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Executive Order

Americans love rankings. There’s David Letterman’s “Top 10” list, of course. You can hardly surf the Web without stumbling across lists of best this and most that. “We’re number one!” is practically the national slogan, and being number one is fairly meaningless without a number two—and preferably a whole lot of other numbers against whom we can measure.

I know of what I speak: in my day job I am an editor and columnist at U.S. News & World Report, one of the founding fathers of the modern rankings-industrial complex. Our ubiquitous “Best Colleges” ranking has long since spawned a host of similar efforts—for high schools, law firms, hospitals, and grad schools—many of which have been imitated elsewhere. There is, so far as I know, no truth to the rumor that we’re about to launch “best rankings.”

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the enduring pastimes of political junkies and casual politicos alike is ranking the nation’s 44 chief executives. Here too I have some tangential connection: in 1948 my grandfather, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., conducted a landmark poll of 55 historians for Life aiming to put our chief executives in a definitive order. It was a polling exercise that would be repeated at least a half-dozen times over the subsequent six decades. That half dozen included Grandpa himself conducting a second poll in 1962, and his son, my father, Arthur Jr., running one in 1996.

These seven surveys of historians and other scholars of the presidency are the basis and inspiration for Robert W. Merry’s new volume, Where They Stand. Taking the historians’ evaluations in tandem with the assessments of the voters, Merry displays an admirable instinct toward crowdsourcing in his exploration of presidential greatness and failure. “I place stock in collective assessments—the rankings of hundreds of historians through multiple surveys over several decades; and the collective judgment of the electorate as it hired and fired presidents through the course of American history,” he writes.


Of course, there are some problems with holding historians’ assessments in contrast with contemporaneous voters’. One small one is that it presumes that historians ignore voters’ judgments in their ratings. Some may, some may not. But it’s hard to say with certainty that the views of voters are heretofore unaccounted for.

A broader problem stems from the assumption underpinning Merry’s faith in the collective wisdom of the voters: that presidential elections are essentially referenda. He subscribes to the “13 keys” theory of the presidency proffered by historian Allan J. Lichtman and journalist Ken DeCell. In short, the idea is that there are a baker’s dozen of factors, ranging from the state of the economy to a third-party challenge to the incumbent’s charisma, that add up to predict which party will win the White House. If six or more of the “keys” turn against the incumbent party, it is doomed, but if the figure is five or less, it cannot be beaten. The system reportedly accounts for every presidential election, including correctly forecasting the last seven outcomes in a row. (In case you’re wondering, as I was, both Merry in an article last December and Lichtmann in an interview this spring counted only three keys turned against Obama.)

Merry sees this theory as superior to the “horse-race” approach dominant in today’s political journalism, which obsesses over every last tactical tic. There is much to be said for escaping the minute-by-minute hyperscrutiny of today’s political journalism. I’ve long argued that it is as if football games only unfolded one play per day, followed by 24 hours of analysis of why the coach called that play, whether the quarterback should be benched because his most recent pass was errant, and so forth. But there’s a danger in going too far in the other direction, forgetting that the players matter, and thinking games need not be played at all because of the infallibility of advanced statistics.

In the case of the Lichtman-DeCell keys, while one of them asks whether the challenger is a national hero or charismatic figure, they boil down to the notion of a presidential election as referendum, with the outcome being an implacable historical inevitability.

But a review of the modern presidency calls this into question. Was John F. Kennedy (or any generic Democrat) a shoo-in against Richard Nixon in 1960, or was the outcome plausibly affected by—take your pick—Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, Kennedy’s vigor, or the alleged depredations of Lyndon Johnson’s Texas political machine? Might the outcome of the 2000 race have been different if Florida had a simpler presidential ballot? Was George W. Bush invincible in 2004, or was he a vulnerable incumbent with the good fortune to face an especially feeble opponent?

And is it coincidence that the two modern incumbents who lost re-election—Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford never having been elected in the first place—fell to pols with exceptional political skills, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton? National context and historical trends matter, but so do candidates.

Having set up the tension between the historians and the mass assessments of the voters, Merry allots himself the role of arbiter. And certainly he is not unqualified. He is a veteran journalist and past editor of Congressional Quarterly and now runs The National Interest. He is widely read in American history, and he gives an engaging tour d’horizon of our presidents. He is most sure-footed when dealing with the undisputed greats, or “Men of Destiny” as Merry refers to them—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt.

But the transition from being dubious of individualized analysis to providing it can be jarring. “Though I remain skeptical of individual judgments in rating presidents, including my own, I offer a few thoughts,” he writes at one point. In fact, he offers many thoughts. John Adams’s “elevated station in the historians’ polls may be a little too favorable.” Warren Harding’s historical standing (almost always dead last) “doesn’t make much sense,” and Calvin Coolidge “seems underrated by the historians,” while the “historians have gifted Hoover with remarkably high ratings.” Millard Fillmore “probably deserves better than the historians’ rankings,” while U.S. Grant’s most recent standing, 29th, is “about right.” And he has a special contempt for Woodrow Wilson, who “if there is justice (though in this instance there probably isn’t)” would reside on the list of worst presidents, in Merry’s view.

[1]None of this is to suggest that Merry arrives at these conclusions out of the blue. He carefully makes his cases. Sometimes his arguments are compelling, and sometimes they are overdrawn, as when he compares President Obama’s Affordable Care Act with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, leading to the violence of “Bleeding Kansas,” a grim prelude to the Civil War. Such statements reflect Merry’s rightward lean.

And while he strives for something akin to a scientific approach, categorizing presidents according to how voters treated them (whether they were expelled after a single term, served two terms, or won re-election and were succeeded by someone from their own party), it is hard to assess greatness, especially in recent residents of the White House, without ideology. It is a concept that carries with it approval. Consider the case of Ronald Reagan. Merry believes the Gipper belongs in the “Leader of Destiny” category, while acknowledging that it is still too early to pass final judgment on him (and his successors). Was Reagan a great president in the sense of effectiveness? Undoubtedly. But was he great for the country? That remains a topic of hot debate.

And it will remain such for some while, even after history has had the space to give Reagan and his legacy their due, one way or the other. In the meantime, the great presidential ratings game goes on.

Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report and the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters [2].

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Executive Order"

#1 Comment By scott On July 31, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

My favorite president is James Buchanan. Who? Look him Up!

#2 Comment By CD File On August 1, 2012 @ 7:24 am

@Scott Care to explain?(not an attack, genuinely curious)
Rumored homosexuality? Bungling us into a civil war?….like our current.

#3 Comment By tbraton On August 1, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

“Might the outcome of the 2000 race have been different if Florida had a simpler presidential ballot?”

There was no single state-wide ballot in Florida in 2000. Then, as now, it was up to each county to design its own ballot. It was the infamous “butterfly ballot” of Palm Beach County, designed by a Democratic office holder Theresa LePore (supervisor of elections) and approved beforehand by both Democrats and Republicans, which cost Al Gore the State of Florida and the Presidency. As a result of the somewhat confusing design, Pat Buchanan received a disproportionate number of votes in Palm Beach County, which some attributed to a theretofore unknown political movement (“Jews for Buchanan”) that still remains hard to identify with any specificity. I happened to vote in Palm Beach County in 2000, and I voted for George W. Bush. But I will attest that I hesitated after encountering the butterfly ballot and only figured out which hole to punch after several minutes of examination. So I have no trouble believing that voters may have been confused.

#4 Comment By tbraton On August 1, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

I came across this article on the butterfly ballot of Palm Beach County in 2000 and found that the article reproduces the butterfly ballot on the second page, so one can see how voters may have been confused into voting for Buchanan instead of Gore:


#5 Comment By Jack Reynolds On August 1, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

Congrats to Merry on Woodrow the Worst – the worst of the worst. Boo Hiss for the other worst: Hoover-Roosevelt (two heads on the same monster), and Dishonest Abe, who killed more Americans than in any war just for the Morrell Tarriff. And it wasn’t a “civil war”. A civil war is when two sides are fighting for control of the government; Jefferson Davis didn’t want to be president in Washington.

Here are my keys
1.benefit or harm to country
2.Lasting effect, for good or ill
3.character (intelligence, education, ability, morality, nobility of soul)
4only his presidency. Madison and Jefferson were our greatest political leaders, yet the former was just an average president, the Embargo Act (an honest attempt to keep the US out of the Napoleonic Wars) was a serious blunder. As for Madison, great in almost everything except his presidency, where he should be rank as bad. We lost the War of 1812, and the Brits didn’t conquer us only because they thought they could control us remotely (which, if Mencken is right, they in fact did).
5. taking into account that all politicians are cruel
6.not only his achievement, but also vision
7. the thirty years’ rule: too early to judge after 1980.

#6 Comment By Jack Reynolds On August 1, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

Now my rankings:

Great: none on the caliber of Camillus, Augustus, Constantine, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, St. Joan, Churchill, De Gaulle

Very Good: men on the level of Scipio, Appius Claudius, Cicero, Vespatian and the 5 good emperors, Innocent III, Henry V of England, Henry VII Tutor, Charles V Hapsburg, Henri IV Bourbon, Prince Eugen, the two Pitts, Bismark, Count Witt, Gladstone, Adenauer, Metternich, Thatcher. And there is only one:

Polk: Son of Jackson. The territory of the USA, as it looks now, is basically Polk’s work. He also stood up the superpower of the day, Britain, and won. Understood the limits of power and the balance between states and Federal. Excellent with the Treasury, cut Tariffs with the Walker Tariff. Model of a hands-on president

Good (faults outweighed by achievements)
Van Buren, More faithful to Jeffersonian tradition than Jefferson himself or Jackson. The American Gladstone; a professional politician yet with good ideas: kept us out of war with Mexico, France, and Britain; knew the causes of the panic of ’37 and knew the solutions. Stopped Whig program. Set up a good monetary system.

Washington, although he listened too much to Hamilton

Cleveland: The last Jeffersonian Democrat. “A good man in a bad trade”; would have been very good if the times permitted. He must be considered a model of a good president during good times .

Jefferson: already discussed.

Monroe: Let J. W. Adams give the US its best foreign policy

Eisenhower: Found the country in turmoil; turned it over to Kennedy I in good order.
Coolidge, the Republican Cleveland

Andrew Johnson, A Jeffersonian-Jacksonian who courageously fought Reconstruction; a tribune for states’ rights.

Hayes ended reconstruction (but only as an election promise), and did little else

Harding, got the country out of the Depression of 1920 in six months.

#7 Comment By Jack Reynolds On August 1, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

mixed bags Some things very good, some very bad:

Jackson. The only President who retired the debt, who also destroyed the Bank, and gave us sound money with the Species Circular. Bad: The Force Bill and the Indian Removal Bill

Truman, good: the first Cold Warrior, bad: advanced the cause of Socialism.

John Adams, good: prevented war with France and dumped Hamilton; bad: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Tyler, who stopped the ruinous Whig program in its tracks but should have stayed out of Texas intrigue

too short to really judge:
1. Taylor
2. W. H. Harrison
3. Garfield
4. Ford

bad Faults outweigh merits:
Carter, aside from appointing Volcker to be head of the Fed, not much positive

McKinley, the first neo-con in foreign policy, yet honest enough never to say that the Empire’s wars of expansion were “making the world safe for democracy”

T. Roosevelt: The first imperial president

Madison, already discussed

Kennedy I, who turned a republic into a monarchy with a royal family, but at least cut taxes.

Nixon: Son of Wilson, a Keynesian, and who gave us a Supreme Court even worse than FDR!

L. Johnson: Son of Franklin Roosevelt

Worst with prolonged damage to the republic, from least worst to worst worst:

Hoover-Roosevelt: their programs were the same, with the same results – more depression.

Dishonest Abe: already discussed; and if you don’t believe what I’ve discussed, google his First Inaugural and read it.

Woodrow the Worst, a president without redeeming social value

#8 Comment By John Dorman On August 1, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

Gore Vidal:

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

#9 Comment By JonF On August 1, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

Re: Andrew Johnson, A Jeffersonian-Jacksonian who courageously fought Reconstruction; a tribune for states’ rights.

Not at all — and in fact he’s second to last on my list (exceeded in badness only by James Buchanan). Johnson started out gung-ho for Reconstruction as a way to punish the slave-holders whom he fiercely hated for class reasons. Then he discovered that that meant favoring the newly freed slaves, who he hated with the passion of a true racist, so he reversed course. The man who incompetent and led by his petty passions, not by any great principle or by any concern for the future of the country.

#10 Comment By Dave Thomas On August 3, 2012 @ 1:42 am

About the only place there is a “heated debate” about Reagan’s returning America to greatness is in a limousine filled with liberals.

The rest of the country knows that the nation was in real trouble at the end of the 1970’s and the Right Turn American took under Reagan returned us to greatness.