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What can we learn from presidential ratings?

December 23, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

It might be revealing to compare how the "average person" rates the performance of our 43 U.S. presidents with the methods employed by 238 historians. 

When honest, we "average folk" must admit that our judgments are tainted by parental influence, folklore, regional biases and other accidents of personal experience. In addition, we might not have confidence in the claimed objectivity of "egghead" academicians. 

Nonetheless, for 28 years, this sizable aggregate of presidential historians has issued five reports in which they rank each president, using 20 criteria on which they judge each of them. Trying to keep 20 values in balance is an awesome task. Family background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, domestic accomplishments, foreign policy accomplishments, leadership ability and avoidance of crucial mistakes, to mention only some criteria of judgment, are enough to indicate the range of values to be considered.

Of importance is the fact that the top 10 presidents have shifted very little in the five surveys taken up to 2010. Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington continue to be ranked as the top five, while Woodrow Wilson, James Madison, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy follow with little variation in placement. 

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Equally fixed in placement are the bottom five least successful presidents. Until George W. Bush was placed among the poorest performers, Warren Harding, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin Pierce were regularly placed at the bottom. The 28 remaining presidents, in the middle range, experience some shifting in their placement from one survey to the next.

The virtue of having this periodic ranking of presidents is to give some semblance of objectivity to judging them. True, personal preference — with all of the attendant biases — will eventually dominate our judgment of presidents. But, to be well informed, these surveys by seasoned historians serve a valuable purpose.

It appears that our loyalties and our dislikes are hard to alter once these attitudes become part of our political sensitivities. One has but to remember that about 28 percent of American voters continued to express support for Richard Nixon after he had resigned from office as a consequence of the Watergate fiasco.

It might be possible to get a better read on how to judge presidents if we took a closer look at how we are attracted to or repulsed by potential candidates for the White House. We can get a clearer picture by a study of the qualities of living people than we can by trying to reconstruct the shadowy past. Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant are but ghosts of the past.

At this moment, we have a chance to take that suggested close look at a potential nominee for our highest political office. Sarah Palin certainly acts like one who aspires to represent the Republican Party. If we use the criteria employed by the panel of historians looking ahead rather than looking behind, would we judge her to be properly qualified to take on the awesome responsibilities of that office? Into which category is she most likely to be placed if elected?

These surveys serve a very useful purpose. They are a reminder that our presidents are historical figures and are judged accordingly. Is being "a personality" a sufficient criterion to be considered for such a momentous task? Selecting a president is more than just a political act. It carries with it the important baggage of wisdom, imagination and all of the other criteria used by the presidential historians to judge our presidents. 

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College

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