Greatness in the White House: Rating the Presidents

By Robert K. Murray; Tim H. Blessing | Go to book overview

ONE
A Game for All Seasons: Past Presidential Polls

PROFESSIONAL INTEREST IN RATING the presidents dates from the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., poll of 1948.1 A history professor at Harvard University, Professor Schlesinger solicited the views of fifty-five "experts," most of whom were historians. The findings were subsequently published in Life magazine and were immediately accepted by the press as representing the collective judgment of historians everywhere.2 Fourteen years later Schlesinger repeated the exercise, this time surveying seventy-five "experts." Fifty- eight were historians (including most of those polled in 1948), with the remainder being mainly journalists and political scientists.3 Published in the New York Times Magazine, the results of this poll reenforced those of the earlier one and even more firmly established the Schlesinger findings as the common verdict of the historical fraternity. In both polls, the top five presidents, in descending order, were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. The bottom two were Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding.4

The procedures used in the Schlesinger polls of 1948 and 1962 were extremely simple. All presidents who had served any appreciable time in office were listed (excluding Harry S. Truman in 1948 but including Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1962). William H. Harrison and James A. Garfield were omitted from both polls because of their brief tenures. Each respondent was asked to place after the president's name the letter A, B, C, D, or E, signifying Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, or Failure. In true academic fashion, they were allowed to shade their evaluation if they so desired by adding a plus or a minus sign. "The test in each case," read the instructions, was "performance in office, omitting everything done before

-7-

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