C-SPAN celebrates Presidents Day by asking a large panel of historians to rate the former American Presidents on a series of leadership qualities, including public persuasion, crisis leadership, “moral authority”, and performance in context of the times. The man at the top of the leader board comes as no surprise, but some of the rest might surprise a few people:
- Abraham Lincoln
- George Washington
- Teddy Roosevelt
- Harry Truman
- Thomas Jefferson
- Dwight Eisenhower
- Woodrow Wilson
- Ronald Reagan
George Washington recovered from #3 in the 2000 survey, which gives readers an idea how useless this ranking can be. Washington’s presidency, and his voluntary retirement after two terms, saved America from the establishment of a new royalty. FDR, the man who briefly replaced him, was the only American President to refuse to follow Washington’s precedent, and Congress eventually had to place explicit term limits on the office after FDR’s president-for-life ambitions.
Kennedy doesn’t belong on the top ten, either. Kennedy was definitely an inspirational figure in American politics, but his presidency was a mess. He fumbled the Cold War badly enough to prompt the USSR to build the Berlin Wall, and nearly started a nuclear war over Cuba with his fecklessness. He jumped into the Vietnam War when France withdrew, and meddled significantly with Vietnam’s government to exacerbate the crisis. His successor LBJ comes in at #11 despite making the situation even worse. Reagan ended the Cold War in victory and restored American economic health, and yet trails JFK by four positions.
I find it terribly ironic that Harry Truman gets ranked as #5 now. I don’t have a big issue with that ranking, but when he left office, he was less popular than George W Bush, who comes in at #36 in this survey. But was Truman more important than Thomas Jefferson, who doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase and set the stage for Manifest Destiny? I know JFK wasn’t a better President than Jefferson, which alone makes this survey deeply suspect.
Andrew Malcolm wonders whether the less-famous Presidents have a competitive advantage:
It may not be a coincidence that the top five presidents of all time, as ranked by the cable channel’s panel of 65 historians, all come from the era before video clips and television.
Would Abe still be No. 1 if we’d seen a million replays of that vintage Civil War footage of him hitting his burly head on the log cabin door?
Or would a bald George Washington be No. 2 if his powdered wig had gotten blown out of the presidential carriage in a Washington wind, revealing the shiny presidential pate?
Or FDR, TR and Harry Truman at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 if we’d heard audio tapes of their candid opinions of Henry Wallace, William Howard Taft and Strom Thurmond, respectively?
I’d argue the opposite, actually. I think this list is top-heavy with media favorites rather than a serious look at the accomplishments of each President. Besides the obligatory mentions of Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson, the rest of the top 11 come from the 20th century. It’s a familiarity and popularity contest, not a real analysis of accomplishment.