I have read a few requests to explain how I am going about the games between our Presidents. To answer, I would begin by noting that there seem to be generally three methods used when comparing Presidents. The first style is to write about a President one likes, then sketch out thin and lifeless comparisons of other Presidents to make the chosen one look really good. While sometimes these essays can provide good background on a certain individual, they are useless in terms of presenting a fair look at the field. The reverse of this method is also common, where a President disliked by the writer is described in terms to make anyone seem better in comparison.
The second method is a bit more organized and balanced. The graders assign values for each President in a set number of qualities, tally them up and the highest grade is the winner. This was a popular method for many years, and was used by such notable historians as Arthur Schlesinger, Wikipedia, and popularity polls. There were and are, however, fatal flaws in this method as well, not least the clear bias of the graders, the assumption that each quality is equally important to the President’s job, and that a President would perform the same in other conditions as in his actual time and circumstance. This fails the common sense test.
The third common method is one which I have used myself; setting Presidents alongside each other and asking folks to discuss their accomplishments and disappointments. Such discussions are seldom popular, in some degree due to the poor level of history retained in the craniums of many Americans, and there is often no clear winner, as each person tends to hold to the President he or she originally preferred, but such discussions have improved understanding of the President’s job, the complexity each Chief Executive faces, and they have helped the discerning realize the difference between an attractive quality to a candidate, and an essential attribute we need in any potential President.
But the debate rages on, albeit in limited circles, and this year I am suggesting a somewhat radical alternative. It is my contention that to properly match up Presidents, we must see them compete in a variety of circumstances and conditions, which is why my “schedule” uses a “Home & Away” method to compare Presidents. I would establish five key sections of Presidential competence measures. I also believe that the frame of time available, from 1789 to 2007, should be broken up into 4-year segments, each of which would highlight one of the five competence areas as its critical focus.
I would also, to be blunt, do away with marble statues and monuments at the outset. That is, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and their like, often enter comparisons with an unreasonable advantage – many people are afraid to criticize them, as if there was something disallowed about not revering a ‘Founding Father’, or constantly praising ‘The Man Who Saved The Union’. No, I am not saying that the favorites have not earned their laurels, but I do see a habit of presuming that the first sixteen Presidents are so far ahead, say, of the last sixteen that no valid comparison is possible. I dissent with that notion. George Washington had an iron will, but he also had a bad temper. Abraham Lincoln also responded harshly at times to criticism, as Mr. Taney could tell you. I rather suspect one reason we do not see candidates in their mold anymore, is because I doubt such men would have the sort of temperament to endure the Primary season, convention, debates and then the General campaign, with the media all the while trying to keep the media from mangling their message beyond all sense. Andrew Jackson once killed a man in a duel; imagine what CNN would do with that in a candidate today!
It’s my take that the same things which are a strength in one situation can be a liability in another case. So it will be interesting, I think, to work out the match-ups and see where they take us. As always, comments are welcome, although I admit I have not yet set up merchandising opportunities.
For no reason in particular, I am setting the “pre-season” rankings by using Wikipedia’s ranks. As they play out, the records will move our guys up and down. Here is the starting Top 10:
1. Abraham Lincoln
2. Franklin Roosevelt
3. George Washington
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Theodore Roosevelt
6. Woodrow Wilson
7. Harry Truman
8. Andrew Jackson
9. Dwight Eisenhower
10. James Polk