Peripatetic Postcards

Pre-Pop Presidents

The rankings are in and so is the verdict: the most efficacious U.S. presidents have tended to come from eras prior to the massification of media, and also prior to the age of pop.

That is one conclusion to be drawn from a study commissioned by the U.S. cable outlet C-Span, in conjunction with today's "Presidents' Day". Sixty-five historians were asked to rank the 42 former presidents along 10 measures of leadership (listed below the jump), which, given that this is the second such survey in a decade, enables some comparative analysis. The full results are here, and some of them come as a bit of a surprise. For instance, it is beginning to appear that William Jefferson Clinton, is going to be treated well by posterity. His ranking improved over the past decade from 21st to 15th. And Bush II did not debut as far to the bottom as one might have expected -- his current ranking is 36th. (I guess that means that Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan really were atrocious leaders!)

But in reading the results, what really pops out is the absence of a pop effect; a media accelerator. Or, to state it negatively: there doesn't appear to be a very strong positive correlation between mass media and presidential performance. This might seem logical, as media may assist in the popular perception of performance, but not necessary in actual success in programs, policy-making, leadership and the like. Something that Gerald Ford learned with his "WIN" (Whip Inflation Now) campaign, which never did anything to affect inflation (except, possibly, indirectly, by hastening his exit from the White House).

As for the study particulars, the attributes that the historians measured the presidents on included:

  1. Public Persuasion

  2. Crisis Leadership

  3. Economic Management

  4. Moral Authority

  5. International Relations

  6. Administrative Skills

  7. Relations with Congress

  8. Vision/Setting An Agenda

  9. Pursued Equal Justice For All

  10. Performance Within Context of Times

with a perfect score of 1000 possible.

Abe Lincoln garnered a total of 902, followed by:

  • George Washington (854)

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (837)

  • Teddy Roosevelt (781)

  • Harry S. Truman (708)

  • John F. Kennedy (701)

  • Thomas Jefferson (698)

  • Dwight Eisenhower (689)

  • Woodrow Wilson (683)

  • Ronald Reagan (671)

So, there's your top 10. And what is notable, to me at least, is that half of these figures pre-date mass media; and three others (FDR, Truman and Eisenhower), predate what one could call "the age of pop" (which, if you are looking for a home-spun definition, would be something like "the period in which public life came to be punctuated, if not pervaded by the presence of mass media forms and content); throw in JFK and Reagan and five of the top ten leaders, despite living in the midst of mass media, held an equivocal relationship to mass communication forms. Sure, FDR used radio to great effect during his fireside chats -- and this was reprised by Reagan with his own popular (and potent) weekly radio address (so potent that it has been mimicked by all subsequent presidents); and, yes, Ike cut the first political commercials for TV (now the staple-form of communication in every presidential campaign); and JFK had some of the century's most memorable mediated moments: notably his first debate with Richard Nixon, the inaugural address which set the moral and existential tone of the generation ("ask not what your country can do for you . . . ask what you can do for your country"), his speech at the Berlin Wall (which, it could be argued, set in motion the wheels of re-unification [some 28 years later]), and, sadly, his assassination.

Now, admittedly, these leaders of the last half of the past century were unintended beneficiaries of a Hollywood message machine that sold citizens on both the Pacific and Cold wars, as well as core American values during the '40s (family, capitalism, community, patriotism, freedom) and '50s (anti-communism, freedom, consumption). So, likely there have been some invisible, unintentional, third-party effects. Still, the power of film (for instance) in the ascendant age of pop does not appear to have exerted a considerable influence over presidential leadership scores in ways that one might expect they could, or should, have. Unless . . . there was a different kind of influence at work. Something more negative than positive. One might call such an effect "subversive" (others might label it "cynical", others still, "sinister"). This would be the negative impact that mass media might exert over perceptions of presidential efficacy which, through a domino-like chain of cause and effect, could actually impede actual efficacy; in turn, through the emergence of a reality that mirrors a perception of inept leadership, low evaluative scores by the experts could certainly (no matter how unjustly) be the result. Whether that is a plausible scenario of cause and effect, it is certainly the case that presidents in the age of pop have failed to top the leadership charts. Sure LBJ checks in at #11, and, yes, he was the president who presided over the beginning of it all: the explosive Beatle-era in which the world experienced the burgeoning of rock and roll, the flowering of "free love" and "sit-ins" and "flower-power", and the seeding of what political scientists came to call "anti-institutional bias" among the American electorate. But after that? During the waxing of a more counter-authority, non-conformist, politically combative sensibility, stoked by darker, edgier, angrier Hollywood films and the nascent, ideationally-anarchic Internet? In chronological order, the presidents during this era (and their leadership rankings) include: Nixon (#27), Ford (#22), Carter (#25), and George Bush I (admittedly, a surprisingly healthy #18).

The fact that the presidents in the age of pop are neither at the top nor the bottom of the list is significant in its own way, I suppose. Dwelling between the middle to the bottom of the rankings are most of the presidents of the 19th century -- leaders who probably found it impossible to organize a country fast-growing to an unwieldy size, lacking any effective form of centralized, widely-distributed means of communication. Those guys were all red-meat when it came to being effective leaders. They were simply care-takers playing to a narrow geographic and class-based constituency.

And, by contrast, one suspects that a country the size of the contemporary U.S., brimming as it is with a glut of de-centralized media, can, for different reasons, be nearly equally impossible to govern. This certainly has to be true in an age where everyone blogs, where every cell phone has a camera attached, where every opinion, regardless of age, education or experience, has an equal chance for expression. And, in a milieu where it now appears that, in order to be called an effective leader, one has to transform policy into a moral crusade . . . and then get out among the people in a veritable "permanent campaign" mode, in order to ensure that that policy gets promulgated. And, after implementation . . . happy acceptance.

Well, good luck, President Obama.

And, assuming that any of the thesis suggested above is so -- that there is an inverse relationship (however small) between media proliferation and presidential performance -- don't expect to be anywhere near the top ten of C-Span's 2019 poll, Mr. President.

Just in case you had the audacity to hope.

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