Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, had a recent op-ed ranking the presidents of his lifetime. The reasons one would undertake such a project are pretty limited. Someone might ask you for such an evaluation, particularly if you are an historian or a person who comments on political events. Similarly, you might read someone else’s list and be inspired to do your own.
But most likely, you write that article because there’s someone you want to put in last place, usually the current occupant of the office or his immediate predecessor. You hate that bastard, you want everyone to know it, and this is one more chance to kick him. You cover that by rating someone else of his political party surprisingly high. This creates the illusion that you aren’t a partisan hack, and that you really think deeply about these matters. If you want to kick George Bush, you go out of your way to say what a fine fellow his father was, or how underrated Reagan was. If it’s Bill Clinton you want to slam around, it is obligatory to mention that Carter got an unfair bad rap or Lyndon Johnson will go down as one of the great presidents. You don’t have to mean that, of course, but you have to provide a smokescreen.
When average citizens make up such a list – and no one ever asks us, of course – there are some interesting patterns. Younger people seldom make such a list, which shows an admirable humility on their part. The Greatest Generation rates the presidents of their youth very high; there is a strong good-old-days component to their lists. I saw several that were very nearly a chronological list, rating Roosevelt highest, Truman next, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson. After that it gets muddled, and partisan politics becomes evident in the later selections. Baby Boomers rank Johnson in the middle, regardless of which way their list slants. They write very ambivalent comments about him. Interestingly, they rank Nixon low but say some nice things about him. He no longer attracts much energy.
The energy attractors are the presidents of the last 30 years, except for Bush 41. The other four attract both laud and condemnation in dramatic fashion. Not shocking perhaps.
I am reminded of an interview with an elderly woman who was interviewed about her life under communism, contrasted with her life in freedom. She thought the communists had been generally bad, but thought well of Stalin. He had gotten them through the war, which was good, and she remembered that there had always been food, then. Not like now.The woman was Ukrainian. I wonder what presidents I will rate highly when I am old.