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'Niceguy' Eddie

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Rankings of the Presidents

I was over at wikipedia looking at the Historical Rankings of the Presidents.  I love these kinds of things.  And I deciced to play around a bit with the lists, and do one of my super-shallow, completely non-academic meta studies with it.  So I took each list, from the 1948 Schlesinger poll to the 2009 CSPAN poll and assigned each ranking a value, namely: (the rank)/(number of names on the list).  That way the top rank would be a aound 0.05 or less, the worst rank will be 1.0 and and average rank will be around 0.5.  I did this for each list, and then averaged the values for each president, then ranked them accordingly.  Here's how they shook out:

President; Political party, Rating 
Lincoln, Abraham; Republican, 0.03
Roosevelt, Frankin D; Democratic, 0.05
Washington, George; Federalist, 0.07
Jefferson, Thomas; Democratic, 0.12
Roosevelt, Theodore; Republican, 0.12
Wilson, Woodrow; Democratic, 0.17
Truman, Harry S; Democratic, 0.18
Jackson, Andrew; Democratic, 0.23
Eisenhower, Dwight D; Republican, 0.27
Polk, James K; Democratic, 0.29
Kennedy, John F; Democratic, 0.3
Adams, John; Federalist, 0.32
Johnson, Lyndon B; Democratic, 0.33
Madison, James; Democratic, 0.34
Reagan, Ronald W; Republican, 0.36
Monroe, James; Democratic, 0.37
Cleveland, S Grover; Democratic, 0.39
McKinley, William; Republican, 0.43
Adams, John Q; National-Republican, 0.45
Clinton, William J; Democratic, 0.48
Taft, William H; Republican, 0.52
Bush, George H W; Republican, 0.53
Van Buren, Martin; Democratic, 0.57
Hayes, Rutherford B; Republican, 0.58
Bush, George W; Republican, 0.62
Ford, Gerald R; Republican, 0.64
Carter, James E; Democratic, 0.65
Arthur, Chester A; Republican, 0.67
Hoover, Herbert; Republican, 0.69
Harrison, Benjamin; Republican, 0.71
Garfield, James A; Republican, 0.72
Nixon, Richard M; Republican, 0.73
Coolidge, J Calvin; Republican, 0.73
Taylor, Zachary; Whig, 0.77
Tyler, John; Whig, 0.83
Harrison, William Henry; Whig, 0.84
Fillmore, Millard; Whig, 0.85
Grant, Ulysses S; Republican, 0.85
Johnson, Andrew; Democratic, 0.9
Pierce, Franklin; Democratic, 0.91
Buchanan, James; Democratic, 0.96
Harding, Warren G; Republican, 0.97

Now... a couple of things strike me about this list...

First of all: Democrats generally rank higher than Republicans.  Taking both the Jeffersonian, Jacksonian and Modern Democrats together, their average score is 0.43.  Taking the Federalists, National-Republicans, Whigs and Modern Republicans together, their average score is 0.58.  Not to mention, there are six democraqts in the top 10 and 7 Republicans (and Whigs) in the bottom 10.

Second of all, and this is the real kicker: All of the BEST Republicans were progressives (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower) and and all of the WORST Democrats (Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson) were Conservatives.  That, to me, says far more that just how the parties rank out.

I will say this too... this list ended up pretty close to the way I'd rank them.  Sure, George W. Bush would be a lot lower, while Nixon and George H. might be a little higher, but all in all, I wouldn't say there were any rankings that really suprsised me, or errors that I found particularly egregious.


  1. I used to be fond of this sort of thing, too. I've fallen out with it over the years, and not just because it's like masturbation without the payoff at the end. It's more like I came to see a ranking of presidents in this manner as rather absurd. A pretty simple fact of our history is that most of our presidents are inconsequential space-fillers.

    Some may call this a dirty little secret, but it's not. Ask anyone but a history buff (like myself) to tell you anything about, say, the Millard Filmore presidency, you'll be lucky if they're even able to tell you the correct century in which he served. Most will just look at you and say, "who?" Part of that is because Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history, but in this case, that's mostly excusable, because most of the presidents are, in fact, completely unmemorable. The ones who are genuinely historically noteworthy are those who faced significant crises and rose to the occasion (Lincoln, FDR, and, for overseeing the initial development of the executive, Washington) and those who stand out as actively bad (Junior Bush, Reagan, etc.). As a third class, there are American founders who became president (Washington through Monroe), and, as a fourth, there are those who were saved from being merely the answer to a trivia question by scandal, and having faced impeachment (Nixon, Clinton, A. Johnson). A fifth and shifting class is made up of relatively recent presidents, because they're in the living memory of the people of the time. Within all of these, there is overlap. Other than that, individual presidents can sometimes be very interesting as individuals, but, for the most part, they're just not that important.

    That makes rational rankings of them arguably impossible, but certainly pointless. A whole bunch of irrelevant non-entities to a handful of those who actually earned some place in history. The mass is artificially inflated by the good, while the good are dragged down by the mass.

    So I don't really rank 'em anymore.

  2. I have to get one thing out of the way. This is just of the top of my head, no wiki involved: Fillmore's administration was marked by stark divisions within his own party on the issue of Slavery. He tried to make party unity a top priority, but the issue of the day was irreconcilable, and the Whig’s imploded and ultimately dissolved under his "leadership." So, while I may not exactly be a presidential scholar, I hope the 5 second summary I gave on the very example you named convinces you the I'M at least PASSABLE as far as "history buff's" go. LOL As for the rest of it, I see what you're saying, but I still think it's good for a laugh. I certainly hope you didn't think I was claiming some profound discovery here! Nah, this is just another funny bit of trivia I can use to stick it to conservatives.

    Rankings ARE absolutely problematic, and for more reasons than the ones you mentioned. One's own political agenda, for example: How could a Con and a Lib possibly rank LBJ even remotely the same way? He was a legislative success, that's undeniable, but Con's HATE the Great Society, even more than the New Deal! (And thus the same goes for FDR.) And how do you rank someone like Nixon? Accomplished amazing things in foreign policy (But again: Con's and Lib's may judge those differently) and did a lot of progressive things at home: Establishing the EPA, OSHA & NHTSA for example. But how you feel about him is largely a reflection of how important you consider Watergate. You mentioned Reagan, another that depends greatly on your political leanings, but it's hard for anyone to deny his charisma and overall leadership, even if they didn't agree with WHERE he was leading us. What I mean is: One has to wonder how much better of we'd be if he'd used his powers for GOOD!

    But I disagree with you that there are that many Presidents who truly served in obscurity. Yes, obviously not everyone faced an existential crisis like Lincoln or FDR, and not everyone was as bad a Bush or as scandal-ridden as Clinton or Nixon (or HARDING, a MUCH better example, though one that is only remember by "history buffs." Any way we could rename the "Tea" Party as the "Teapot Dome" Party? You KNOW that's how things would work out if they ever won!) Some of those "irrelevant non-entities" had the opportunity deal with an existential threat, and chose not to. I'd guess most people couldn't tell you much about Pierce or Buchanan either, but their Southern sympathies and inaction on the slavery issue - or worse: in some cases undoing some of the compromises that kept the issue relatively stable, and doing so in ways that ESCALTED it, laid the groundwork for the Civil War. Now... maybe I can't tell you who was WORSE, Pierce or Buchanan, but I can sure as hell tell you they were REALLY BAD, and WHY I feel that way. About the only one you can't really judge at all is Harrison, who died 23 days after taking office. It would be impossible to do much good or harm, in that short amount of time without nukes.

    I DO think that more Americans need to have a better understanding history, myself included, and really should have a sense of what happened when, why, WHO was in charge, and what role they played. But I disagree that many Presidents were TRULY "a whole bunch of irrelevant non-entities." SOME were, but with few exceptions, I'll stand by the statement that every one of them played an important part in our history. Would even a PhD level of knowledge make for a "rational ranking?" Nah. And that's part of the reason I didn't even try to put up MY OWN list. By using the aggregated data, over several polls, several decades, I took my own personal politics out of it, and tried to account for differences between present day and historical perspective.

    But like I said: this was really just for a bit of fun.

    Thanks again for all of your comments.

  3. I should have made clear I'm the strongest advocate you'll ever find for education, particularly in matters of history. I'd even go further and say that most of our worst problems, today, are a consequence of a lack of both knowledge and understanding of the past. I only suggest a lack of knowledge about a big chunk of our presidents is excusable because so many of them are of so little consequence. You disagree with my conclusion, on that score, but I wanted to make very clear that, when it comes to getting people more up-to-speed on history (and not just their own), I'm hardcore.

  4. Oh yeah, I totally got that! I read you, and I'm totally with you on that point. How's it go? "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it?" Yeah... And these days, Righty's are pretty deep into Herbert Hoover territory. LOL.

    With that in mind, I'm curious: What did you think of my 2/25 post, "Do they have no shame, or just no self-awareness?"

  5. I think I trust a liberal Republican over a conservative Democrat to be honest....except of course McCain who is called liberal by the teabaggers but senile by me.

  6. Actually, I think I'm with you JLarue! But you're right: McCain really is no liberal. The problem is that the Right has pulled so FAR to the Right that there are no liberal, and precious few moderate Republican's left. But yeah, I've got very little use for Conservtaive Democrats. And actually, if it had been Clinton vs. McCain and he picked pretty much anyone other than Palin as VP? I probably would have voted for McCain. Fortunately we saw what he was really worth (very little) during the campaign. So I won't consider making THAT mistake again. That and he's like 106 so... not really a likely front runner anymore anyway. LOL. His best shot was in 2000, and instead we got W. Nice going, Pub's!

    Thanks for your comment.