Blogs > Cliopatria > Rating the C-SPAN Survey

Feb 15, 2009 10:35 pm

Rating the C-SPAN Survey

C-SPAN’s second presidential survey has just been published. The network’s first version, in 2000, was unusual in its scope and breadth, rating presidents overall and according to ten categories. (At the time, the historians’ ranking of Bill Clinton as 41st of 41 in moral authority probably attracted the most press attention.) I suspect that George W. Bush’s #36 overall ranking (of the 42 people to occupy the office before Barack Obama) will generate the most attention from this year’s poll, especially since Bush spinners have placed so much emphasis on the judgment of “history.”

This year’s ratings come from 64 historians and observers of the presidency, tilted (unsurprisingly) toward specialists in the 20th century. An unfortunate oversight: the list doesn’t include anyone from the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Project (Ernest May, Philip Zelikow, or Tim Naftali would have been obvious choices) despite the work in presidential scholarship that the program has produced. (I was affiliated with the Miller Center for several years, and think highly of its work.)

Some rankings were as expected. As they had in 2000, the historians ranked Abraham Lincoln the nation’s greatest President, with George Washington and FDR rounding out the top three. (Washington and FDR reversed positions between 2000 and 2009, with Washington moving up to #2.) Also, as they had in 2000, the C-SPAN historians chose James Buchanan as the nation’s worst President, with Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce as second- and third-worst, respectively.

Some rankings were comical. In the international relations category, George W. Bush ranked 41st. Whose foreign policy, according to the historians, was worse? William Henry Harrison! It’s hard to see what Harrison did in his month-long tenure that earned him such a negative score. Indeed, Harrison’s affiliation with mainstream Whig philosophy—which championed diplomacy and a vigorous overseas commerce while frowning on armed expansionism—should win him plaudits.

Another peculiar foreign policy score went to Warren Harding. The Harding administration featured some significant international accomplishments: the Washington Treaties, which achieved real naval disarmament and set up the diplomatic system that shaped 1920s East Asian international affairs; the Hughes-Peynado Accords, which paved the way for the U.S. withdrawal from the Dominican Republic; and successful debt renegotiations with some of the World War I allies. Yet his foreign policy ranking was 37th, eight slots below that of Calvin Coolidge (whose presidency featured a war scare with Mexico, a renewed military intervention in Nicaragua, and the least qualified secretary of state of the 20th century, Frank Kellogg.)

Perhaps the most dubious rankings, however, involved the overall scores given to two recent Democrats, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Kennedy was ranked the sixth-best President, up from eighth in 2000. The two Presidents he surpassed between 2000 and 2009: Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. In 2000, eighth seemed like a pretty high ranking for Kennedy, but it’s hard to justify placing him over two two-term chief executives with major accomplishments in both the foreign policy and domestic spheres.

I’m obviously partial to LBJ, but it seems to me that—quite apart from Wilson and Jefferson, which aren’t particularly close calls—a strong case could be made for ranking LBJ ahead of Kennedy. Johnson’s major failure—Vietnam—was an outgrowth of decisions made by his predecessor, and Johnson’s legislative skills were key both in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and a social welfare package far more ambitious than anything Kennedy likely would have produced.

The second questionable overall score involved Bill Clinton, who rose from a 21 ranking in 2000 to the 15th-best President in 2009, moving past John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and George H.W. Bush.

Making comparisons across eras is always difficult: were Clinton’s “administrative skills” really better than J.Q. Adams’; or was his vision and ability to set an agenda more comprehensive than that of McKinley? But what information has emerged in the last nine years to support altering the 2000 rankings and elevating Clinton ahead of Bush I—especially after a presidential campaign in which the ultimate Democratic nominee seemed to say as many nice things about Bush I’s performance as he did about Clinton’s?

For the historians, the two key elements in the shift came in the categories of relations with Congress and economic management. Under the heading of relations with Congress, Clinton’s ranking rose by 17 slots (from 36th to 19th), the largest surge in any category for any President. In the new rankings, he beat out Bush, whose ranking was 20th (unchanged from 2000).

It’s very hard to account for this shift. Clinton, after all, has two overwhelming negatives in this category—impeachment and his disastrous handling of health care in 1993-1994—balanced against two major pieces of legislation (welfare reform and the 1993 budget), some constitutionally dubious but politically palatable initiatives (such as DOMA), and a record of doing little because of gridlock in a period of economic growth. Bush, on the other hand, had a quite impressive record of bipartisan accomplishments (especially in light of the two presidencies that followed him), on specialty issues (such as the Americans with Disability Act) and on major questions (the 1990 budget deal). Bush also put together congressional majorities for two of his major, if highly controversial, initiatives—the Gulf War declaration and the Clarence Thomas confirmation. In short, I see no objective criteria where Clinton’s relations with Congress would be ranked higher than Bush I’s.

On the economic front, Clinton appropriately receives kudos—he’s now ranked #3, behind only Washington and Lincoln. Bush is ranked 23rd, though the 1990 budget deal was critical in laying the foundations for 1990s prosperity, even if it cost him politically. Meanwhile, Clinton’s ranking in international relations actually rose between 2000 and 2009 (from 21st to 16th, with Bush at 9th)—even though the last decade has featured much more attention on the administration’s failure in Rwanda and its spotty record in dealing with Al Qaeda.

For the record, I think both Bush I and Clinton were average Presidents; it just seems hard, based on the different perspectives we have now as compared to 2000, to justify moving Clinton ahead of Bush I, and to do so principally on the basis of a newfound appreciation for the Democrat’s relations with Congress.

Overall, though, the survey makes for a fascinating read—C-SPAN, alone among the presidential surveys, breaks down into the ten categories as well as providing an overall score, allowing, at the least, for some sense of the criteria that the individual scholars used to reach their decisions.

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Brian Robertson - 2/18/2009

Interesting point. I would argue, however, that Southern Democrats intimidated Kennedy and this prevented him from pursuing Civil Rights legislation. Johnson, on the other hand, used the "Johnson treatment" to pressure Southern Democrats to accept his civil rights programs. In the South, in my opinion, Johnson's unique style of persuasion played a more prominent role in the passage of civil rights legislation than Kennedy's death.

Ed Schmitt - 2/18/2009

Obviously we have to assess the history as it unfolded, but I wonder, even though LBJ idolized FDR, if we could seriously suggest that Johnson would have become the domestic president he was had he been elected in 1960. The confluence of shifting public sympathies in the wake of Kennedy's assassination and the relatively ambitious array of legislation Kennedy already had in the pipeline from 1963 forward is what Johnson picked up and skillfully ran with. We can certainly admire his superior skill in massaging Congress, but he faced a very different dynamic than Kennedy did in the summer of 1963. Johnson recognized that making the civil rights bill a memorial to JFK was the best strategy. I think there is a default tendency among historians to focus on the Vietnam problem Kennedy left Johnson and ignore the domestic groundwork.

Brian Robertson - 2/17/2009

I agree with K.C. Johnson regarding LBJ and JFK. The only justification that I can see for JFK's unusually high rating (for the second time) is the appointed historians evaluating counter-factual history or, in other words, playing the "what JFK would have done had he lived" game. After all, Kennedy did not even serve a full term.

Sheldon M. Stern - 2/16/2009

Of course I've read the list! However, I don't know the political leanings of all of the participants.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/16/2009

Instead of assuming, you can look at the list of participants and decide for yourself if they represent a sufficiently balanced and professional mix.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/16/2009

URLs don't always translate cleanly in this system.

HAVH Mayer - 2/16/2009

I agree, in general, with KC's comments. Taking the survey for what it's worth, the results cast starker light on the unique status of GW Bush: among the bottom 19 presidents in the rankings, he is the only one who served two full terms. The 2004 re-election was perhaps a greater historical oddity than the 2000 election; and we should bear in mind that some of these other guys might have screwed things up worse if they'd had more time. Does anyone doubt that Tyler would rank below Bush if he'd somehow won another term?

Sheldon M. Stern - 2/16/2009

For some reason the link came up incomplete: you must include
pages/trans_updates.htm after

Sheldon M. Stern - 2/16/2009

The specific link to the Miller Center review of my suggested corrections is:

Sheldon M. Stern - 2/16/2009

I agree with most of Prof. Johnson's comments about the recent CNN presidential rating survey. But, just a few thoughts:
First, surveys of this kind probably tell us more about the participants than the presidents they are evaluating. For example, I doubt that conservative academics were adequately represented.
Second, I share Prof. Johnson's high regard for LBJ, but it is misleading to suggest that he was simply following the path laid out by JFK. The roots of the US role in Vietnam go back to Truman and Eisenhower as well as Kennedy. Johnson went well beyond anything his three predecessors would likely have done. However, if LBJ's top advisers (inherited from JFK) had informed him that Kennedy had compromised during the Cuban missile crisis (he never knew about the Cuba/Turkey quid pro quo)perhaps he would have acted differently.
Third, as to Professor Johnson's "high regard" for the work of the Miller Center, it is worth noting that despite accepting dozens of my JFK missile crisis corrections on their website, the Miller Center has never explained how their elaborate system of listening, checking, and rechecking could have produced so many significant errors.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/16/2009

I can't imagine that anyone is taking this exercise all that seriously, except in the sense that the usual partisans will respond reflexively in predictable ways.

I'm on record as rejecting the idea that we need to "let the dust settle" before talking about presidencies as historians, but with the usual caveat that none of our judgements are permanent: they are all subject to further discovery.

Alonzo Hamby - 2/16/2009

I participated in the first survey and was invited to do soin this one, but couldn't find the time.

The questionnaire with its ten categories magnifies a problem that even the best political historians have with an assignment like this. Who among us can really exercise informed judgment on ten measurements of the effectiveness of 43 presidencies spanning more than two centuries of history? Are all the categories equally relevant for each presidency?

And why include William Henry Harrison (one month!) or James A. Garfield (6 months) at all?

Don't we need to let the dust settle before evaluating Clinton and G. W. Bush.

The major effect of presidential evaluation surveys seems to be to provide a snapshot of the sentiments of a group of scholars and journalists that tries to be objective but is well to the left of the country as a whole. The results are interesting, and if C-Span is nice enough to send me another questionnaire ten years from now, I'll try to get it in on time.

But, really, we should not take these exercise very seriously.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/16/2009

I was struck by how little the results changed, actually: was the panel of experts much the same as last time, and did they start with their previous rankings, or was it a clean slate, I wonder?

I haven't looked at the breakout scores, but it's the big drops, rather than dubious increases, that struck me. Jefferson's personal reputation has suffered in the last ten years; Wilson's association with the Bush administration has clearly hurt him.