Our once and future colleague Father Taylor recently linked to the results of C-SPAN’s most recent survey of historians regarding the reputations and legacies of American Presidents.

The sixty-five survey participants included an interesting mix of academics and observers (Annelise Anderson, both Brinkleys, Robert Dallek, Jim Cannon, Lou Cannon, Fred Greenstein, Steve Hess, Joe Persico, Richard Norton Smith, etc.). The prior forty-two chief executives were measured against ten criteria:

  • Public Persuasion
  • Crisis Leadership
  • Economic Management
  • Moral Authority
  • International Relations
  • Administrative Skills
  • Relations with Congress
  • Vision/Setting Agenda
  • Pursued Equal Justice For All
  • Performance Within Context of Times

A scale of 1 to 10 (most to least effective) was established.  Responses were averaged across all Presidents; then average responses were multiplied by 10, yielding a top possible category score of 100 and a top possible overall score of 1000. A similar survey —using the same categories and scoring methods— was conducted in 2000.

Nine of the Top Ten Presidents survived the decade’s span — but this year LBJ has been replaced by Ronald Reagan. Here are RN’s scores from the historians:


C-SPAN also conducted a complementary poll of its viewers, and it strikes me that their scores make more sense than those of the scholars and pros:


Comparisons are odious; not to mention tendentious, unwieldy, and odorous.  Presidential comparisons really serve only two kinds of purposes: they are intended to be score settlers or parlor games.  The C-SPAN effort —coterminous with its extended weekend of Presidents Day programming— is among the latter. Either way, they’re like the lists of What’s Hot and Who’s Sexy that are periodically manufactured to provoke controversy and attract attention, and they deserve to be taken no more seriously.

While all of these ratings —from historians and viewers— are arguable, none of them are unreasonable, especially in the short view of contemporary history.  The anomalies in the rankings lie more in the higher marks awarded others rather than the “lesser” marks received by RN.

(If you want to see a really shoddy space-filling thumb-sucking list of this kind, check out that offered to its readers by The Times of London before the last election.  Reading it is like being trapped on a barstool next to a garrulous drunk — at least I imagine what that’s like because such a thing has never happened to me.)