C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

Woodrow Wilson, 1916.

Yesterday, C-SPAN finally issued the full results of its 2009 Presidential Survey by some 150 historians. Here’s the link to the full C-SPAN group results. As you know, I had the honor to participate and, for comparison. Here’s the link to my own entry.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I saw the final C-SPAN list, I eagerly put their’s and mine side by side, just to see how I stacked up. What I saw was a profile of my own prejudice staring back at me. Here’s a sample:

Let’s start with the top ten. We agreed on the top four (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts), though in slightly different order. But after that, we parted ways.

For instance, the C-SPAN group ranked both Woodrow Wilson and JFK in the top ten, at #9 and #6 respectively. I couldn’t disagree more. I rated Wilson far lower, at #16, his dismal records on civil rights, wartime dissent, and the post-war Red Scare, as well as his failure to win acceptance of the Versailles treaty, all counting as significant demerits. Similarly, I rated JFK far lower at #17. Yes, he inspired the country, but his sparse legislative record hardly earned him a spot in the top tier. Yes, for glamour, celebrity, and style, JFK wins hands down. But is that really how we rate Presidents? Perhaps had he lived….

As for the bottom ten, I broke from the group on two notables. First, I included Richard Nixon at #36. The C-SPAN group rated him much higher, at #27. I admit to prejudice on this one: Living through the Vietnam War at draftable age could not help but affect my attitude toward Nixon. But even putting that aside, Congress had good reasons for impeaching Nixon in 1974. His temperament — seen in his enemies list, wiretaps on his own staff, and conspiracies galore — was perhaps the worst of any President, and it overshadowed any positive accomplishment.

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

So that’s my first take on the final, official C-SPAN list, and I look forward to debating these points on many more Presidents Days to come. Hope you have a happy one –KenA

9 thoughts on “C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

  1. Please explain how Clinton, a president who, to the best of my knowledge, did not create any notable economic or military failures, was ruled to be an inferior president than both Reagan and G.H.W. Bush. Reagan left this country saddled with an economic deficit that is dragging this country down to this very day and his administration was deeply complicit in the Iran-Contra affair, a veritable impeachable abuse of executive power. And G.HW. Bush? Even more economic ruin and a failure to remove Saddam, which arguably led to the quagmire we are in today. How do the records of these two men stand above Clinton’s? Clinton’s impeachment (and acquittal) for the cover-up of his marital infidelity seems trivial compared to the abject deceit behind Reagan/Bush’s Iran-Contra debacle.

    I could go on, (incomes for ALL economic strata increased during Clinton, but not Reagan/Bush, the stock market ended with greater returns during Clinton than Reagan/Bush, etc etc).

    Please explain your ratings rationale.

  2. I love to see people get worked-up over presidential history like this!

    Incidentally, Clinton ended up #22 on my list. And, the big surprise was Coolidge ended up #3 . . .

  3. Thanks for the note.
    Ronald Reagan was important and hugely effective, but Bill Clinton easily would have out ranked him on my list for several reasons — good economy, strong foreign policy, so on. But unfortunately there was that one thing.
    The Monica Lewinsky affair might seem trivial, but it was a remarkable act of irresponsibility for a President inside the White House. It put his entire Administration at risk for no good reason. I wish I could ignore it, but I couldn’t.
    Hope that answers the question. –KenA

  4. I’ve been finding these conversations on presidential rankings very interesting! I posted an entry on this at my blog. I also added you to my blogroll.


  5. I’d put FDR at 1 and Bichana last as well. I’d say you folks got it about right.

    The whole thing is subjective any way.

  6. Got it. If a president puts his entire administration at risk by committing an impeachable offense like Iran-Contra, it can be ignored compared to something like the Lewinsky scandal since there was no witch-hunt prosecution associated with it.

    Clinton’s hugely, yes hugely, successful economic record compared to the mountains upon mountains of red ink foisted upon the United States by Reagan and Bush don’t make up for Clinton’s fellatio cover-up. Yup, got it. Thanks for clearing that up.

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