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Posted by on Feb 17, 2009 in Politics | 4 comments

Rating Presidents: Not a Parlor Game

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.]

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • jeburke

    I think these raings are a silly exercise that tells us more about ourselves than the past Presidents. I do have one enduring difference with the top ranked group — the tendency in recent years or decades to put Lincoln at the top and down grade washington a bit. Washington was, after all, the one truly indispensable man and President. For many years, he — and to a large extent — he alone embodied the nation. He was more than a founder, he was the military strategist and smart leader who made the country possible. He was the person whose support or acceptance of a Constitution — even the notion that we needed a constitutional convention — was crucial. Likewise, without his support for the finished product, ratification would have been impossible. He remains the only President elected without opposition, and he conducted himself with great caution and rsponsibility, rather than running with the power — even eschewing a third term to set a pattern not violated until,FDR on the grounds that executive power held too long would undermine the Republic.

    I suspect that the tendency to underplay Washington’s unique role — in contrast, a half dozen leaders of the time might have steered the Union through the civil war equally as well as Lincoln — rest on two facts: he was a slave owner, and he sought no radical departures. But of course, unlike many fellow Virginians of his time, like Jefferson, Washington freed al of his slaves on the death of his wife, and he regarded his role as building the right foundation for future executives. not chasing his own agendas.

  • StockBoySF

    “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

    Which part of this oath that Bush took did he actually follow? And why isn’t he dead last on the list of presidential rankings?

  • kritt11

    Well, I don’t know if I’d put Bush dead last– after all James Buchanan did nothing to avert the civil war- leaving Lincoln to shoulder the entire burden, but he should at least be after William Henry Harrison. Harrison contracted pneumonia during his Inauguration and was dead within a month. He didn’t accomplish anything, but he didn’t start 2 wars, decimate the middle class and make a mockery of international law either!

  • StockBoySF

    It’s one thing to try to uphold the US Constitution and be inept about it… but it’s another thing entirely to trun the country against itself (remember Bush’s phrase, “You’re either with us or against us” and discredit anyone who has legitimate concerns), lie to the country about the need to go to war, expose undercover agents (Plame) because you (Bush) don’t like the report her husband wrote (which was true), dismantle consumer and environmental protections, torture, do away with some (if not all) of the most basic and fundamental values in our US Constitution…. and all this for his own political gain and the gain of his cronies. Bush tried to turn the US into a monarchy (or perhaps a theocracy).

    George Bush’s vision of this country is not the vision of the Founding Fathers nor the vision of most Americans. George Bush had everything handed to him throughout his life (including the US Supreme Court decision which handed him the presidency instead of Gore, though Gore won the popular vote) and Bush treated the country as though he was owed something. Bush did not view the presidency as one in which he could serve the country.

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