Rank presidents


Rank presidents

The Presidential Fitness Test

IN HONOR OF Presidents' Day yesterday, the news reported that there was a new ranking of presidents, by "presidential greatness." The headlines tended to say it was historians who'd done the ranking, but according to the ranking paper itself, it was really "current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association" and unspecified other scholars. Also the stories tended to use "best" and "worst" as synonyms for "greatest" or "least great."

Nowhere did the white paper about the poll specify what "presidential greatness" meant. It simply said that the respondents—29.3 percent of the people who were invited to take the poll—had rated each president's greatness on a scale of 0 to 100, with "with 0=failure, 50=average, and 100=great."

If greatness is the opposite of failure, what about a president who successfully did harmful things? Whatever else anyone may say about Donald Trump, it's hard to deny that he made a difference. Nevertheless, the survey respondents rated him the greatest failure of all, No. 45 out of the 45 people who have filled the 46 presidencies (Grover Cleveland only got ranked once, with his two separate terms adding up to 26th place).

More pressingly—for a country far removed from the eras of No. 1 Abraham Lincoln, No. 2 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or No. 3 George Washington—what does it mean to set "average" as the midpoint between "great" and "failure"? In practice, the survey was slightly more forgiving than that; the median president, No. 23 on the list, was William Howard Taft, with a score of 51.67. But by No. 25, James K. Polk and his 49.83 greatness points, the list had entered the realm of failure.

Have nearly half of our presidents been failures, to one degree or another? Does our exemplary constitutional democracy—the collective insight of today's public, refracted through the system laid down by the wisdom of the Founders—end up with results indistinguishable from a coin toss? The survey seems to say so.

Then again, as a test case, William Henry Harrison, dead after serving one month in office, ranked 41st. Only Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, and Trump were behind him. Harrison, by definition, is a president who did nothing. Logically, then, the poll respondents must have deemed the 40 presidents ahead of him (even Warren G. Harding, at No. 40) to have been slightly better than nothing.

And the ratings of long-dead presidents continued to slide around from previous versions of the survey, even though their presidential performances remained unchanged. Peter Baker of the New York Times speculated that wokeness was altering the standings:

For instance, Barack Obama, finishing at No. 7 this year, is up nine places since 2015, as is [Ulysses S.] Grant, now ranked 17th. On the other hand, Andrew Jackson has fallen 12 places to 21st while [Woodrow] Wilson (15th) and [Ronald] Reagan (16th) have each fallen five places.

At least some of that may owe to the increasing contemporary focus on racial justice. Mr. Obama, of course, was the nation’s first Black president, and Grant’s war against the Ku Klux Klan has come to balance out the corruption of his administration. But more attention today has focused on Jackson’s brutal campaigns against Native Americans and his “Trail of Tears” forced removal of Indigenous communities, and Wilson’s racist views and resegregation of parts of the federal government.

How should Americans feel about our presidents, really, though? Clearing away the fog of history, and the procession of gilded saints and interchangeable beards marching through it, I cut the list down to the 10 presidents of my own lifetime:

  • Barack Obama (No. 7 overall)
  • Bill Clinton (No. 12)
  • Joe Biden (No. 14)
  • Ronald Reagan (No. 16)
  • George H. W. Bush (No. 19)
  • Jimmy Carter (No. 22)
  • Gerald Ford (No. 27)
  • George W. Bush (No. 32)
  • Richard Nixon (No. 35)
  • Donald Trump (No. 45)

This is the contemporary presidency. At least half of them were criminals, either standard-issue ones or war criminals. One resigned in disgrace; four more were dumped out of office after a single term. Only three of them even looked good in a suit, and only two of them were good at giving speeches. Yet despite Trump's far-outlier score of 10.92 dragging the numbers down, they still averaged out to 51.12 points—a glimmer of greatness, officially, over the past five-plus decades.


New York City, February 19, 2024

★★★ The sun had found a new angle, bouncing off the rough red wall of the balcony to light the outward half of the potted fig by the window and to spread a glow on the bedroom ceiling. The curbside snow, renewed over the weekend, shone a reasonably dazzling white. Ice flows clung to the rock face at the edge of the Park. In the warmth of the sun and the frigidity of the air, the fields still covered with snow and the bare lawns looked equally plausible; the snow fort still stood, now surrounded by entirely clear grass. A robin turned around on a slender, berry-laden branch, making the whole thing wobble. Some shoots of new growth were poking out of the mud flats of the Pool. The path by the shore was so sloppy and treacherous it was better to detour onto the snowy ground uphill. Bands of reflected light rippled on the rocks where the waterfall entered the Loch.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 221: A dispirited electorate.

Tom Scocca • Feb 20, 2024


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of sandwiches from Modern Priscilla Cook Book; One Thousand Recipes Tested And Proved At The Priscilla Proving Plant, published in 1924, by The Priscilla Publishing Company, now in the Public Domain and available at archive.org for the delectation of all.

Cut slices of bread thin and remove the crusts; between each of the two slices of bread put some leaves from the heart of a head of lettuce, two slices of tomato, and three or four slices of cucumber. Then add two or three thinly cut pieces of pineapple. Top the sandwich with a small spoonful of Fruit Salad Dressing.

1/4 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon strained honey
1 egg
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream

Mix mustard, salt, and paprika, add strained honey and egg slightly beaten. Add lemon juice, and pour on milk slowly, stirring constantly. Cook in double boiler until thick, stirring all the time. Cool, and fold in cream which has been beaten until stiff.

1 cup minced ham
2 eggs
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
12 slices toast

Mix ham, eggs, and mustard. Sauté ham mixture by spoonfuls, making a thin cake to fit a slice of toast. Place between pieces of hot buttered toast, cut diagonally, and serve hot. Servings, 6.

Spread two slices of bread with bacon fat. Brown in a skillet. When done, quickly dip a few leaves of lettuce or dandelion in vinegar. Sprinkle with minced onion and lay between slices of toasted bread. Serve immediately.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to indignity@indignity.net.


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