Calibrating presidents

Recently I participated in an interesting exercise where the participants were asked to calibrate presidents. The calibration was done against the traditional consulting nine-box. In the nine-box, you calibrate the subjects (staff, presidents, whatever) against one another, using two criteria: performance/output (the X axis) and potential (the Y axis). Personal opinion and feeling aren’t supposed to be relevant. Specifics and the criteria are all that matter.

Our group calibrated five presidents: JFK, LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and Bush II (please hold your shoes).

The end result on the box was something like so:

High Potentials: None
Medium Potential/Low Performance: JFK, Bush II
Medium Potential/Medium Performance: Carter, Clinton
Medium Potential/High Performance: LBJ
Low Potentials: None

LBJ and his social programs, for better or for worse, were slotted as high performers. I’m not sure history has held his presidency in high regard to date (and I’m not sure I agree with our assessment either). LBJ was cut a lot of slack for being thrust into office after JFK’s assassination. And, give credit where credit is due, he did fight for and sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was how little conversation was devoted to Vietnam, and I don’t think age was a factor. There were several folks old enough to remember Vietnam, if not serve.

Carter suffered (or benefited, depending on your point of view regarding the Panama Canal and the “giant swimming rabbit” incident) from a general ignorance of his policies and actions. “Peanut farmer” and “that guy who builds houses” were the most common refrains.

Our conversation regarding Clinton devolved in strictly partisan camps and we spent most of our time discussing whether Clinton lied and how much it mattered if he did. Clinton was mainly evaluated in terms of his comparison to Bush, and vice versa.

In my opinion, our conversation about JFK was the most detail-oriented and resulted in the most correct assessment of his presidency. A smart man–yes. Politically gifted (money doesn’t hurt)–most certainly. Potential due to a vast and sometimes baseless outpouring of public support–sure. But then what? The moon, I was say, was the major accomplishment of his presidency, and many would argue the true scientific value of the expedition (I just love space, so sue me). Otherwise you have Bay of Pigs, much vacilating over Vietnam, and a soaring federal budget. There was a lot of argument over his popularity, but in rating him against a nine box, how do you score popularity?

Bush II. Insert your own vehement beliefs here. This president’s two terms are just too recent to discuss rationally, as everyone has passionately held beliefs on this guy, both for and against. He is scored where he is only because we started the conversation with him in that box. Many argued to place him low-low, and a few wanted him moved to the center square (now I unfortunately picture Whoopi Goldberg and Shadow/Shadoe Stevens). Divisive–the only point on which consensus was reached.

One of the things we struggled with was scoring against the nine box, and not resorting to our own emotions on the point. Of course, one could argue we merely used the nine box to justify our previously held opinions. The best takeaway, for me, was that so many of us in the group could have a rational conversation about the presidents. I enjoyed the process, even we didn’t all agree.

This post is different for me, as it reeks of the political. Usually my topics are more banal, and perhaps my blog has been the worse for it. Now I’m leaking a bit of personal opinion, and putting forth my spin on history. Some may disagree. Some may think I’ve generalized. To steal a line I’ve heard elsewhere: “As usual when I generalize, I don’t care.”

I figure if I have any regular readers the comment thread will now come alive.

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