Two hundred and thirty-four years ago, if I'm doing my math correctly, a bunch of politicians got together in Philadelphia and decided to start a new country. So, on this patriotic weekend, I think it's fitting to celebrate the Americans who have involved themselves in politics and public affairs: the state legislators and the convention delegates, the judges and the congressional staff, the campaign managers and the mayors, the activists and the cabinet secretaries. The great Americans who served their nation in Congress without becoming president...just to pick a few of my favorites: Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Hubert Humphrey, Tip O'Neill.
Oh, and the presidents. And what could be more fun and frivolous for the Fourth of July weekend than spending a little time with the brand new Siena College poll of "presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists" ranking the presidents (via Political Wire). So I'm going to write a few items just looking in at what they found, and using it as an excuse for a few comments.
I wouldn't, by the way, put a huge amount of stock in any of this. I was invited to participate in one of these, once (not the Siena version, another one). The questions weren't exactly the same as what Sienna throws at their respondents, but it was similar in that there's nothing that will humble you quickly than having to produce opinions of (in my case at least) the presidents, say, after Lincoln through the rest of the 19th century. And not just on them in general, but opinions about a whole lot of different aspects of their presidencies. I mean, first of all, Siena includes Barack Obama...I don't know exactly when their window closed, but I'm guessing that those data are about as meaningless as -- but wait! You think that's bad -- try giving your opinion about William Henry Harrison's presidency. Uh, er, well...he was inaugurated, he talked forever, and then he died. Doesn't that cover it? I suppose it care of "luck" (yes, that's one of their categories), where he oddly enough comes in only next-to-last, with the various experts deeming Herbert Hoover even less lucky than W. H. Harrison. That leaves only eighteen more categories to go! The one I did had me rate them all on (if I recall correctly) a one-to-five scale on various things; Siena just asks respondents to rank them all 1-43 in each category, and then they average across categories to get the winners and losers. Everything counts the same: luck, "domestic accomplishments", integrity, party leadership, and, I think my favorite, "overall ability." Whatever. I see two bits of value in these things: one, it's fun to look at (if you like that sort of thing, which I do); and two, if you keep doing it over time, you wind up with a quick and easy (if not overly rigorous) sense of how historical reputations change. The good news, then, is that Siena has been at this for a while, with this now the fifth iteration in a series they began in 1982. At any rate, I wouldn't put much stock in the details of this, as far as it revealing with any reliability what scholars actually think. We don't know how the sample of scholars worked, and I certainly think that the construction of their categories and of the overall index are pretty arbitrary. That's fine; I'm not complaining at all (and I'm glad that they've stuck to the same categories, if that's what they've done, even if they were iffy to begin with). Just saying that this is, as far as I'm concerned, good fun but not much more.
I'll start, in this post, by discussing one Siena oddity: something about their system seems to work against George Washington, who has finished 4th each time. Every other poll of scholars has put him in the top three. For what it's worth, I think that Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt are without a doubt the top three (if asked, I put them in that order, but I'm open to arguments about it). Washington's weaknesses in the Siena poll are party leadership (fair enough), communication ability (ridiculous), imagination (preposterous), and intelligence (just silly, I'd say...not that I know, obviously, how smart, oh, Garfield was). Respondents do believe that Washington was very lucky -- in fact, the luckiest president ever. Well, I'll grant that he was luckier than 'ole Garfield, anyway. Beyond that, I'm glad I don't have to rank every president on luck. Or intelligence.
As long as I'm on Washington, though, I had better recommend Garry Wills on Washington: Cincinnatus. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for anyone who lives in Washington DC or is planning a visit -- Wills is a brilliant guide to many of the sculptures and paintings you'll see in there.
(Various typos and such fixed)