C-SPAN has once again chosen to assemble a crack team of presidential historians and compile a comprehensive rating of American presidents. Viewing the results, I suppose one is forced to simply accept the premise that so many of our presidential historians do, in fact, smoke crack. Given the subjective nature of any such analysis, some allowance must be left for individual taste, but a few of the choices are truly startling.
The cable channel listed the presidents in order of greatness using several subjective criteria and included the rankings from nine years ago when C-Span last participated in this rather useless but entertaining exercise. As for the winners in this cage match, the one-two punch tag team of Lincoln-Washington took on all comers and smoked the competition right smartly either because they truly were great or because we see them everyday on our money. That kind of publicity you simply can’t buy at any price.
In the rest of the top ten, a conspicuous item is the absence of one our most interesting — and dare I say “fun” — presidential figures. Andrew Jackson sank to number thirteen, and I throw myself upon the mercy of the public court to ask where the justice is in that. The American Lion was known to stalk the halls of the White House armed with both a pistol and a sword. He threatened to hang his own vice president, participated in a dozen duels, and is the only commander in chief known to have killed a man as a civilian.
What’s not to like?
And who do we see taking Jackson’s place among the best of the best? John Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson — both vastly overrated in the American pantheon. And what in blue blazes is Eisenhower doing at number eight? Don’t get me wrong. I still have an “I Like Ike” button in a cigar box of political memorabilia buried somewhere in my attic. He was a war hero and a fine leader. But let’s face the facts here — Ike took charge of a country flush with victory in a huge conflict, beloved by the free world, and fat with cash in a still booming wartime economy. We didn’t call them “Happy Days” for nothing.
Who wouldn’t want to take the helm at such a time? Other presidents have walked into a virtual buzz saw, with the country teetering on the brink of famine, war, depression, internecine conflict, or jetliners slamming into towers. I’m confident that any of them would have gladly traded their eyeteeth to switch places with Eisenhower. If adversity is the forge in which greatness is tempered, Ike’s place in history was cured in an Easy Bake Oven. Surely his spot could be swapped with Jackson’s without ruffling too many feathers.
The bottom of the list also contains both surprises and yawn-inducing pandering to current popular opinion. I see that good old “All Hat and No Cattle” managed to land at number 36 of 42. (This rates slightly higher than the mathematical equivalent of John McCain’s scholastic ranking at the Midshipman’s Academy as I recall.) Bush has been quick to point out that “you can’t possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed.” James Buchanan, in a letter to one of his Southern anti-abolition supporters, once made a similar claim regarding how the long lens of history would view his positions prior to the War of Northern Aggression. His current occupation of the number 42 spot should only serve to remind us that “some time” can be long indeed.
On a related note, how on Earth did poor John Tyler manage a spot in the bottom ten, a full eight positions below both Carter and Nixon? Our tenth president took his oath following the death of a predecessor who was “rarely interested in his advice and Tyler offered none in return.” He was greeted by a Congress who found his legitimacy so in question that, nearly to a man, they would have cheerfully thrown him an anvil were he to be found in danger of drowning.
His perceived lack of significant accomplishments pales in comparison to his ability to make it in to work each day without a hot poker finding its way into his nether regions. We often forget that Tyler secured our right to trade in Chinese ports with the 1844 Treaty of Wanghia. If nothing else, he managed the annexation of Texas — a feat for which even fans of the Washington Redskins have surely forgiven him by now. Does he truly rate a lower placement than Tricky Dick or the Georgia peanut farmer?
While such rankings are an admittedly inexact science, our modern, media-soaked generation has managed to aggrandize only those leaders whom they can digest in familiar bites. The upper portions of this list are populated by icons and images drilled into our hindbrains — grainy black and white clips of America’s Camelot vie with the cardboard cutouts reminiscent of childhood textbooks. Accomplished leaders who lacked the advantage of lasting public relations efforts or modern media technology are left to molder in obscurity. But I suppose we’ll keep these historians in business as long as they continue feeding us their learned conclusions. After all, we need something to keep us occupied between elections.