Saturday, July 3, 2010

Patriotic Weekend Diversion: The Siena Poll

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)


  1. Garfield was a Williams College alumnus, so he was obviously very smart.

  2. Hmm. I notice that your hating on Thomas Jefferson hasn't yet had much of an impact as yet among your colleagues, Jonathan. In due time, in due time.

    On another note, I mean, we can't give Lyndon Baines Johnson his due on domestic accomplishments even after 40 years? Not to diss Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, but the sweep of LBJ's legacy on the domestic front is staggering. What do you think about LBJ, Jonathan? Am I wrong?

  3. James,

    I think that on all the parts of the presidency that didn't involve legislating, Johnson was below-average or worse. Johnson's hard to rate, because there are so many extremes involved. Siena has his #1 in dealing with Congress, and #5 in domestic accomplishments, but dead last in foreign policy accomplishments, and #37 in "avoid crucial mistakes." Those all sound reasonable to me. And as good as he was at legislating, he was helped a lot by his context.

  4. I'm no defender of LBJ on the foreign policy front, but to be fair, VietNam was an inherited disaster. GWB's follies were not only intentionally self-inflicted but managed so incompetently as to beggar comprehansion, so I'll move him to last place.

    And really, John F. Kennedy at #17 in foreign policy accomplishments? For what? If ancient memory serves, the Kennedy Administration on foreign affairs recalls the Bay of Pigs, the inception of the Arms Race, the specter of Krushchev banging his shoe on the table, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Laos, the whole business behind the escalation of forces in Viet Nam and the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the general inability to deal with Castro and the CIA assassination attempts business with poison cigars and beard-destroying potions and such, the Soviet's building of the Berlin Wall... "Ich bin ein Berliner" is sufficient to elevate Kennedy to #17? Or did he have a successful major foreign policy initiative that I'm forgetting?

    Okay, T Roosevelt foreign policy accomplishments at #4? What, pray tell, were those?

  5. James,

    I have to disagree with the assessment that Vietnam was an "inherited disaster". Whatever the failures of Kennedy & Eisenhower, it was Johnson who made the choice to americanize the war. He was unwilling to pay the political price for losing South Vietnam and it destroyed him. I am always struck by how the biggest fans of Johnson' remarkable domestic achievements need to shift the blame for Vietnam. He can be the President of the Voting Rights Act and the worst Commander in Chief of the 20th Century at the same time.

  6. @CTH,

    Who's shifting the blame? I don't defend Johnson's record on Vietnam *at all* (as I said). I think you gloss over Kennedy's role in the escalation, however. Where you see people like me "shifting the blame" for Vietnam, I see many people looking at Kennedy through rose-colored glasses, particularly with respect to his policy in Southeast Asia. Perhaps you are too young to realize how badly the Kennedy Administration bungled the whole affair.

    I have no "need" to "shift the blame" for Vietnam; it should be entirely fair to place responsibility for botched foreign policy on more than one Administration at a time, when both (or more) have totally botched their role in it. Methinks the same will be true of Afghanistan when future historians start rating Bush and Obama on actual performance.

  7. I agree with James on all this. It's fair to note, for example, that W. inherited a mess in Iraq, giving him a set of bad options to choose from (the status quo stunk, withdrawal would have had very real costs). However, it's still probably true that the course Bush followed was one of the worst of those bad options. Similarly, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all had mostly bad options in Vietnam, but to the extent that they chose poorly from those bad options, they deserve the blame.

  8. James - You are right to point out your non-defense of LBJ's foreign policy but "inherited disaster" still feels like blame shifting to me. LBJ created the Gulf on Tonkin resolution not Kennedy. LBJ americanized the war with ground troops not Kennedy. Kennedy's Vietnam policy was a mess but it wasn't a catastrophic one, LBJ's was. To use Jonathan's Bush example, no one (outside of NRO) is blaming Clinton for the Iraq War cause the no-fly zone was failure (am assuming this is what Jonathan means by withdrawl).

  9. I don't know really what you are talking about when you refer to "americanized." Eisenhower sent American military advisers over to Vietnam, the French turned over the problem to us, Kennedy dramatically escalated the number of American "advisers" and let us not forget the American support of, first, the presidency, then the coup, and then the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. That actually turned out to be a catastrophic series of events. I think it is you who is blame-shifting. The term "americanized" is a bit imprecise to me. Remember the Domino Theory? That was American foreign policy. Catastrophic American foreign policy.

    All of that said, I don't give a pass of any kind to Johnson for his conduct of the Vietnam war. I don't dispute your balance sheet on Johnson with respect to foreign policy.

    On a side note, I don't consider the no-fly zone a failure. In lieu of outright invasion, it seems like it was pretty successful in keeping Saddam contained. I'd like to know why people see it as a failure. That's ludicrous, pending further clarification. *Especially* given the radical right's resistance to fighting terrorism and dealing with the KNOWN threat from bin Ladin from 1998-2001. Remember "wag the dog?"

    A lot of propaganda has been internalized, apparently, even in the academic community, as evidenced by these Sienna ratings.

  10. James,

    I don't consider the Bush-Clinton policy 1991-2000 as a failure, exactly...but I do think it was a status quo that was costly, in a variety of ways (including whatever role it had in sparking bin Laden et al. to focus on the USA). And, while Bush could have extended it indefinitely (and it's pretty obvious that that would have been his best choice), it's just worth noting that it's not exactly a great choice. Now, sometimes you have to do that -- the US commitment in Korea has costs and had no end game in the 1950s, or even today...but it doesn't mean it's a great situation.

  11. Point taken, Jonathan. Do you have an opinion on any better options?

  12. FIrst, I am totally engaged in blame shifting here. My whole point is that many modern liberals have placed too much of the blame for the Vietnam disaster on Kennedy. I am not absolving Kennedy of his failures in Vietnam. He allowed the policy to drift for years and only seemed to become seriously engaged in the summer of 63. His decision to allow the Diem coup was an tragic mistake in every sense. That said, I don;t lay the blame for Vietnam at his feet which I feel far too many modern liberals do.

    Americanization is the historical term for when the US took over the ground war in Vietnam, It is generally considered to have taken place in March 1965 when 3,500 United States Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam as combat troops. Almost any history of the period considers this the beginning of the Americanization of the Vietnam War which began the escalation of the war from the 16,000 troops of late 1963 to the over 500,000 at the end of the Johnson Presidency.

    Actually, I don't consider the no-fly zone a failure either. I was trying to be clever with Jonathan's example above and completely missed. Too much sun today I guess.

  13. Fair enough. I don't dispute your take on Johnson's escalation and sending combat troops in. I just dispute your contention that I am not allowed to knock Kennedy for his share of the blame. I think you have it wrong when you say he "allowed policy to drift for years." Factually that is not true. In fact, Kennedy, McNamara, and Henry Cabot Lodge were deeply, deeply involved in the Vietnam situation through his presidency. It was, after all, Lodge who gave the okay for the coup and subsequent assassination. And remember the rebellion of the Buddhists? It was a rebellion against American support of Diem's puppet government.

    I have never, ever heard any liberal, modern or otherwise, place the blame for Vietnam on Kennedy in lieu of Johnson's failure. Where did you hear this? Who has done this? I challenge your contention here.

  14. Wow, I am surprised that you haven't seen modern liberals attempting to move the blame for the Vietnam escalation onto Kennedy as this is something I seem to find almost everywhere I look on the subject. It's common in college course I've taken on the subject and is very common among younger liberal bloggers/writers (Matthew Yglesias comes to mind but I don't have a link or anything). We can certainly knock Kennedy for his Vietnam failures. I just want there to be more popular focus on Johnson than Kennedy.

    I use the term "drift" (think I got it from Schlesinger actually) to mean that Vietnam was never really at the forefront of Kennedy's foreign policy till the last months of his life (the Diem coup period). Berlin & Cuba dominated the Kennedy foreign policy and moves in Vietnam were often taken in reaction to events in those locals than in Vietnam itself. An example would be Kennedy's initial Vietnam escalation which was driven by the disasterous summit meeting w/ Khrushchev.

    I was gonna add that Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster is excellent on the Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy establishment.

  15. I've never read Yglesias' opinion on the Vietnam war, and to tell you the truth it probably wouldn't interest me much. But perhaps you misunderstand or disagree with taking the long view of how we got into the Vietnam debacle. People are allowed to discuss that, and other foreign policy, and any subject of national import, with a degree of nuance and analysis instead of opting for simple, strident, one-dimensional blame-placing. In fact, people should discuss matters of import with a bit more depth. To do otherwise is neither interesting nor constructive. I haven't seen any attempt by liberals to absolve Johnson of his handling of the Vietnam war.

    In fact, I encourage you to make the trip to Johnson's Presidential Library in Austin Texas someday. It is a hugely interesting and educational trek, and quite of bit of it deals with the Vietnam war, since that one issue consumed his presidency. There is an exhibit there with actual tape recordings of Johnson in high-level war strategy meetings. As much as I detested that war -- and I lived through it, having friends who were killed and grievously injured, and its sequelae all these many years gone by -- and his stewardship over it. Hearing the stark and genuine anguish in his voice when faced with his choices and understanding the consequences was profoundly moving, and highly enlightening. You should go. It won't change your mind, it didn't change mine, but it will certainly add a dimension to your understanding of history. That's always a good thing to do.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  16. Oh, also. To your policy "drift." It's true that Kennedy was focused on Cuba and the USSR through much of his short presidency. Events demanded it, of course. Kennedy had a lot on his plate. During the missile crisis, Americans were preparing for all-out war, high school boys signing up for the Army en masse, people buying durable canned goods and stocking their fallout shelters. I remember that everyone thought that another all-out war was imminent. Through those years, through the euphoria of the young presidency, Laos and then Vietnam kept cropping up as problems, but the more urgent issues were Cuba and USSR. In that you are correct. But you should realize that there was a lot going on all that time in southeast Asia foreign policy beyond the nightly news. More and more troops were being sent, there were occasional flare-ups covered in the news. So I disagree with your (or Schlesinger's) characterization of "drift." More like "at sea, calm on the surface but paddling like hell."

  17. "Okay, T Roosevelt foreign policy accomplishments at #4? What, pray tell, were those?"

    Well, he did have a pretty active- and successful, at least on its own terms- foreign policy. He really got the U.S. close to being a world power, he kept Europe out of Latin American economics, he ended the Russo-Japanese war (sorta; either way, he got the Nobel for it), he gets big credit for the Panama Canal and being an honest broker in Morocco, and for modernizing the Philipines.

    If you're noticing that all of these "Accomplishments" have the whiff of imperialism and geopolitical paternalism, you're not wrong. But historians don't always give out demerits for that.

  18. Oh yeah. I forgot about the Panama Canal thing, and having Puerto Rican roots, my woeful lapse on the geopolitical paternalism is something I cannot explain. Good thing this isn't a graded exam! Anyway, hat tip for the very nice summary.

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  20. Also, Colby is dead on here. Theodore Roosevelt was a major foreign policy President even if there is that whiff (maybe stench) of imperialism about his accomplishments.

  21. James - Thank you for the conversation as well. I feel we are actually closer in agreement than would seem by our dialogue.


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