Historian Rick Shenkman has a point. The rating of presidents–a recent survey among historians called Abraham Lincoln our greatest president–probably doesn’t even rise to the level of a parlor game. Parlor games, he says, have rules. But both historians and the public tend to rate presidents by highly movable goal posts.
I myself have been guilty of playing this game, having several years ago named my choices for the country’s best presidents. (I remember that at the time, the whole country breathlessly awaited my decision.)
But I now think that, while I had good reason for picking the presidents I had on my list–my top four were Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower–it probably is silly to put together such ratings. The challenges facing Barack Obama, in spite of the overused rhetoric to the contrary, are not the same as those that faced Roosevelt. (The current set of presidential challenges are both less severe and more complicated than those Roosevelt dealt with, it seems.) Comparisons are tough and usually, subjective.
It’s probably safe to say that Grover Cleveland was a better president than Franklin Pierce, though. (In his defense, Pierce would no doubt win any presidential tippling contest.) But generally, I suppose, it’s always foolish to try comparing apples and oranges–or, Washingtons and Kennedys. Or Madisons and Wilsons.
At least that’s what I think this week.[This has been crossposted at my personal blog.]