The highly subjective task of ranking US Presidents… is best left to historians. But, there is no guarantee that an unbiased assessment will be produced by academics trained in the discipline of history. Historians are human, subject to the same prejudices, passions, and notions that afflict those not considered ‘experts.’ The veil of ‘expertise’ shields historians after they produce the rankings, which often are published and accepted as fact. The mistakes made in the assessments are readily identified:
- Personal political beliefs… often leak into their judgement. Presidents who share a particular political ideology with a historian tend to be ranked higher. Historians often look past obvious shortcomings because of the political similarities. Conversely, Presidents with differing ideologies are punished accordingly. Liberal British historians ranked the Presidents and rated Franklin Roosevelt #1 and Jimmy Carter at #19
- Connections… Presidential historians and/or commentators often have worked closely with their subjects. The familiarity provides valuable insight, but it undoubtedly clouds judgement. Arthur Schlesinger worked in the Kennedy White House.
- Research (lack of)… Many Presidential rankings are skewed by the ages or fields of expertise of the judges. Younger judges closely scrutinize recent Presidents while relying on older analysis to rank those from the past. Older historians tend to be more critical of recent examples while comparing them to the storied leadership of long ago. Sienna College rated George W. Bush a failure in 2006…during his presidency.
Presidents should be rated according… to consistent and unbiased criteria. To avoid the common errors in historical judgement, apply these simple tests:
- Meeting the issues of the day… how well did the President address the most pertinent concerns of the electorate– not the sanitized, politically correct concerns of the scholar.
- Crisis leadership… could the President provide the necessary leadership during national crises– war is the ultimate crisis, but not the only one to be considered.
- Fulfilling the duties of the office… did the President enforce the law, defend the Constitution, supervise the military, and promote our diplomatic interests?
Subjectivity should be influenced by scholarship… historians will play favorites, but such status must be earned. The proof is in the proverbial pudding….go to the historical record and leave your political bias at the door.