Thursday, February 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 2

The concept of opinion polls (what were then called straw polls) goes back both a long and relatively short time ago.  While that may sound contradictory, consider this: Almost 200 years ago a straw vote was conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper.  In 1824, that polling vote showed Andrew Jackson leading John Quincy Adams by 335 votes to 169 in the contest for the Presidency of the United States.  When Jackson actually won the popular vote in that state and the whole country, Wikipedia writes, “such straw votes gradually became more popular, but they remained local, usually citywide phenomena.”

Jump forward to a still relatively long time ago when Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1875 founded The Literary Digest, an influential American general interest weekly magazine. In 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932, it conducted straw polls that correctly predicted the likely outcome of the presidential election in each of those years. However, the 1936 poll showed that the Republican candidate, Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas, was likely to be the overwhelming winner.  In reality, Roosevelt won over 98% of the electoral votes, losing only two states, Maine and Vermont.   The magazine was so discredited by this discrepancy that it soon folded.

According to Wikipedia, “In retrospect, the polling techniques employed by the magazine were to blame. Although it had polled ten million individuals (of whom 2.4 million responded, an astronomical total for any opinion poll), it had surveyed its own readers first, a group with disposable incomes well above the national average of the time, shown in part by their ability still to afford a magazine subscription during the depths of the Great Depression.” Obviously, since the vast majority of responders were wealthier, they were not representative or the general population.

The Polls Develop

In that same year, 1936, George Gallup’s new organization achieved national recognition by correctly predicting, from the replies of only 50,000 respondents, that Franklin Roosevelt would defeat Alf Landon in the U.S. Presidential election. Apparently, Gallup’s choice of responders were more scientifically and statistically constructed than Literary Digest’s list.  After Gallup’s success, over the years, a number of other research organizations were created such as Harris, Neilson, Pew, Rasmussen, plus universities like Sienna and Quinnipiac.

There is however, another poll that actually uses not the public, but highly respected experts to vote in a survey that is not very well known, yet its results should be of great interest to all Americans.  This is a poll that ranks every president that ever held that office. The polling took place over a period of 17 various years starting in 1948 through 2018.  The idea to do so was originated by the legendary historian, Arthur Schlesinger Sr.  His son Arthur Schlesinger Jr., also a highly respected historian, developed the second poll in 1962.

In the latest of these polls, historians and presidential biographers were asked to judge every president based on a series of qualifications that were preselected for each poll.  An example of the required stipulations follows: “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Setting An Agenda,” “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” and “Performance Within the Context of His Times.” Each of these parameters was equally rated. (You might want to do your own ranking of our current leader based on those factors.)

A Fascinating Graphic

I can guarantee that if you have any interest in this subject, you will be fascinated by the imminently readable, very colorful, and completely understandable graphic of the 18 polls of every president from 1948––2017.  It can be found in Wikipedia by going to Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States (scroll down to the Scholar Survey Results).  Just as fascinating are the polling results that provide the presidential rankings by professional historiographers and experienced presidential chroniclers.

Four colors are used to identify the quartile that each president has attained in each of the yearly polls. This allows the viewer to see at a glance, which is the best down to the worst. The last column aggregates the rankings of each year to produce his overall average over the entire 70-year 18-poll life.  What follows are the aggregated (average) poll rankings for the top ten rated presidents, through the year 2017, starting with the number ten ranking, ending with number one: John Kennedy (10), Andrew Jackson (9), Dwight Eisenhower (8), Woodrow Wilson (7), Harry Truman (6), Thomas Jefferson (5), Theodore Roosevelt (4), George Washington (3), Franklin Roosevelt (2), and Abraham Lincoln (1).

The Rankings

You might also be interested in the rankings of the 12 presidents who came after FDR, three of whom are listed above.  Here are those numbers: Harry Truman (6), Dwight Eisenhower (8), John Kennedy (10), Lyndon Johnson (12), Richard Nixon (32), Gerald Ford (26), Jimmy Carter (27), Ronald Reagan (17), George H.W. Bush (22), Bill Clinton (20), George W Bush (34), Barack Obama (15) (tied).

When you consider the rankings listed above, and if you look at the Wikipedia graphics, it would not be unusual to differ with at least some of the results.  In the earliest polls no objective criteria (as listed above) were required. The first two polls conducted by the two Schlesinger’s were possibly biased by their personal, quite liberal ideologies.  For a more critical view of this type of polling process, go to Real Clear Politics/The Presidential Ratings Racket.  However, despite its questioning low rankings of some (Ronald Reagan), and the high ranking of others (Andrew Jackson), it agreed with the top three, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington (but not necessarily in that order).  However, in the Wikipedia graphic, other than Lincoln, Roosevelt undoubtedly garnered the most number one and two rankings.

FDR Praise

An article in the April 2015 issue of U.S. News wrote the following:  “The United States has never had another leader like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Serving for 12 years, far longer than any other president, he had such a profound impact on the nation and the world that he is widely recognized as one of the transformational figures of the 20th Century and one of America's best presidents.”

In “No Ordinary Time,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “[T]he Roosevelt years had witnessed the most profound social revolution in the country since the Civil War – nothing less than the creation of modern America.” “He humanized the American industrial system,” adds presidential scholar Robert Dallek, who wrote a new biography of FDR titled “Prophet of a New Order: FDR in Depression and War.”  “He was a major transformative leader. He didn't want to jettison capitalism or free enterprise even though there were accusations that he was a socialist. This was nonsense. But he understood there needed to be change.”

Ken Walsh, a longtime chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, wrote, “By the time he left office, the United States had become a superpower, able and willing to exert its influence around the globe. It was a nation of newfound prosperity; a country where the federal government, with the people's support, had become the engine of change in nearly every sphere of national life and would build on that power for many years. In the process, FDR made the Democrats into a ruling party.

“It took two generations, with the 1980 election of conservative President Ronald Reagan, for the government to pull back and for Americans to conclude that Washington had become too powerful. But the underpinning of FDR's New Deal remain in place today, including a powerful executive branch and a culture of celebrity surrounding the president, carefully enhanced and nurtured by FDR during his long tenure.”

Goodwin wrote: “It may well be true that a social revolution is not possible without war or violent internal upheaval. These provide a unity of purpose and an opportunity for change that are rarely present in more tranquil times. But as the history of other countries and America's own experience after World War I illustrates, war and revolution are no guarantee of positive social change. That depends on the time, the nation, and the exercise of leadership. In providing that leadership, Franklin Roosevelt emerges as the towering public figure of the 20th century.”

The Jewish Vote

Considering the fact that he was elected four times, the first and only president to have ever done so, FDR’s popularity cannot be questioned.  An average of 56.5% of voters cast their votes for him over that period.  Only six other presidents in the last 100 years exceeded that number. However, when the Jewish vote is considered, the numbers are even more impressive. In the 1932 election he won 82% of the Jewish vote. In the next three elections the numbers increased to 85%, 90%, and 90% for his last term.

The Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History sums up FDR’s singularity in the title “The Roosevelt Mystique.”  It then explains, “By that time (1935) Roosevelt’s presidency already had assumed mythical proportions. Ordinary people (certainly including Jews) hung his picture in their homes, named their children after him, and flooded the Whitehouse with personal letters.   Roosevelt dominated popular culture as had no other president before him.” 

Here is the major paradox: if Roosevelt was so popular, especially with the Jewish population, why do many Jews still criticize him for not being a friend of the Jews? Three words define this––Holocaust, St. Louis, Auschwitz.  More next month.


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