C-SPAN released its 2021 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership this week. FILE – In this Sept. 11, 2002, file photo, the sun rises on Mt. Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, S.D. as the flag is flown at half staff in honor of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. When President Donald Trump speaks at the Mount Rushmore national memorial Friday, July 3, 2020, before the first fireworks show there in years, he’ll stand before a crowd of thousands of people who won’t be required to socially distance or wear masks despite the coronavirus pandemic. Public health experts say the lack of social distancing and enforced mask wearing could lead to a surge in the disease, while the fireworks risk setting the surrounding forest ablaze.(AP Photo/Laura Rauch, File) Laura Rauch/AP
Here are the greatest presidents of all time, according to C-SPAN
Becket Adams July 01, 05:07 PM July 01, 05:07 PM
C-SPAN released its 2021 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership this week.
It’s a doozy.
For starters, the survey reports that of the top 10 best presidents of all time, a full 70% come from the 20th century. Recency bias is a hell of a thing. For a group of professionals whose job is to remember old stuff, the historians responsible for these rankings sure seem to have short memories.
From first to last, the survey claims the best presidents are: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
As an aside, it has been remarkable to watch Woodrow Wilson’s once-sterling reputation crumble in real time. Not too long ago, he would have ranked in the top 10. Now, Wilson, who once was considered one of the greatest U.S. commanders in chief, comes in at No. 13.
Meanwhile, former Presidents John Adams and James Madison are lower down the survey of overall best presidents, behind Lyndon Johnson and Wilson. Calvin Coolidge ranks No. 24, behind Andrew Jackson (!) and William Howard Taft. Former President Donald Trump ranks fourth to last, just ahead of Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan.
The C-SPAN survey — in which 142 historians, academics, and “professional observers of the presidency” ranked the country’s former chief executives on 10 characteristics of leadership — suggests the participants are more beholden to myth than fact.
It’s the only thing that explains why, for example, John F. Kennedy is ranked eighth overall. The popular myth of John F. Kennedy’s greatness is one of the most persistent in modern politics and academia. Perhaps he ranks so high for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis — but ahead of Reagan, whose leadership brought an end to the Cold War with the United States as the victor? Absurd.
On what criteria were the presidents judged? Good question. The survey asked participants to score the presidents on 10 categories: Public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of the times.
This raises more questions than it answers.
For example, how does FDR rank No. 9 in the “pursued equal justice for all” category? It seems awfully strange to award ninth place to the president who oversaw the unconstitutional internment of U.S. Japanese citizens. FDR also took a third term and led the charge on court-packing, both of which served the interests of one group over another.
For that matter, while we’re on the topic of “pursued equal justice for all,” it’s worth mentioning FDR also blocked Republican-led legislation that would’ve made lynching a federal crime, arguing at the time it would have made it harder for him to persuade Congress to pass his larger agenda. Equal justice for all, indeed.
Do the historians who voted on the survey not remember this stuff?
Regarding the “international relations” category, which C-SPAN defines as how a president handled both diplomacy and war, how does Obama score higher than Trump?
Look, the 45th president talked a lot of trash. He also insulted U.S. allies. But the Trump administration also started no new wars — a first in a long time. Also, unlike Obama, Trump can go to his grave knowing his administration did more for peace in the Middle East than any president since, at least, Jimmy Carter.
Delegates from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel joining together at the White House to sign a treaty normalizing diplomatic relations between their respective nations remains one of the most remarkable images of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Obama administration destabilized Libya, paved the way for a nuclear Iran, shied away from its “red line” on Syria’s war crimes, sat helplessly for too long as the Islamic State marauded across the Middle East.
It also did little to defend Ukraine and Crimea from Russia and, when all else failed, could only dispatch singer James Taylor to France after the U.S. State Department failed to participate in a solidarity march following the monstrous Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks.
Rankings are always exercises in subjectivity, but this is ridiculous. What about the Obama administration’s approach to war and diplomacy was better than the Trump White House’s?
Again, from a review of the survey’s findings, it seems clear the participating historians are enamored more with myth and popular opinion than they are with cold, hard facts.
It’s the only thing to explain why, of all people, JFK and Obama are in the top 10. It’s also the only thing to explain why anyone would think the Obama administration did a better job on “international relations” than the administration that launched no new wars and normalized diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain.
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