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The C-SPAN Poll: An Empirical Challenge to the Participants

I have never liked the practice of rating presidents as if they were rock records on the old American Bandstand TV show. I declined to participate when last asked—for a previous CSPAN poll in 2000. So did several other historians, most notably Alonzo Hamby, whose well reasoned critique of these surveys deserves to be read if he still has it on file and wants to make it available.

Such rankings might have some merit if they were less value-laden. To its credit, CSPAN gives a list rather than using the old categories of “great,” “near great,” and so forth. But we might learn something from neutral categories like “very consequential” (for good or ill), “consequential,” and “inconsequential.” Since John F. Kennedy had an opportunity to blow up the northern hemisphere and managed not to do so via contentious cooperation with Nikita Khrushchev, JFK gets my vote for most consequential. Even on my consequential index, however, there is something odd about comparing the leader of a world power commanding thermonuclear weapons with John Adams, the leader of a small country trying to navigate between two world powers. Historians should try to guide students, citizens, and even journalists through the difficult task of guesstimating change and continuity. This is one of the hardest things historians do, and it does not help matters to rank two centuries plus worth of presidents--or physicians or inventors or novelists.

The latest CSPAN presidential ranking, like its earlier counterparts, is best viewed as a revealing bit of data in the sociology of knowledge. It is unduly American centric in two respects. First, as far as I can tell, all of the participants are Americans. I doubt that Vietnamese and Mexican historians would place Lyndon Johnson and James K. Polk respectively at 11th and 12th . Second, as far as I know, historians in no other country play this game. How does Konrad Adenauer compare to Kaiser Wilhelm? Boris Yeltsin to Czar Nicholas II? Charles de Gaulle to Louis XVI? The fact that some scholars do try to compare Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton inadvertently underscores the long term stability (and dare I say even a widespread “consensus?”) in the American past.

If we suspend disbelief and play by the CSPAN rules of the game, my value-laden complaint about the latest ranking is Harry Truman’s 5th place finish. Naturally I would say this as a twentieth-century specialist with Cold War revisionist inclinations. What I dislike about Truman—the main thrust of his foreign policy--other historians admire. In some serious arena, we could argue about the whats and whys. Students, citizens, and even journalists deserve to see how scholars argue about these issues in ways almost always superior to political debates or cable TV shouting matches.

Even though the CSPAN list of raters is tilted toward twentieth-century specialists, my guess is that half of them do not know enough about Truman to argue why he should be 5th, 15th, first or last. This is not an insult but a recognition of the historical profession’s over specialization, a trend easier to denounce than to remedy. If asked about Andrew Jackson’s attack on the second Bank of the United States, I might at best rouse some old brain cells to offer an incoherent paragraph containing the names Nicholas Biddle, Henry Clay, and Bray Hammond.

So here is my empirical challenge the CSPAN raters. Please respond to this piece by saying whether or not you could lecture to undergraduates for ten minutes about Truman’s off-again on-again policy toward Korea (which in my value judgment seems as inept as George W. Bush’s dealings with Iraq—and which produced a much higher body count). We are using the honor system. HNN will not track you down on ratemyprofessor.com. Since not all historians are wise enough to consult HNN regularly, readers should feel free to pass along this challenge to colleagues who participated in the CSPAN rating.

By the way, if Dick Clark is conducting an American Bandstand cyberpoll unbeknownst to me, I rate the Doors’ “Light My Fire” (1967) as the greatest popular song since World War II with the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965) attaining “near great” status. I say this with full confidence even though—or because—my attention to popular music ceased with Jimmy Buffett: The Early Period (“Margaritaville,” 1977).