16 February 2009

Happy Presidents' Day, Part 2

The Obama inaugural and the Lincoln bicentennial have inspired the latest historians' ranking of Presidents, the first such survey since 2000. Predictably, and probably correctly, Lincoln tops the list. Just as correctly, James Buchanan occupies the basement. There simply can't be a worse president than one under whom the Union dissolved. Andrew Johnson, who botched the post Civil War reconstruction, is ranked second-worst, and I'd agree with that, too. George W. Bush debuts at 36th on the 42-man list, and in more specialized rankings was rated at the bottom in international relations. Meanwhile, JFK's reputation is on another upswing. Historians rank him the sixth-greatest president, an improvement from eighth place in 2000, for no good reason I can think of. Intangibles of some sort must count. Also rising in the consensus estimate are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, while Jimmy Carter has slipped back a few notches. It's hard to see a bias in all this, unless disapproval of the last president is automatic proof of it, but it's nearly as hard to see a coherent standard applied. It may be that the broadest and most decisive judgments in such surveys, the top and bottom, end up being the most objective once you winnow out the cranks who might have named JFK or Reagan or Calvin Coolidge or whomever on top. Once you get past naming the greatest and the worst, more subjective notions of greatness or badness probably come in. In the end, there's little more point to a full-scale list like this than there is to some cable TV list of the twenty greatest 1980s sitcoms. But it is a judgment of history, and if it gets today's politicians thinking about posterity, I suppose it's a good thing.

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