Since 1982, about the time that Reagan had replaced the portrait in the Cabinet Room with that of Calvin Coolidge, Siena College in New York State has conducted a survey of various scholars and historians asking them to rate the Presidents of the United States along a broad range of factors and qualities. In what is the sixth and just released survey, 157 participants took part assessing the forty-four men who have served, ranking them along twenty categories of attributes, abilities and accomplishments on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). The results, for the first time in Siena rankings, have found George Washington in first place. Other findings are equally as surprising since the last survey in 2010.
No different from many of the surveys that have been done through the years by different institutions, this latest also reflects a number of assumptions in favor of those who have ostentatiously wielded Presidential power in the twentieth century. It is to be expected that those who have held the Office in the recent memory of any survey’s participants should hold a more pronounced place in the rankings. It is simply human nature to do so. This is partly what makes the Presidential rankings game so appealing because it offers this instructive mirror to our assessments and valuations of leadership. It is not so much history then as how history is interpreted and perceived at a given time. Taken together over the last thirty-seven years, the Siena rankings follow the interesting ebb and flow in several respects of the American electorate, with equally insightful deviations. The 1994 survey, the year Republicans took back the Congress after forty years of Democratic Party majorities, reflects that kind of reaction: downgrading a type of Republican perceived to be weak, middling, and passive (like Ford and Bush 41) while boosting activist Presidents in both parties (like Nixon and LBJ). Naturally, the most recent survey has seen boosts for those contemporary but increasingly reappraised Chief Executives, again Ford and even Carter in categories like Integrity. Taft’s ascendance in that category of the 2018 Survey is one of the most overdue surprises in the results.
None of the categories, as confirmed by Dr. Donald Levy, Director of the Siena College Research Institute, were defined for the participants, leaving each to define the terms for him or herself.
When we zero in on three categories through the years: Luck, Integrity, and Avoid Crucial Mistakes, we find high marks for Calvin Coolidge. Much has been said over the years about “Coolidge Luck.” It baffled contemporaries. It was often an attempt to account for Coolidge’s remarkable ability to rise beyond numerous challenges and become one of the most popular Presidents in history, in defiance of just about every conventional precept believed necessary for life in politics. According to those norms, he never would have reached the White House let alone been elected in his own right or achieved so many policy goals once he got there. In that category, Coolidge has actually dropped in the rankings over time as recognition, we believe, of the realization that the results Cal attained were not merely due to sheer chance. Instead, they were the product of extensive preparation. As biographer Robert A. Woods would observe, “Calvin Coolidge went through a more consistent and complete preparation for the presidency than any previous incumbent of the office.” Coolidge himself would put it this way, humbly attributing his rise to a combination of unseen years of hard work that gave him the qualifications to be ready when the need for leadership came his way:
Surprisingly few men are lacking in capacity, but they fail because they are lacking in application. Either they never learn how to work, or, having learned, they are too indolent to apply themselves with the seriousness and the attention that is necessary to solve important problems.
Any reward that is worth having only comes to the industrious. The success which is made in any walk of life is measured almost exactly by the amount of hard work that is put into it…
Had I been chosen for the first place [in 1920], I could have accepted it only with a great deal of trepidation, but when the events of August, 1923, bestowed upon me the presidential office, I felt at once that power had been given me to administer it.
A correspondent for the Minneapolis Tribune connects his luck with both work and integrity when he wrote, “What is called Coolidge luck is the result of a character strong and sturdy, a New England conscience and will. He did not shine out, on account of excessive shyness, mistakenly thought to be reserve and coldness. Opportunity knocked — he was there, and all these qualities came out in splendor. Without the guide of precedent, taking the initiative in one of the most unusual and trying situations, he laid a course so representative of the common will that he apparently reached fame in a day. But conscience, virtue, and courage do not grow overnight.”
Like Coolidge’s integrity itself, his ranking in that category has remained solid. This is all the more impressive as others have moved around widely since 2010 and in the intervening years following 1982. It is also perhaps one of the most subjective categories in the Survey, especially since no standard definition has been presented for the participants by Siena College. Nevertheless, as firm as granite, Coolidge integrity, defined by Oxford English Dictionary, remains “whole and unified,” an undeviating practice of consistent honesty and moral uprightness.
The third category, Avoid Crucial Mistakes contains some of the most interesting rankings across the six surveys. Here, Washington has remained fixed at the top. It seems participants over the years agree with Calvin Coolidge that our first President never made a mistake. Coolidge began at #11 in 1982 but has come down in the estimation of participants since that time. Since Cal has not actually made any errors of judgment or embarrassing gaffes over the last forty years, this category is one of the most revelatory for drastic flux, not only for Coolidge but for Cleveland and Taft, Chief Executives who remain in the middle-of-the-pack overall but are experiencing noticeable shifts in perception since 1994.
When all has been said, we know this is by no means the final word on Presidential Rankings but it contributes new fuel (some might say, kindling) for the ongoing debate on good leadership and how we view it.
But, as indicated by Washington’s return to the top, this signals a step in the right direction for Presidents who embody greater principles than the unrestrained personalities who defined so much of the twentieth century. It is a move back to self-control and restraint in our leaders, a nod for Presidents who prioritized character above power and personal discipline over prestige. Washington set the pattern that Coolidge, Taft and Cleveland, among others, would follow, placing service over self and the betterment of the whole country against that of party or politics. It is thus encouraging to see a return to the fountainhead of these virtues and we look forward to seeing it continue. It is wholesome that the discussion keep going and we welcome the ongoing reappraisal of Presidential worth, holding this reminder always in view:
It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.