Last time we were here, I reviewed the history and philosophy of ranking presidents, making a case for the value of one person making a qualitative evaluation of the chief executives, with set criteria, but not a mathematic rubric. Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, where he ranks the 96 best NBA players of all time, and in doing so sheds much light on what makes the sport compelling, is very much my role-model for this project.
But how to evaluate the presidents in a sensible, clear, fair, and non-arbitrary way? The answer came to me when I revisited my World Civilizations Part I lecture notes, and remembered the story where I end the class– Dante the pilgrim’s journey through the various levels of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Each level is subdivided in such a way that various categories of sinners are grouped together. And each enjoys an appropriate reward or punishment for their deeds on earth. Dante, of course, has an especially fun time with the great sinners of antiquity, devising horrific punishments, and often placing his deceased enemies in their company. Famous lovers whirl around in an endless wind, for they were unable to control the tempest of their passion. Traitors are frozen in the Devil’s grasp in the very lowest level of Hell. Those in purgatory suffer, but do so joyfully, in anticipation of heaven to come.
Why not do something along those lines– coming up with categories, and placing them into a rough kind of hierarchy? This makes the presidential ranking process far less haphazard and chaotic– how do you really determine, after all, what makes Chester Arthur slightly better or slightly worse than Benjamin Harrison? To answer these kinds of questions, I devised 12 (plus one) categories, and put each of the presidents in one of them. I then evaluated which categories were more desirable, and more deserving of a high or lower ranking. My categories meld not only legislative and foreign policy accomplishments, but also administrative competence, comportment, and their legacy on social justice, civil rights, and civil liberties. (So, yes, my McGovernite roots are showing through here. If you don’t like it, get your own daggnam Ph.D. in history.) In other words, I am departing from the traditional practice of putting incompetence at the lowest rungs of the presidential ladder– think Harding, Pierce, Buchanan. In the long run, you cannot just evaluate how effective a president was, as if their actions had no consequences; you must also account for the wisdom of the courses they took. Powerful, successful presidents who were able to steer the country into the ground need to be called into account. Accordingly, the lowest rankings belong to plutocratic presidents and those who initiated unjust wars or fostered American imperialism. In my judgment, incompetence is significantly more forgivable than using considerable political gifts for the wrong ends.
I won’t tell you the final ranking, or who is in which category yet, but the categories are listed in order below, along with the number of presidents who belong to them.
- Champions of Justice (2) Two guys who stand heads and shoulders above the rest in accomplishment, leadership, and vision. But these chief executives did more than that– they fundamentally remade the country to be greater, broader, and a place where more and more people could achieve their dreams.
- Super-Competent Administrators (3) This designation belongs to a few exceptionally able individuals who did not face very many major crises in their presidencies, but ran the country effectively and honestly. Given how many war presidents usually show up in the top ten, it is important to acknowledge those who excelled in troubleshooting and defusing crises.
- Flawed Giants (5) These five were unquestionably men of remarkable ability and considerable accomplishment. And yet, there was something holding them back from the highest echelons– some kind of Shakespearean flaw in their character, or some kind of malignant philosophy guiding them in certain areas. These are presidents whose greatness comes with an asterisk or two.
- Imperfect, but Competent (3) This category includes presidents who did not have the excellent political skills or the overwhelming competence of those in #2, but were nevertheless able, effective, and wise.
- Impolitic but Brave (2) Only two lonely presidents belong into this category. They were presidents who made bold, difficult, and politically suicidal choices during their presidency that were in the best long-term interests of their country. Yet, they achieved limited success elsewhere because of a stubborn tone-deafness to both adversaries and potential allies.
- Stonewalled Visionaries (4) These four were men of extraordinary vision and compelling intellect. However, they achieved only a fraction of what they might have. Some of the time, this was due to their own personal drawbacks and peccadillos. (Or major flaws– megadillos?) But most of the time, they were stonewalled by an unreasonable and visceral opposition that was determined to stymie their success.
- Well-Meaning Bumbler (4). These were presidents whose hearts were certainly in the right place. But they failed to project confidence and competence, failed to communicate to the public, and failed to demonstrate leadership and take control of their office. Unlike category #6, their failure to achieve major objectives lies principally with themselves, not outside forces.
- Empty Carriage (4). This comes from Winston Churchill’s famous put-down of his successor as prime minister, Clement Attlee: “an empty carriage stopped at 10 Downing Street, and Attlee stepped out.” Historians have vindicated Attlee; he usually tops Winston Churchill whenever U.K. prime ministers are rated. I do like the imagery, however. These figures were nonentities who did not demonstrate leadership of any kind, and to the extent that they had a vision or an agenda, it was very nebulous indeed.
- Petty Expansionist (4). Essentially, a less egregious or less successful version of either #10 or #11. Weak presidents whose only saving grace was that they weren’t more successful–thus, limiting the damage they did to the country.
- Failed Ideologue (4): The presidents residing in this dojo were stubborn and uncompromising– on the wrong issues. Governing by ideology, surrounding themselves only with like-minded individuals, they were unable to learn from mistakes, listen to devil’s advocates, and in the process, made the United States a less equal country, usually in the name of strict constructionism.
- Warmonger (2) This second-to-lowest category is reserved for presidents whose most enduring legacy is that of a costly, unnecessary war that did injury to the great themes of American history, caused division at home, and harmed their country’s reputation abroad.
- Tyrant (1). Only one president achieved this lowest of all distinctions for blatant disregard for the law, governing by grievance, and gross human rights abuses. Can you guess who?
There is also a thirteenth category in which the three remaining presidents belong. Lacking a better title, I have called them IRCs. It stands for “It’s Really Complicated”, and should be pronounced like a sudden involuntary reaction- “Irk!” While all presidents, of course, have complicated administrations, these presidents are such a mixed bag, with such complex and contradictory legacies, that they can appear anywhere on the ranking system, but will usually fall somewhere in the middle.
A final few words about how the rankings will play out– a president who was particularly brave but only mildly impolitic may belong to level 5, but may be ranked a bit higher than a barely competent administrator who belongs on level 4. This is in recognition that any categorization of the presidents– that any categorization of anything, really– is stocked with nuance, exceptions, and extenuating circumstances. So, the rankings will frequently skip levels and come back to previous ones.
Finally, I have, as is customary, not evaluated William Henry Harrison or James Garfield. Harrison only served a month before shedding this mortal coil. Garfield served a little longer than that- six months- but he spent most of that time convalescing from a gunshot wound and resulting infections. Truly, you need at least a full year before you can have your time on the job evaluated and scrutinized. Along those lines– in a departure from previous rankings I wrote or posted on facebook or my blog, I have decided to rank the incumbent president, in this case, obviously, Barack Obama. His presidency is still unfolding, but with more than one term under his belt, he has served longer than many presidents ranked here. While subsequent events may change how historians view his administration, subsequent histories will also change how we view each of his predecessors. History and historiography wait for no one, and if we stop to let posterity make its judgment, we miss the opportunity to say something meaningful in the here and now. With Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms counting as one administration, this means that a total of 41 figures will be ranked.
So, in the next several months, I will be publishing my evaluation and ranking of each president. I debated whether to reveal them chronologically, from the highest-ranked to the lowest-ranked, or countdown-style from the lowest-ranked to the highest. Finally, I came up with a method I enjoyed a great deal more. I’ll start at the very middle of the ranking- #21. Then, I’ll proceed in turn from one number higher, to one number lower, then one higher still, then lower, in sequence. So, I will start with 21, then proceed to 20, 22, 19, 23, and so on…until only the very greatest and the very worst are left.