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About the C-SPAN Ratings

C- Span just released a new presidential ranking that, for the most part, confirmed most previous rankings of presidents. There was some movement but for the most part the good presidents stayed good and the bad presidents stayed bad. Announcements of presidential rankings always attract attention, especially when they are issued at the end of one presidency and the beginning of a new one. C-Span deserves credit for creating ten categories beyond the “great, near great,” and so forth that is often found in the presidential flow charts but this still does not completely fix the ambiguity and lack of nuance typically found in presidential rankings. Still, specialists or partisans of particular presidents will argue the finer points of where a president falls in one of categories.

Some scholars find these ranking annoying, even unprofessional. Historians often argue over context and subtle points, both of which are almost completely missing from the rankings. C-Span subsumes historical context under the important if vague category, “Performance with Context of Times.” However, there are a few reasons why these rankings, as part of a legacy debates, assume some importance. They are something of a partisan parlor game and partisan debate is important. Rankings focus attention on the presidency, in a sense backdating the imperial presidency. The underlying assumption is that the presidency has always held it current importance in politics. As I recall my civics, doesn’t Congress pass legislation? Rankings, and legacies, are a way of validating or invalidating past policies. Consider the current debate among pundits over FDR and the New Deal. The fundamental question being asked is: Was the New Deal a success? The answer is either Yes or No. If the answer is yes, then the current policies of the Obama administration are good and will succeed. If the answer is no, then Obama's policies are doomed to failure having not learned from history. Rarely does one hear as part of the public discourse that the National Industrial Recovery Administration failed but that the Civil Conservation Corp succeeded. Or that the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression but succeeded in ameliorating its impact. FDR’s consistent ranking in the top three would seem to provide a simple answer to this question.

Perhaps it is time to view the presidential ratings as what they are: a form of popularizing history, a function of our national historical memory that contributes to a sense of national identity. Presidential rankings are, to use David Blight’s phrase, part of the “politics of memory.” The aspects of the rankings that most annoy some historians (the lack of nuance and context, the simplicity of the story) are, in fact, what most makes the rankings more memory than history. The practice of ranking presidents did not grow out of an academic debate. It is worth remembering where the first presidential rankings appeared. The first of the rankings, the 1948 Schlesinger poll, was published in Life, the second Schlesinger poll (1962) in the New York Times Magazine, as was the 1996 poll. Although there is an extensive body of scholarship on evaluating presidents, the evaluations that attract our attention are the ones that appear in popular venues but have the stamp of scholarly authority. Take, for example, Dr. Edna Medford’s statement from the 2009 C-Span press release that the “survey results also reinforce the idea that history is less about agreed-upon facts than about perceptions of who we are as a nation and how our leaders have either enhanced or tarnished that image we have of ourselves.” Medford further explains that Lincoln is our number one president, “because he is perceived to embody the nation's avowed core values: integrity, moderation, persistence in the pursuit of honorable goals, respect for human rights, compassion.”

It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of the importance of the rankings as memory contributing to our collective, national, identity. It was Lincoln’s embodiment of our core values more than his specific policies that make him great. This is not to argue that the rankings are necessarily a bad thing, it is just that they are more memory than history. This emphasis on identity is both the shortcoming of the presidential rankings and why they continue to attract attention as a venue of debating what it means to be an American.

Related Links

  • Lincoln ranked best US president by historians

  • Rick Shenkman: Presidential Ratings ... A Parlor Game?

  • Leo P. Ribuffo: The C-SPAN Poll: An Empirical Challenge to the Participants

  • KC Johnson: Rating the C-SPAN Survey

  • HNN Poll: 61% of Historians Rate the Bush Presidency Worst

  • Larry DeWitt: The Follies of Instant History: Another Meaningless Poll of Historians