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Presidential Ratings ... A Parlor Game?

You often hear that rating presidents is a parlor game.  I want to take issue with that.  

In a parlor game there are rules.  In cards you can count the joker or you can't.  In Charades you cannot speak a word without incurring a penalty.  In checkers and chess you must move the pieces in certain ways and not in others.

Rating presidents is an altogether different type of game.  There are no rules.  Should we count what a president does in his private life or not?  Do we give him credit as an orator if someone else writes his speeches or not?  Do we  penalize him if he happens to have siblings like Billy Carter who are always getting into trouble or not?

Part of the fun of the presidential ratings game is that there are no rules.  It is this astonishing freedom from the bounds of ordinary convention, this freedom to say anything we want about the presidents--for example, that Ronald Reagan is the greatest president in United States history (Gallup Poll, Feb. 2001)--that makes this game so irresistible. 

Furthermore, it is relentlessly democratic.  A perfect game for our times.  One need know nothing--I mean that almost literally--to play. You do not have to be a historian to have an opinion about the presidents.  Soon as you step forth in the world and cry out for your mama you are entitled to your opinion about the people who have run this country.

This fact gives this game an aspect of ridiculousness that one does not associate with parlor games like chess or checkers.  This is why I insist that rating presidents is not a parlor game.  No self-respecting parlor game could survive for long under these circumstances.  In effect, we treat checkers with more seriousness then than we do presidential ratings.

What does this say about us?  I think that it suggests the unseriousness with which we approach politics.  

This is not to say that rating presidents is unserious.  But can we actually rate them?

Consider Ronald Reagan, for example.  

Reagan is known, of course, as the president who helped reshape our country and the world by becoming a spokesman for the free enterprise system.  No other president save Calvin Coolidge--a Reagan hero, incidentally--exalted capitalism with as much gusto as the former official spokesman for General Electric.  

But how shall we assess his contribution?  I heard historian Vijay Prashad at a conference recently trace the history of Islamist fundamentalism in Pakistan to the decision of the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s to force the government to abandon its expensive health care program for the poor.  At the time the IMF's decision was regarded by conservatives as a necessary reform for flabby socialistic countries.  But the result in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region of the demolition of health care programs was to leave medical care up to faith-based organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and the radical groups in Pakistan.  This gave Islamists a striking opportunity and they made the most of it.  

Now no one would argue that radical Islamism is wholly the effect of Ronald Reagan's free enterprise rhetoric.  That would be silly.  But his rhetoric had unintended consequences (as did his support of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan).  

Did Reagan understand this?

Have we understood this?

And once we do, how do we factor it into our assessment of his presidency?  Can we be sure he is still a great president?  Are presidents responsible for the forces their own actions unleash?  Are they to be held accountable for what comes afterward?  Should we hold Coolidge responsible for the Great Depression, which began under his successor's watch?


One of the most striking things to me about the categories we use to evaluate presidents is how familiar they are.  Great, Not So Great, Good, Bad.  We could be rating baseball players.  Except that we measure ball players with far more precision than we do presidents.  When rating pitchers, for example, we base our tally on statistics that measure their performance precisely.  We know how many balls, strikes and errors they had and then add up the numbers to arrive at a judgment.

With presidents we have no such precise measurements.  

This is no accident, as it happens.  We have a vital need to use a loose matrix because it is democratic.  If we used a methodology that was more precise we would perforce have to use a grammar and vocabulary that goes beyond the grasp of ordinary voters.  And this would defeat the purpose.

What is the purpose?  We do not usually ask ourselves this question.  It seems self-evident to us that we should establish a hierarchy among the presidents.  We should rank them for the same reason we rank ball players. It just seems natural. 

I would submit that there is actually a very good reason for ranking presidents and it goes far beyond some ordinary human inclination to order things.  It is to give us an idea of ourselves.  

The ranking of presidents is ultimately not about them.  It is about us.  It is about who we are and what values we cherish.  

In this we have a great stake. 

History is an extraordinarily messy neighborhood.  There are not just good folks and bad folks, people who live in the good part of town and people who live across the railroad tracks on the bad side of town. There are good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things. And there are many people who drift.  How they all interact and the world they make is therefore very complicated.

This is why making sense of the past is difficult.  It is to rescue us from this confusion that we rank presidents.  Here at our fingertips is a way of making sense of the past and ourselves and with very little effort, it would seem.  

It is of course a delusion.  History is not so neat and simple.  It is not filled with good guys and bad guys.  Presidents do not ride into town on a white horse and clean things up.  Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War singlehandedly.  Presidents do not shape history so much as be shaped by it.  As Lincoln admitted in 1864 at the height of his near-dictatorial powers, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”  

At the heart of presidential rankings therefore is an assumption that is at the very least highly debatable.  It is the belief that we truly learn something about ourselves by forcing presidents into the little boxes on our flow charts of history.  

Take Reagan again.  When we talk about his legacy, we consider a rather narrow spectrum of events. Traded arms for hostages.  Check.  Bolstered the military.  Check.  Lowered taxes.  Check.  Increased the deficit.  Check.

But did he win the Cold War?  And what if he did?  How do we assess his presidency if one of the unintended consequences of his presidency was to bolster the very forces that led to the rise of Islamist radicalism?  What is victory?  Is it victory when the seeds of an ensuing disaster, 9-11 say, are sown in a previous action?

How inadequate our little checked boxes seem when we confront these rather large questions. 

Which brings me to George W. Bush.  He has been working hard to shape the way the public views his administration.  He has given endless interviews and a farewell address.  We are told he will even inflict a book on us.  His hope is that he will somehow be able to improve his ratings, which are in the basement.  

He seems to care about this a lot.  Should we?  Who cares whether he is 10th on the list or last?  What would it say about us if we moved him up or down the list?  I am not sure.  But that's the question that should concern us.

A new book rating presidents by the libertarian Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore, places Bush at number 33, near the bottom.  That sounds about right until you see who is below Bush:  Reagan, Kennedy, Polk, McKinley, Truman, Wilson and his father. Crazy? Maybe not.  Eland rates the presidents by three measures.  How they helped promote peace, prosperity and liberty.  Using his measures most of the people usually on top come out at the bottom and vice versa.  

I like Eland's book.  One of the reasons is that it demonstrates in its fiercely consistent and courageous way how limited our system of categorizing presidents is.  Eland forces us, even as he employs a system of measurement, to beware of such systems.  The very strangeness of his results--John Tyler coming in 1st and Warren Harding in 6th--suggests that the outcome of any ratings system is determined by the means of measurement.

This is no simple parlor game after all.  Upon reflection, measuring presidents raises questions rather than answering them.  

I submit that we cannot resist playing the ratings game. But after Eland we will never play the game the same way we have in the past. For what Eland has done is to help us see through the pretensions of rating systems.  In particular, it breaks the grip the Schlesinger system has had over our imagination.  An ax had to be taken to the old system.  Eland has wielded it expertly.  No longer will anyone be able to pretend that historians sitting in judgment on Mount Olympus are able to decide who deserves to go into which category.  Much as we would like to stand outside history we cannot do so.

You see, it is not only presidents who are human, but even we historians.  They are not gods and neither are we.  It would make life easier if we were.  Then we could settle once and for all the question of presidential rankings and rest in the knowledge that we had made sense of an untidy world.  Alas, the world remains untidy.  We simply have to learn to live with that.

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  • Larry DeWitt: The Follies of Instant History: Another Meaningless Poll of Historians