Last month, C-SPAN released the results of its second "Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership," in which 65 presidential historians ranked the 42 former occupants of the White House on ten attributes of leadership. (The full list and a comparison with similar previous polls can be found here.)
The C-SPAN rankings: 1) Lincoln, 2) Washington, 3) FDR, 4) T. Roosevelt, 5) Truman, 6) Kennedy, 7) Jefferson, 8) Eisenhower, 9) Wilson, 10) Reagan, 11) LBJ, 12) Polk, 13) Jackson, 14) Monroe, 15) Clinton, 16) McKinley, 17) J. Adams, 18) G.H.W. Bush, 19) J.Q. Adams, 20) Madison, 21) Cleveland, 22) Ford, 23) Grant, 24) Taft, 25) Carter, 26) Coolidge, 27) Nixon, 28) Garfield, 29) Taylor, 30) B. Harrison, 31) Van Buren, 32) Arthur, 33) Hayes, 34) Hoover, 35) Tyler, 36) G.W. Bush, 37) Filmore, 38) Harding, 39) W.H. Harrison, 40) Pierce, 41) Andrew Johnson, 42) Buchanan.
1) Neither Garfield nor W.H. Harrison should be on this list: they died so soon in office that they really can't be judged. That leaves exactly 40, making it very convenient to divide the list into quartiles: 1-10, 11-20, 21-31 (exclude #28 Garfield), 32-42 (exclude #39 Harrison).2) I don't think Kennedy belongs in the top 10, and an unscientific scan of the blogosphere revealed almost unanimous agreement. He had great potential, but wasn't in office long enough to achieve it, so he's a second quartile President. Lyndon Johnson is next on the C-SPAN list, but he made some serious gaffes (anyone remember Vietnam?), so I would deny him passage into the Promised Land and just to be different I will leapfrog the underrated James K. Polk over him to round out my top 10.
3) I would like to make a case for Van Buren to be higher on the list, strictly on the basis of the fact that he rocked the mad sideburns. Ditto Arthur and J.Q. Adams to a lesser degree, but no President can touch Van Buren when it comes to badass facial hair. (No wonder he has a street gang named after him!)
4) If you look at the bottom quartile on this list, 7 of the 10 served from 1841-1885. Only Lincoln and Polk were standouts during this stretch, and Lincoln was bookended by the two worst. Those sound like dark days for America.
5) After the 45-years-of-darkness period in the 19th Century, only three Presidents rank in the bottom quartile: Harding in the years leading up to the Great Depression, Hoover during the Great Depression, and... oh. Oops. Well, that wound is still fresh. Clinton's legacy seems to be on the rise now. We'll have to wait and see how history treats W. (And Obama for that matter, who wasn't part of the poll. Hey, he's now been in office longer than William Henry Harrison - quick, do another poll, C-SPAN!)