I have a confession to make: I love ranking presidents. You may assume, then, that I found some joy in the Trump years, when I was asked to do so constantly. I did not.
The question came far too early, the first one within a hundred day of Trump taking office. The most prudent response was vague (“Well, it certainly doesn’t look good”) or playful (“He may be the best thing that ever happened to James Buchanan”) followed by a quick pivot to the crisis at hand.
By the end of the Trump presidency, I was direct: He was at the very bottom. But a two-minute live television appearance or the Q&A portion of a public event doesn’t allow for much context. The categories shouldn’t be “good” or “bad.” That doesn’t teach us anything. We need to be specific, like how effective was the president’s economic plan? The reality is, we can only provide a nuanced and detailed answer until years later.
Yet I jumped for joy when a package arrived containing the C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership. I knew the survey was happening. C-SPAN conducts one every time a new president is inaugurated, but it doesn’t automatically go to a degreed historian. There’s no application process, and I don’t have a personal relationship with Douglas Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford, Richard Norton Smith, and Amity Shlaes, the historians who advise the project, so it was an exciting moment for me–as was the method of the survey: Ratings, not rankings, across ten categories. A “1” is “not effective,” a 5 “effective,” and a 10 “very effective. And I had months to fill it out.
I agonized over every rating, even if it seemed obvious. Sure, I knew Warren G. Harding wouldn’t rate as high as Lincoln when it came to “moral authority”—he had at least two affairs, one with a teenager whom he impregnated and another with a married woman, and almost half of his cabinet went or should have gone to prison—but how low? I had to take into account his policies, too, and that took some time to review and consider.
I didn’t mind. I’ve turned into a serial monogamist when it comes to presidents, so it was a privilege to pay attention to the dustier books on my shelf. I reread passages about James K. Polk, who’s wife, Sarah, saved money by replacing paid White House servants with enslaved people from their home in Tennessee. They were a terrifying power couple. Sarah kept a desk near his, where she surreptitiously traded their enslaved people, and when she wasn’t at her temporary home, she was working Washington on his behalf. Polk was no slouch. He started the Mexican-American War and annexed the Republic of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and more; he greatly expanded the United States and pushed the country towards the the Civil War. All that happened in one term, after which Polk left office, as he promised he would from the outset. He accomplished what he set out to do, and that was what I had to consider for “vision/setting an agenda.” But how high? I asked the same question of Abraham Lincoln when I got to “pursued equal justice for all.” He didn’t, and my job is to prioritize truth over nostalgia. I’ve yet to study a president who’s a perfect 10.
Will the results be surprising? We’ll have to wait until Wednesday to find out. After C-SPAN releases them, I’ll send them out to Study Marry Kill readers as that week’s free edition. That’s right, major changes around here—we’re switching to Wednesdays!