Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Indexing and Dating America's "Worst" Presidents

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Indexing and Dating America's "Worst" Presidents

Article excerpt

Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor, Bancroft prizewinner, and contributing editor to The New Republic, said during George W. Bush's second presidential term that, "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history." (1)

Wilentz's comments led me to wonder whom historians currently rank as America's "worst" presidents and how that category is determined. To answer the last part of that question, I examined six presidential-ranking surveys done since 1948, the year when Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. compiled the first such census of historians, and found certain evaluative criteria central to their results. (2) Those criteria include:

Domestic policy: Generally, the more the president's domestic policies are endorsed by the American people and passed by the legislature the higher the president's poll rankings.

Foreign policy: Significant foreign policy success can compensate for domestic failure. President Nixon ranks low on many lists, but he had key triumphs in the foreign policy area. These achievements help balance the deficits he displayed in the domains of character and integrity.

Character and integrity: The attributes of character and integrity are important when judging presidents. Bill Clinton marred a successful residency with many personal scandals, like lying to the public.

Crisis management How a president deals with domestic and international crises has a great impact on how they're evaluated. Lyndon Johnson did a poor job handling the Vietnam War. That poor performance lowers his ranking, despite his impressive domestic attainments, particularly in the realm of civil rights.

Presidential appointments: The individuals that presidents appoint to various offices can influence presidential standing. Presidents Harding and Grant did great harm to their presidencies with inept, corrupt appointments, and their rankings reflect this.

Public persuasion: The ability to persuade the public to their point of view is one of the most powerful weapons that presidents possess. Ronald Reagan, who is known as the "Great Communicator," was a virtuoso in this area.

Presidential vision: Not having a vision of what one wants to accomplish usually results in a failed presidency. Without a master plan, the president is vulnerable to the inclinations of Congress, which can then take the lead in making policy for the nation.

To find out which presidents currently dwell at the bottom of presidential evaluation surveys, one can look at such inventories and see who they include.

A particularly well-respected appraisal of American presidents was released in 2009. In that year, C-SPAN (National Cable Satellite Corporation), a network designed to show public affairs programming, conducted a survey of 65 presidential historians and experts on the presidency and asked them to rank American presidents using the following ten standards: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with congress, vision/ setting agenda, pursued justice for all, and performance within the contexts of the times.

What follows is an '"indexed list" of the lowest scoring ("worst") presidents from the 2009 C-SPAN survey, starting with the nethermost scoring president first. (3) (Indexing is a general semantics approach that involves examining parts of a larger category. It can be helpful to uncover differences that might make a difference and differences that don't. …

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