February 17, 2009
Ranking the Presidents (with a little help from Davey Concepcion)
If you turned on any cable newschannel this weekend, you probably saw a story about C-SPAN’s Ranking of the Presidents, with Abraham Lincoln on top and James Buchanan at the bottom.
On the one hand, these kinds of lists are meant to spark casual debate — like, say, VH-1’s “100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time. On the other hand, the Presidency is at least a little more important than whether the Eagles are better than the Rolling Stones (answer: yes), so perhaps it’s worth a blog post….
1. First, I think it’s ridiculous that the vote includes George W. Bush (and only slightly less ridiculous that it includes Clinton and Bush 41). In any kind of “serious” vote on anything, you would expect a waiting period to place your immediate experiences into their proper context. Major League Baseball, for example, requires that a player be out of baseball for five years before becoming eligible for election into the Hall of Fame.
I always think about Dave Concepcion when I think about MLB’s five-year rule; Concepcion played from 1970-1988, a time when offense in MLB was beginning to pick up from its historic nadir right up until the beginning of the complete offensive explosion that continues to this day. (Did you know that American League players hit 2,634 home runs in 1987, which is roughly the same rate as in the late 90s and early 2000s and higher than today’s rate?)
So Davey Concepcion comes on to the scene at a time when shortstops were essentially in the Mark Belanger mold; you know, slap-hitting, slick-fielding, .220 hitters. And here’s Concepcion — he’s actually a pretty good hitter, he smacks 14 home runs in 1974 (Belanger had 20 HR in his entire eighteen-year career!), and in his late prime he actually bats third for the Cincinnati Reds. (For those of you who aren’t baseball fans, the third spot in the lineup is typically where most managers bat the player they think is their best hitter.)
And on top of it, Concepcion seems to do all the things that the Belangers of the world do — he plays great defense, he’s a nine-time All Star, and he wins five Gold Gloves. Put all that together, and squint a little bit, and maybe Concepcion looks like a Hall of Famer. (Warning: that link will melt your eyes. Proceed at your own peril, or try this one instead.)
That’s why there’s a five-year rule. Concepcion was kind of a transitional species at shortstop, a guy who was a slick fielder but also could hit a little bit — but he was immediately followed by guys like Alan Trammell and Cal Ripken, who were respectable with the leather and could hit a lot. In the fuller context, it became pretty obvious that someone like Concepcion just wasn’t good enough to rank among the all-time greats, and that’s why he never got more than 17% of the vote, and why he’s out of the Hall today.
I don’t know if the five-year rule kept Concepcion out of the Hall of Fame; it’s possible the BBWAA might have acted sensibly even without it. But I think that those five years almost certainly helped people put Concepcion’s career into its proper context and gave us a truer picture of his worth next to the all-time greats. (The five-year rule clearly was not enough to tamp down the irrational emotional exuberance that made Kirby Puckett a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but that’s another post entirely.)
All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I think the voters’ likely negative perceptions of Bush 43 are affecting their votes for Clinton (#15 on the CSPAN list) and Bush 41 (ranked #20), in the same way that fans’ perceptions of Mark Belanger led them to overvalue Concepcion until Ripken and Trammell came along. I think we need at least a 20-year moratorium on eligibility.
2. And then I think that perhaps that isn’t enough, because I see that Jimmy Carter ranks twenty-fifth. Now twenty-fifth at least puts Carter into the bottom half (if just barely), but … really, twenty-fifth? I have to think that almost all of those votes are for today’s Carter — his work with Habitat for Humanity and on behalf of global peace and human rights. Those are great causes, but I don’t see how any fair-minded person could conclude that the Carter presidency was anything other than a drastic failure.
3. I also think the list reflects a very odd philosophy in the bottom half. Here’s what I mean: William Henry Harrison was president for all of thirty-one days before dying of a cold, and for that the C-SPAN voters punished him as the fourth-worst President of all time.
The fourth-worst? Really? I doubt that even Doris Kearns Goodwin could name a single thing Harrison even did during his four-week presidency. That’s neutral, not bad. No, Harrison did not free the slaves or bust the trusts or save the Union or end the Cold War or any of the good things that would put him in the top 10 — but he also didn’t start a land war in Asia or plunge the economy into recession or start a civil war or steal an election or otherwise make the lives of ordinary Americans any worse during his office. I guess I view Presidents as being similarly bound to the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm.”).
The bottom of the C-SPAN list is populated entirely by short-timers and one-termers, which makes no sense to me. Two terms of a monster is far worse than one month of a do-nothing.
4. Finally: if anyone can tell me how Polk’s invasion of Mexico differs in any way morally from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, I would love to hear it.