Gongol.com Archives: February 2024

Brian Gongol

February 19, 2024

News Stop ranking the Presidents

Presidents' Day is a popular holiday on which to engage in the particularly frivolous game of "Rank the Presidents", and 2024 is no exception. Another ranking of the Presidents has been published, and all of the predictable reaction is easy to find in all of the usual places. ■ This isn't to say that Presidents are all the same. America has been blessed with some exceptional leaders (almost everyone rates Washington and Lincoln as the two most deserving of praise), and we've had some terrible ones (James Buchanan, for instance, is an undisputed failure). But the notion that there is some kind of effective transitive property of Presidential quality is awfully misleading. ■ What matters most in leadership -- whether at the Presidential level or at the local PTA -- is the momentum of the leadership being applied. Is the leader moving things, insofar as they are capable, in a positive direction or a negative one? ■ The Executive Branch under James Madison wasn't the same as it was under Ulysses S. Grant, which wasn't the same as the one led by Herbert Hoover, which was utterly transformed by the time George H. W. Bush was Chief Executive. The roles are almost entirely beyond apples-to-apples comparison with one another, to say nothing of the environment in which the different Presidents acted. ■ Moreover, the subjectivity of comparative Presidential ratings is redoubled by the consequences no President can control. Should James Madison be rated based upon circumstances he alone could control, or by what he did in the face of what was thrust upon him (like the War of 1812)? Is it fair to rank him based upon his Presidency alone, or do we consider related contributions like Fathering the Constitution (in other words, is it like an award for Best Actor, or for Lifetime Achievement)? Do we vote based solely upon the consequences of what happened, or do we consider the opportunity costs of paths not taken (a measure by which all of the first fifteen Presidents would deserve some rebuke for failing to end slavery)? By how much should those opportunity costs be weighted? ■ And how far do they deserve credit or blame for the consequences of their choices? If no statute of limitations applies, then Woodrow Wilson's score faces ever-larger deductions with every passing day, for giving institutional power to his personal racism and injuring the appropriate balance of Constitutional powers. Both failures impose compounding costs even today. ■ Presidents come in all grades of quality, but pretending as though we can differentiate between the #21 and #22 Presidents is like speculating whether John Quincy Adams would have been a bigger motorhead than Joe Biden, or whether Millard Fillmore would have been a better audiobook narrator than Bill Clinton. These things are strictly unknowable in empirical terms, and trying to present them with a veneer of quasi-scientific legitimacy is a mistake bound only to sow divisions.

Humor and Good News "Fisk" is worth watching

Australia exports a lot of things, but TV comedy so dry the viewer practically needs to hydrate along the way is one of the best