Brian Birdnow

These top five rankings surprise in the sense that all other such surveys, namely the most recently conducted Wall Street Journal study, and the ones conducted by the renowned historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. universally ranked Washington and Lincoln at the top, with FDR coming in third. The fact that Roosevelt changed the nation immeasurably cannot be questioned, but the Siena survey ranking him in the top position overall smacks of hagiography. The study ranks him at the top of eighteen out of the twenty sub-categories, while giving him lesser marks only for personal integrity (16th) and intelligence (10th). It is also something of a surprise to see Theodore Roosevelt perched at the second spot, as he is usually ranked around fifth or sixth in these polls. TR undoubtedly ranks as the first modern president in consciously building an image and using the media to advance his goals and, apparently these elements of a twentieth century public relations/propaganda approach to governance impressed the survey participants.

When the reader looks through the poll results he finds a pronounced tilt to the left in almost all of the results. For instance, credibly conservative Presidents like Cleveland, Taft and Coolidge are rated rather low, checking in at 29th, 24th, and 29th respectively. Liberals like Wilson, Obama, and Lyndon Johnson receive much higher marks, finishing at 8th, 15th, and 16th. The results also show that many participants have unblushingly bought into the Camelot myth, ranking John F. Kennedy as 11th overall. He is ranked 13th in “background” meaning, presumably, his inherited wealth, 6th in “executive appointments”, when he took nepotism to new heights by nominating his brother to the Attorney Generalship, and 15th in ‘domestic accomplishments” which were meager. Yet the survey ranks him slightly ahead of a very successful chief executive, James K. Polk.

The survey places Bill Clinton in 13th place, five spots ahead of Ronald Reagan. The respondents rated Clinton fairly highly on his background. They apparently overlooked his murky family circumstances, his draft evasion, and a governorship characterized by petty corruption. Clinton also graded highly on his presidential appointments. Yes, the man who gave the country Janet Reno, Jocelyn Elders, Webster Hubbell among others earned high marks for his appointments! Also, any discussion of Clinton, whether as governor or president, starts and ends with…girls, girls, and girls. The respondents gave Reagan his highest mark for “luck”, which fits in nicely with the liberal myth that the prosperity of the 1980s never really took place. In foreign policy accomplishments Reagan is rated 13th. You see, liberal historians and political scientists are not impressed with victory in the Cold War.

The survey got some things right. Jimmy Carter checks in at the 32nd spot, which places him in the lowest quarter of the presidents. Carter actually dropped seven places from his ranking in the last Sierra Survey, in 2002. This seems to indicate that Carter’s increasingly desperate efforts to rewrite his historical legacy are now failing, and that the giant rabbit will have the last laugh. The survey also gives due credit to presidents who have been recently overlooked like James Monroe, William McKinley, and Eisenhower.

In short, the Sierra poll offers ample material for good-natured argument. However, surveys of this sort are handicapped by numerous circumstances. No historian can claim expertise on ALL of the Presidents. When a historian is out of his period of specialization his judgment on the major actors of another era might be historically informed, but are certainly not foolproof. In absence of real knowledge of a period or a person historians (and political scientists) are as likely to fall back on the stereotypes that abound in academia, just as they abound in the popular culture. Unfortunately, as the Sierra Survey shows, these stereotypes are uniformly left wing.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.