Every so often, Sienna College up in New York (I think its New York) publishes a rated list of the presidents. The survey was based on the responses of some 200 presidential scholars.
The chief executives are rated in 20 areas: background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, risk taking, avoiding mistakes, court appointments, domestic accomplishments, executive appointments, foreign policy, the economy, party leadership, relationship with Congress, ability to compromise, communication, executive ability, leadership, overall ability, and their view as of today.
The top few rarely change more than a position or so, and the tops of 2010 aren’t a major shock:
Needless to say, the bottom 5 has a new member:
43. Andrew Johnson
What shocked me the most: I was a little shocked to see TR jump ahead of Lincoln and Washington for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I like Teddy … very few chief executives came into the White House having actually seen the world, and with the energy to clean out decades of muck from corruption. But Roosevelt also never had to face the crisis of the Civil War, nor was the new fangled job of “president” dumped on him and did he have to figure out what to do. I’ve always felt that Lincoln and Washington had two of the toughest jobs in history, and pulled off their jobs remarkably well (read: the U.S. got damn lucky we had those people in the job at that time).
One of the things I find interesting is how quickly it is that historians or people in general are willing to overlook certain transgressions and not others.
Let’s look at the man of the hour, FDR. FDR got us out of the Depression (ostensibly putting America to work making tanks and bombers had a lot to do with that). The more and more I read, the more and more I suspect that FDR also maneuvered the US into that war, but given that the opponents were Nazis, that’s easy to overlook. I also find it pretty amazing that FDR sent those of Japanese ancestry to camps for the duration. Could you imagine a president today ordering anyone of Middle Eastern ancestry to a camp? Yet, FDR’s pretty frickin’ big transgression gets overlooked. I am no fan of W, but it almost makes you wonder: was Gitmo any worse than what FDR did? While FDR gets a pass (and he shouldn’t), W gets pounded (which he should.
Truman finished 9th in the poll, and yet some people think he should have been put on trial for crimes against humanity for using two nuclear weapons (personally, I do not hold with that, unfortunate as it was for this horrible event to happen).
Ike finished 10th. While the 1950s saw the Cold War in full swing, and he navigated fighting a war in Korea while not really inflaming things worse than they got, he sat by and did little while McCarthy did everything he could to make every one paranoid. Ike gets forgiven for that.
Let’s examine Ronald Reagan: Reagan did get lucky with some things going his way economically just in time for his second election, and it helped being president in an era where Western Europe had little choice but to embrace America (compared to today). I think, whether by happenstance or intent (and I think the book is still out there on which), Reagan did push the Soviets economically, and forced their collapse faster than if he hadn’t. The downside was the massive debt …. there’s no question about that. On the other hand, it did get us out of a recession (FDR spent us out of a depression, but fortunately had lots of countries that then “owed us”). Despite having a hostile Congress, Reagan got along with them OK (think about the problems of the Congress under Clinton …. lots of gridlock between the Dome and the White House). Despite the positives, detractors will point to an executive that did not seem accountable (like Iran-Contra, and the response to the outbreak of AIDS). Reagan slipped a little in the poll, compared to the last one in 2002, from 16 to 18. Ironically, despite his Nobel Prize and overall favorable ratings today, Jimmy Carter took one of the biggest tumbles, from 25 to 32. Certainly, Carter had some good ideas that were the right ideas at the wrong time. He was hopeless in fixing an economy that was out of control, and did not ever seem to get the country behind him. I have always felt that he and Hoover were cut of the same cloth: basically some of the most decent people to ever lead the nation … just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I guess in the end, leaders get judged like athletes …. if you did enough good, we forget the bad, no matter how bad. However, if you didn’t do much good, be prepared to have the bad stuck under a magnifying glass.