From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “The Siena Research Institute’s Lousy Independence Day Gift: Misleading, Biased and Incompetent Presidential Rankings”

Now and then an old post suddenly get a lot of clicks. Often this will draw my attention to an essay I had forgotten: such was the case with this post from 2010. Someone on Reddit put it up for discussion, and last week the old post had hundreds of views. I was intrigued and re-read it. Good post!

I would change a few observations—in the intervening years we have learned that Woodrow Wilson was even worse than I thought—and add some, but the post was long, and a thorough evisceration of this embarrassing survey’s results would require a book.

***

The Siena College Research Institute persuaded over 200 presidential scholars to participate in a survey designed to rank America’s forty-three Chief Executives. There is great deal to be leaned from the resulting list that the Institute proudly released on July 1; unfortunately, very few of the lessons have anything to do with the men on it.

The list shows us that:

  • A survey is only as good as its design
  • Historians who call themselves “presidential scholars,” working together, could do no better in their supposed area of expertise than to arrive at a ranking that would get most 7th Graders a C in junior high school History, raising serious questions about how history is taught in our universities, but perhaps explaining why Americans choose to be so ignorant of their nation’s past.
  • Historians are, as a group, biased toward liberal causes, against conservatives, and in favor of people who are like them.
  • They are unable to recognize their biases, even when a list like this one makes them stunningly obvious.

Lists are mostly for fun and to start arguments. When one purports to make historical judgments, however, and the individuals doing the judging are supposed to be experts, there is still a responsibility to try to do the task fairly, competently, and responsibly. Such lists influence students in their heroes and role models; they can slant political attitudes and perspective. Bias is inevitable: beginning in the 1960’s and periodically afterwards, the Democratic cheerleader historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. churned out rankings that routinely penalized Presidents for being Republicans and handed out bonus points for being named “Kennedy.” In 2000, The Federalist Society and the Wall Street Journal sponsored another survey that unsurprisingly showed a different bias, but on the whole resulted in a list that was less slanted than Schlesinger’s. The Siena list, however is in a class by itself, with so many indefensible whoppers that the responsible thing to do would have been to start from scratch.

Here’s the whole list:

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  2. Theodore Roosevelt
  3. Abraham Lincoln
  4. George Washington
  5. Thomas Jefferson
  6. James Madison
  7. James Monroe
  8. Woodrow Wilson
  9. Harry Truman
  10. Dwight Eisenhower
  11. John F. Kennedy
  12. James K. Polk
  13. Bill Clinton
  14. Andrew Jackson
  15. Barack Obama
  16. Lyndon B. Johnson
  17. John Adams
  18. Ronald Reagan
  19. John Quincy Adams
  20. Grover Cleveland
  21. William McKinley
  22. George Herbert Walker Bush
  23. Martin Van Buren
  24. William Howard Taft
  25. Chester A. Arthur
  26. Ulysses S. Grant
  27. James Garfield
  28. Gerald Ford
  29. Calvin Coolidge
  30. Richard M. Nixon
  31. Rutherford B. Hayes
  32. Jimmy Carter
  33. Zachary Taylor
  34. Benjamin Harrison
  35. William Henry Harrison
  36. Herbert Hoover
  37. John Tyler
  38. Millard Fillmore
  39. G.W. Bush
  40. Franklin Pierce
  41. Warren G. Harding
  42. James Buchanan
  43. Andrew Johnson

Sometimes ranking lists intentionally are rigged to come out with a surprising #1. A list of the all-time greatest baseball players that begins with Babe Ruth is hardly newsworthy, but one that begins with Willie Mays can be counted on to attract attention. The presidential ranking is by scholars, however; they are obligated to be interested only in enlightenment, not publicity. In the presidential ranking game, any list that puts someone other than Lincoln or Washington first is automatically controversial, and for good reason: there’s no legitimate competition. The Siena list, by not having the President who preserved the union, redefined our concept of the nation, and ended slavery and the indispensable first Chief Executive who molded  the office and proved that an untried system of government could work, announces its bias and incompetence immediately. The two Roosevelts can only be judged above Lincoln and Washington if one regards progressive economic and social reforms and environmentalism as the most important objectives of a Presidency.

The lowering of Lincoln and Washington, however, are not the worst aspects of the list. After all, most rankings put F.D.R. no lower than third, and Teddy, despite his many mistakes (a recent book makes a strong case that Roosevelt’s policy of strengthening Japan in relationship to the rest of Asia led directly to the Japanese slaughter of Chinese and Koreans in W.W. II as well as the bombing of Pearl Harbor), is seldom left outside the top five. It is deeper in the list where its weaknesses and inconsistencies are most striking. A few examples:

  • Barack Obama, currently mired in two wars and a recession, while alienating traditional allies like Israel and Great Britain and pursuing a so far ineffective charm offensive with Iran, Russia, China and North Korea, having raised the deficit to unsustainable levels, being assailed from the Left for fecklessness and by the Right for pushing risky social experiments that the nation cannot afford, facing the likelihood of a massive vote revolt in November that could put him on the path to being a one-term president, is listed 15th, just behind Jackson (almost always in the top ten), and ahead of Conservative hero Ronald Reagan. Obama may yet earn such a high ranking, but awarding it to him now is similar to awarding him the Nobel Prize before he has achieved any peace. No president can be assessed fairly or accurately without the perspective of time. Judging Obama before he has served even half his term is impossible and absurd. I would argue that it is even too early to rank George Bush, but at least there are eight years to evaluate.
  • Ronald Reagan, though his ideological enemies refuse to give him due credit, was the signature architect of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Iron Curtain. In any fair and unbiased ranking, that accomplishment alone would place him above Madison, Monroe, Clinton, Eisenhower, L.B.J and others the Siena survey place above him.
  • John Kennedy has no legitimate claims to being a great President or even an above average one. He nearly blundered the nation into nuclear war, started our entrenchment in the disastrous Vietnam war, and was assassinated before doing much positive besides inspiring a new generation and launching the space program, now apparently fading from importance. Yet somehow he is ranked above James K. Polk, who in serving one more year than Kennedy made a strong case that he should be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. During the 1844 campaign, Polk promised to do five things:  acquire California from Mexico,  settle the Oregon dispute with Canada and Great Britain,  lower the tariff,  establish a sub-treasury, and to leave office after one term. He did them all. Modern liberals don’t like to give Polk credit, as he did fabricate a war with Mexico, but he is second only to Jefferson in increasing the territory of the country, and his accomplishments obviously dwarf Kennedy’s. Kennedy’s reckless womanizing also mark him as one of the most despicable individuals to be President, and only a press corp that protected his image kept him from impeachment. The eleventh greatest President?
  • William Henry Harrison died in office after a month, being sick from his inauguration on. Most lists have either left him off, which is fair, or listed him last, as you can’t do less than nothing. Siena’s scholars, however, place him higher than eight other Presidents, including Richard Nixon, whose accomplishments were many, John Tyler, who deserves credit for deciding that Presidential succession didn’t require a special election, and Andrew Johnson, who at least successfully fought the attempt of Congress to reduce the Presidency to a rubber stamp.
  • Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist who gave explicit support to the Ku Klux Klan and revived Jim Crow. His foreign policy accomplishments included getting the U.S. involved in World War I needlessly, and laying the groundwork for World War II by accepting the harsh treaty terms proposed at Versailles in order to get his dream, the League of Nations, established. Then he was unable to muster the political persuasiveness  to persuade the Senate to allow the U.S. to join the League, dooming it to failure. Finally, he spent the last half of his second term secretly incapacitated by a stroke, letting his wife run the country. For this, Siena’s scholars rank Wilson 8th.

How did the ranking end up so embarrassingly cock-eyed? Blame Siena Institute for this, as its methodology was incompetent and logically indefensible.  The historians were asked to rank the Presidents on six personal attributes (background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five abilities (compromising, executive ability, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment (economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing Supreme Court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy.) They were all weighted the same.

Background, intelligence, willingness to take risks and luck are all irrelevant and distorting categories. Luck? Does Siena College really believe that good or bad luck should be attributed to the President? If anything, having to deal with bad luck should cause a President to be rated higher. Willingness to take risks is a positive if it is a reasonable risk, a negative if the risk is reckless. An argument could be made that Abe Lincoln was a fool to risk losing a civil war and should have let the Confederacy go in peace. Presidents have to be ranked according to what they accomplish for the nation long and short term. Willingness to take risks is one route to success; it’s also a route to catastrophe. What does intelligence have to do with successful leadership? James Madison was brilliant, and bungled into a war that the U.S. was lucky to survive. Taft, Wilson, Carter, John Quincy Adams, Arthur and others  couldn’t translate I.Q. into successful leadership. Including this factor only allows historians to indulge their elitist biases, elevating the men they consider educated and intelligent, though in truth they can only speculate on such things. “Background” is similarly irrelevant. A lack of executive leadership experience has been a constant problem for Obama, as it was for John Adams and Andrew Johnson.  It didn’t seem to bother Lincoln, though, or Harry Truman. Two of our worst Presidents, George H.W. Bush and James Buchanan, had the most thorough experience in the group. To weight these four categories, which shouldn’t be factors at all, with foreign policy accomplishments (for example), guaranties strange results.

Other categories also have too much importance, or are an open invitation to bias, such as Supreme Court and Executive appointments. Does Kennedy get extra credit for his stellar appointments that managed to get thousands of American boys killed in Vietnam? How did the historians deal with F.D.R. attempt to circumvent the Constitution by packing the Supreme Court? I’d call that an attempt at illegal appointments, but apparently the scholars just ignored it. If a President appoints a Justice because he thinks he’ll be conservative (which the scholars generally don’t like), and he turns out liberal (Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren; Nixon’s appointment of Harry Blackmun; Bush, Sr.’s appointment of Justice Souter), does he get brownie points for the appointment, or not? Then there is leading the Party: poor Andrew Johnson and John Tyler finished last in this category, because each was a Vice-President who ran on a national ticket of a party he didn’t belong to.

I could go on, but it is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m just an amateur Presidential “scholar”: I look to the pros for insight. I expect serious historians to take their discipline seriously, not to participate in an exercise that at best is incoherent and at worse results in misinformation. I expect them to try to keep their biases in check; I expect them to use common sense (William Henry Harrison—he of the one month term— is ranked only next to last in “luck,” ahead of Herbert Hoover, who, if I recall, managed to live through his Depression-scarred term and have productive life into his eighties. I suspect James Garfield and Jack Kennedy would consider being shot before they could get four years in more unlucky than having the stock market crash on their watch, too).

If you can’t do something like this well, it shouldn’t be done. American history is important, and it is not unreasonable to ask that historians treat it that way.

8 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “The Siena Research Institute’s Lousy Independence Day Gift: Misleading, Biased and Incompetent Presidential Rankings”

  1. Too many ridiculous rankings to even begin disassembling them.

    Thanks though for making an effort.

    When GW Bush ranks below Jimmy Carter you know how fudged up this list is. End of story.

    • Well he had to be somewhere on the list. Personally, I think he should be permanently yoked to Andrew Jackson, another strong, transformational President with towering strengths and some awful flaws.

  2. Yeah, that is a bit of an oddball list. Woodrow Wilson is way too high. As heretical as it may sound, I think Madison is too high. He was a visionary and very scholarly with the Federalist Papers and all, but based on my reading, I think he was a rather weak President. Monroe is easily top 5 for me…Polk needs a boost, as does Reagan and Bush II. Any list with President Obama above President Reagan – and I admit my biases – is clearly biased in its own right.

    So one of my bucket list items is to read a biography about each President in order. Can anyone recommend a biography of Martin Van Buren? I think there are a couple of options, but I’d love to hear a thought or two.

  3. This post needs to be read and considered in the light of the post regarding Michael Crichton’s talk about the media, speculation and the problems with “experts”. This gaggle of presidential scholars would be a perfect example for him to use if he were with us today and doing an update.

  4. I wonder why their bias does not give Jimmy Carter a higher ranking?
    At least his incompetence kept him from being as destructive as the likes of Woodrow Wilson.

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