Civil Discourse Now

Where the far left and far right overlap for fun and enlightenment

Ranking the Presidents of the United States: February 4's show at 11 a.m. at Big Hat Books.

   Saturday’s Show will consider matters somewhat related to the current round of primaries.

   Whom would you rank as the best president of all time? Whom would you say was the worst? Whom would you say was (here comes a phrase that is perhaps an oxymoron) the most mediocre president? I refer here to POTUS. The President of the United States. For sake of clarity, we would not count those individuals who served as president under the Articles of Confederation, as the nature of the job was quite different than it became under Article II of the United States Constitution. (And also because, without reference to historical tracts, most of us we do not know the names of those gentlemen.) Also not to be counted is Jefferson Davis. He was chief executive of another country, after all.

   If one ranks Grover Cleveland, does that mean Cleveland counts twice, since he was the only president to serve two terms non-consecutively? For our purposes—no.

   Rankings are prevalent in American society. Many crowds chant "We’re Number One!" I have not heard of any who shout "We’re a Number Two!" At one point during my senior year of high school our debate team was ranked ninth in the State of Indiana. My Freshman year at DePauw we were ranked ninth in the country. Of course, I listened to the Beatles’ White album (yes, I know that was not its title; but most people know as "The White Album" the two-album work issued under the simple title "The Beatles"), and so "Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine" might have had an effect.

   We shall discuss the qualities that make a president great, the temporal contexts in which greatness or non-greatness may be fostered, and, finally, what the picks are of our panel and how we rank the occupants of the Oval Office.

   Civil Discourse Now takes place at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Big Hat Books. We go on-line later in the day. 

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Comment by Mark Small on January 31, 2012 at 1:56pm

It is interesting that the first several websites one encounters with a search for ranking presidents (versus "rank" presidents, who all would have to be fetid) have ads for Mitt Romney.  President Obama has an ad on the sixth or seventh. Perhaps the Super Pac in question wants to get a subliminal effect.

That said, there have been numerous efforts at ranking presidents. All of the factors you suggest have merit and are, in one way or another, ambiguous. Therein lies the fun. The discussion of these aspects highlights what factors one considers important abilities in a president. Ta da! And so we use the past to look at the present and the future.

Some might suggest profiles for photo ops or golf game. Avoidance of a "deer in the headlights look" under pressure is a valid one. The immediate past president sort of had that on one occasion. I also think an argument could be made that a president should be feign to commit felonies. Oops---naive me. 

Comment by Kurt Lorey on January 30, 2012 at 5:25pm

A difficult proposition. Is it "vision"? Ability to communicate? Success of his advertised agenda? Weathering of a crisis (if any)? Lack of scandal? Notable achievements? "Leadership" (pretty subjective, I'll admit)? Failure to live up to promises? More weight to domestic or foreign policy achievements/failures? Administration? Constitutional adherence?


For example, a President I would place in the bottom ten for serious foreign policy failures and a wife who may have run the country while her husband ailed, has been held up in some historians' eyes as one of the top ten for domestic policy successes and "vision". Both sides of the issue are true enough, but which carries more "weight"? For my part, the failures, both in foreign policy and in following the Constitutional directions for when a President is incapacitated.

Comment by Mark Small on January 30, 2012 at 2:51pm


You make an excellent point about criteria. Of course, one could argue all such matters are subjective. Before the Show on Saturday, I hope we shall have developed such criteria---through exchanges on this blog and other conversations as well. For example, if one were to use as a criterion "made no mistakes on policy in office," William Henry Harrison would score at the top of the charts. He gave a five-hour inaugural address in a cold rain without a hat, developed pneumonia, went into a coma, and died a month into office. (One could argue other occupants of the Oval Office have been brain-dead during their term(s).) Harrison made few, if any, policy decisions. Therefore he made no policy mistakes.

Comment by Kurt Lorey on January 30, 2012 at 2:32pm

Is there going to be some "real" criteria for the rankings, or is it just going to be a subjective slugfest?


Obvious, Paul? Perhaps to some.  ;)


I'm a little more on the "Ten Worst" tack, than the "Ten Best" anyways. I'm sure I've mentioned my number one worst before.



Comment by Paul K. Ogden on January 30, 2012 at 1:57pm

Obviously Reagan will be No. 1.  Debating whether Lincoln or Teddy will be No. 2.


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