaks to the nature of the job more than it does to the men who have held it. The presidency is a position almost built to conquer those who attain it.


Ahistoricality said...

I think you need to define "impact": I'd call Nixon one of the most important presidents of the 20th century based on his handling of Vietnam, China, civil rights, and the damage he did to the presidency himself. If you consider the latter to be a net negative, at least you have to say "positive impact"....

dcat said...

Even with what you say, I'm not certain Nixon had more impact, however defined, than anyone in my top ten. And my top ten probably is something like "my ten favorite important presidents." I'd give Nixon negative checks in several of the areas you mentioned, and of course the whole violating the Constitution thing weighs heavily.
In terms of pure impact, (for good or for ill), I'd say Reagan, George W. Bush, Grant, McKinley, Clinton, and, yes, Nixon all deserve a place at the table as well -- any president who served two terms certainly would qualify. I have a personal affection for Garfield, because he was a Williams man, but it would be hard to shoehorn him in the top half even when personal preferences play a role given his truncated term.



Stephen said...

...even if he was the source of an awesome Johnny Cash song.

dcat said...

Steve --
True dat. Johnny cash taught the world more about Garfield than anyone else, I'd guess.