Alex Massie holds a contest:
We are familiar with polls in which historians rank US Presidents in order of greatness in which the same names—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and so on—always finish at the top. So let's attempt something a little different. The Debatable Land polling organisation wants you to nominate your choices for the Most Over-Rated and Most Under-Rated Presidents in American history.
Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle have started to set the tone with rankings that exclude the presidents of the 19th century: Too many of them are "forgotten." But they're forgotten because that was the century in which the founders' intended balance between the executive and legislative branches actually held, and powerful House members could lead weak POTUSes around by the collar. It was fantastic. And too many 20th century presidents have already been reassessed. The canonization of Gerald Ford, already underway in the Bush/DeLay era, was completed five or six minutes after he died.
1. Abraham Lincoln. I'm sorry. By any definition of "over-rating," you have to go there. He has become our secular saint, with a multi-million dollar industry built around his veneration. That just makes it all the easier when some John Yoo or another seizes on Lincoln's abuses of power—suspending habeas corpus, directing funds without the approval of a rump Congress, the "rich man's" draft—to argue that the president has the right to split babies and shoot laser beams from his eyes.
2. Theodore Roosevelt. The ideological and leadership-style antecendent of John McCain: the godfather of American interventionism. I don't know if it should affect his score, but TR became one of the worst ex-presidents (after Millard "sure, I'll run on your anti-Catholic ticket" Fillmore), dynamiting the Republican party, agitating for intervention into World War I.
3. George H.W. Bush. The most recent and disturbing example of presidential revisionism, Bush's renaissance began a few months after Bill Clinton took power and it has grown as Democrats cast about for a Republican they can say nice things about. Awful drug policy, short-sighted Russia policy, unforgiveable 11th hour pardons. Also, sired George W. Bush.
1. Warren Harding. This is an easy call, especially if you include Woodrow Wilson on the over-rated list (as I almost did, but hedged because his reputation's been sinking). Harding reversed much of Wilson's damage, freeing political prisoners, ending the red scare, ending some of Wilson's rubber-stamped institutional racism. If that's not enough, four more words: Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.
2. Chester A. Arthur. I'm not sure this is controversial anymore. Arthur succeeded beyond the expectations of even the people who gave him the vice presidential nomination, albeit on issues no one cares about anymore, like civil service reform.
3. Martin Van Buren. If Harding was the antidote to Wilson, Van Buren was the antidote to Jackson. The worst decisions he made were validating Jackson's final decisions, like Indian removal. Yes, he was hilariously venal, as when he sold Joseph Smith down the river because he feared coming out for Mormon rights would cost him Missouri (which he lost anyway). But the rest of his record was a model of sober, slow-handed executive power. He rebuffed two frenzies for military aggression against Canada and Mexico. It's hard not to sympathize with a guy who got un-seated by an empty suit like William Henry Harrison.
Over to you, commenters. Who should make the Massie Index?