Thursday, July 1, 2010

Historical rankings of presidents

As a history nerd, I can never let something like a new batch of historical rankings to pass by without any comment from me. Check out this Siena Poll of historians yourself. My thoughts:
  • Teddy Roosevelt might be a top-10 president, but he's certainly not #2 of all time. His record of progressive accomplishments is dwarfed by Woodrow Wilson's (#8), and Theodore Roosevelt's diplomatic accomplishments are belied by a rather putrid (and nearly racist) nationalism that was extreme even for the time. TR's high ranking merely confirms my belief that these things tend to be popularity contests. TR was a more interesting personality than Wilson.

  • The oddest feature of this list is the resurgence of the Founding Father presidents on the top. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe occupy positions 4-7 on the list, and I find this utterly baffling. I can understand Washington and Jefferson, but wasn't Madison kind of a terrible president? Great man, important man, but all I remember about the guy is that he picked a fight with Britain that resulted in the War of 1812 that America lost. And Monroe strikes me as an exceedingly odd choice. I like the Monroe Doctrine as much as the next man, but I don't think you can point to too much that Monroe did that really changed America. Seems pretty average to me.

  • Nice to see G. W. Bush in the bottom five, with all the usual suspects. That's partly because he's rated the second-least intelligent president after Harding, which seems about right.

  • The really interesting part is at the end, where they give the top and bottom two presidents for each criterion they use. In so many cases they're spot on: Nixon gets lowest ratings for "Avoid[ing] crucial mistakes" which kind of sums up Nixon, I think.
My personal list of the best presidents would probably include the Roosevelts, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Ike, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson (despite Vietnam). I'm not including Obama for now as it's just too soon to tell. The consensus choice of worst presidents are all more or less acceptable to me, but I'd love to see Andrew Jackson fall in there at some point. He's still the subject of popular biographies on account of his personality, but this guy was personally responsible for starting a depression about as bad as the Great Depression, entrenching pro-slavery forces in the Supreme Court, and generally feeding the hysterical angry Southern nationalism that led to the Civil War and that's been with us ever since. I guess he did keep the nation from splitting up in the 1830s but that's about all I can say for the guy. Screw Andrew Jackson.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.