In Sunday's Washington Post, a group of historians tried to predict what history will ultimately say about George W. Bush's presidency. One said that he is the worst president, ever; a second agreed that he was pretty bad, but still might redeem himself in his last two years; and another said that only time will tell, noting that our views of presidents often change with the perspective of time.
Historians have been playing this game for many years. It makes them feel relevant. However, the methodology of such efforts never gets above that of a simple popularity poll. A historian will survey a group of his friends, and they are asked to rank the presidents on whether they are great, near-great, average, below average or failures.
Obviously, this method is fraught with problems. For one thing, the historians chosen to participate are not picked randomly and therefore are not necessarily representative of all historians. Also, they have different specialties and may know a lot about some presidents but very little about others. The historians are overwhelmingly based at elite universities and thus tend to be much more liberal politically than the average American. And of course, they are well aware of previous rankings and seldom deviate from them except marginally.
The biggest problem I have always had with these presidential rankings, however, is that no one ever appears to use objective, measurable criteria for placing a president high or low on the list. The main criterion seems to be activity -- doing a lot while in office. This creates a strong bias in favor of presidents who served during times of crisis and against those who served during times of peace and prosperity.
To my mind, this sometimes gets the whole ranking system upside down. This is especially so when one considers that occasionally the crises that presidents have had to deal with were in fact their own fault. In effect, those who did their jobs well and avoided unnecessary wars, recessions or other avoidable woes get punished, while the screw-ups are sometimes rewarded for fixing their own mistakes.
Thus Calvin Coolidge almost always ranks low in the presidential popularity polls because he didn't do much of anything in office. But there wasn't much that needed doing. He kept the nation out of war, maintained prosperity and was not tempted to undertake a lot of unneeded "reforms" just to keep busy and raise his popularity rating among future historians. For my money, this makes Coolidge among our best presidents, not one of the worst.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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