Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Rating The Presidents Freeze the Debate?

Why are Abe Lincoln and George Washington the greatest Presidents? Why was Andrew Jackson, of all presidents, a "near great" president? Why are Ulysses S. Grant
and Warren G. Harding rated as the worst presidents? Why is Zachary Taylor always one of the worst presidents?

The first official rating of presidents was rather recent. In 1948. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. asked two dozen of his colleagues to rate the Presidents from Washington to Roosevelt. That's it. Truman wasn’t assessed as he was sitting a President running for reelection. They selected the following:

Great: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln,

Near Great: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson,

Poor or Failures: Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant

Some ratings seem somewhat obvious. George Washington ranks up there with the greatest because without him, we may not have had the rest. Abraham Lincoln is chosen for how he handled the Civil War, ending slavery and his overall humanity. However, that's my humble opinion, but that's how our presidents are "officially" ranked - by someone's "humble" opinion, possibly based on the version of history he happened to read. Or, as far as any of us know, they could have made their choices based on hair color, height, sense of humor...who knows?

In 1962, Arthur Schlesinger Jr repeated the same poll with the same results as his father. In 1996, Arthur Schlesinger Jr once again commissioned a poll including two elected democratic officials Mario Cuomo and Senator Paul Simon of IL. Only one participant identified as conservative. Could this be due to a lack of conservative historians? Yep, that must be it.

According to Alvin Felzenberg, Deputy and Senior Director of Communications for the 9-11 Public Discourse Project and author of "The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game", it's fairly easy to monitor the ideological bias of the graders and correct for bias. Just add a few more conservatives in the mix.

"Freezing the debate", Mr. Felzenberg's phrase, is more a manifestation of rating the presidents, than a flaw in the method. The experts have spoken! The experts may have spoken, however, without much to back it up, yet many will swear by the choices of these experts without question, therefore freezing the debate.

“Beware of the power of the expert. They’re not always disinterested and they’ll always put on over on you.” -- Calvin Coolidge
"Andrew Jackson" is the symbol of what's wrong with this whole process, as he represents the most blatant error in judgment based on a faulty "process" lacking any standards, rules, or tests on which the rater's judgment or decision should be based.

Take for example, Andrew Jackson's farewell speech. He stated he was proudest of the following three things:
  • The destruction of the Bank of United States which at the time acted like the Fed Reserve Board… it expanded and controlled credit depending on what the business cycle was doing at the time. He thought the Bank of the United States was a bad idea because he hated the President of the bank, Nicholas Biddle. Why? Because Mr. Biddle contributed to Jackson’s political enemies. President Jackson said, "I will destroy the bank, I will cut its head off I will kill it." And he did. Jackson vetoed - the first President to use his presidential veto just because felt like it, not because it was unconstitutional - the Banks supporters attempt to use Congress to enact a new charter for the Bank. Although The Bank of the United States was far from perfect, he destroyed the bank knowing full well the financial panic that would ensue. He was responsible for the first presidentially induced depression.
  • The Indian Removal Act 1832: 1828 was the last good year for the Cherokee nation. They had almost fully transformed itself into a "western" nation as President George Washington had planned from the beginning. Based on the example of the American republic, they adopted a political constitution by the tribe. It provides for an elected principal chief, a council consisting of two chambers, and a system of courts of law. They also publish the first American Indian newspaper.

    In 1829, Andrew Jackson begins his first term in the White House. Despite legal victories for the Cherokee Indians in the Supreme Court regarding their land, Andrew Jackson's response was “Five members of the Supreme Court issued a decree, let them enforce it. Go to Hell!”. With President Jackson's "consent" Georgia and Tennessee began a reign of terror using arrest, murder and arson against the Cherokee. Fifteen thousand Cherokees were driven at gunpoint out of their ancestral homes in Georgia and Tennessee to a distant land west of the Mississippi known as the Indian Territory. Four thousand Cherokees, more than one in four, died as a result of the internment and forced march which they called "the journey where they cried" or "The Trail of Tears."
  • Standing down secession- OK, he gets to be proud of this one.
President Andrew Jackson sounds a little too much like President Bush.


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