Who's a 'great' president? Scholars aren't free of bias

The Argument

The literature of political excellence is made by people with ideologies -- but there are surprising levels of consensus.

Books: The Argument

February 06, 2000|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

Who were the greatest American presidents of the millennium? We have to ask the experts. Vox populi can't be trusted.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. surveyed 32 scholars of American political history and biography -- 30 academics and New York ex.-Gov. Mario Cuomo and Illinois ex-Sen. Paul Simon right after Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996. Their consensus finding was that there had been three "Great" presidents. Abraham Lincoln was No. 1. Franklin D. Roosevelt was No. 2 and George Washington was No. 3.

There were six "Near Great" presidents in this survey. They were, in order of ranking, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman.

The scholars who were the judges were so eminent that no one could challenge them. That is, no one could challenge their eminence. Plenty of people could and did challenge their bias. Their collective bias, that is.

After the Schlesinger results were published in the New York Times Magazine of Dec. 15, 1996, with an accompanying essay by Schlesinger, a criticism familiar to students of American history games arose. Genice and Stephen Rabe of Dallas wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine. They said:

"We agree . . . that presidential historians are uniquely qualified to assess the relative merits of United States presidents. But we need a more representative group of scholars to do the rankings. Twenty-two of the 32 jurors work in the Boston-Washington corridor. Your group included one woman and hardly any racial or ethnic minorities. Close to one half of those white male jurors are over 65 years of age."

The Rabes were kind in their assessment of bias. The real bias in such academic juries, when they are making essentially political decisions, is their politics. Democratic and/or liberal professors dominate the Schlesinger panel.

The Schlesinger poll is a repeat of two such presidential ranking efforts by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., also an academic. In 1948 and again in 1962, Schlesinger Sr. asked academic experts to rank the presidents. There were 55 on his first panel, 75 on his second (a number that included most of the earlier panel members. (Both had Lincoln, Washington and FDR 1-2-3.)

In an excellent 1966 book, "Presidential Greatness" (reprint editions can be found in some book stores, but currently the reprint publisher is out of stock), Stanford historian Thomas A. Bailey wrote, "Of the 75 persons consulted in the second Schlesinger poll, 10 declared themselves Democrats, two independent Democrats, and five, Republicans. If we may assume that this is a fair sampling, the Democrats outnumber the Republicans slightly more than two to one."

We definitely may assume it is a fair sampling. "The truth is," Bailey wrote in 1966, "that an overwhelming majority of those who teach American history in our colleges and universities are Democrats."

For that reason , he wrote, it is no surprise that in the 1962 survey, of the five "Great" and six "Near Great" presidents, only two were Republicans (Lincoln and T. Roosevelt). It also was no surprise in 1996, when Schlesinger Jr.'s poll ranking also favored Democrats over Republicans seven to two in the "Great" and "Near Great" categories. (Some people might consider Washington a Republican. But some people might consider T. Roosevelt a progressive.)

Bailey's assessment of the Democratic bias of American history departments is about as true today as it was 34 years ago. Maybe more so. For example, the largest and best conceived academic study aimed at ranking American presidents found that measuring respondents on a scale of "most Conservative versus most Liberal on Domestic Socio-Economic issues," concluded that such liberals outnumbered such conservatives by almost four to one.

That study was conducted by Penn State historians Robert K. Murray and Tim H. Blessing. In 1982, they sent detailed questionnaires to all 1,997 Ph.D.-holding members of American college history departments who were at the assistant professor level or higher. They got back 846 usable filled-in questionnaires. They described their project in detail in their "Greatness in the White House." (First published in 1988, an updated edition came out in 1993, which includes the results of a follow-up poll on Ronald Reagan. A paperback edition, published by Penn State Press, is 169 pages long and sells for $16.95. It includes in its appendix both the original questionnaire and the Reagan follow-up.)

So far as I know, there has been only one other large-scale survey, designed like the Murray-Blessing one, to avoid narrow focus and the distorting bias that many believe is the inevitable result.

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