Presidential Deathmatch

Blogger Geoff Micks has asked the question that has long been on everyone’s mind: “In a mass knife fight to the death between every US President, who would win and why?”   Considering this query, I decided that a truly well informed answer must consider six variables:

Coalition-Building Ability: Perhaps the most important criterion for determining survival in the early stages of the battle.  A very high standard here; we are talking about 43 of the most successful politicians in history.  Assuming that they retain their memories as they enter combat, we would have to give points to someone like Thomas Jefferson, whose personality dominated James Madison, James Monroe, and to some extent the Adamses.  Considering the strengths of those men, that would have been quite an intimidating combination.  George Washington, recognizing all of them, would likely have joined them at the outset; many of the others, all admirers of Washington, would likely have fallen in with his group.  Jefferson’s crew would thus dominate the early stages of the battle, giving Jefferson himself him an excellent opportunity to shape later stages for his own benefit.  It’s a knife fight, so a president who built powerful coalitions in politics wouldn’t get points if he built them over many years of intricate political maneuvering.  Only coalitions he builds instantly, by the sheer force of his personality, count.

Visual Inconspicuousness: Tall men like Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson would have little chance of surviving the early stages.  No accommodation for his disability would keep Franklin Roosevelt from being an obvious target; if his cousin Theodore came to Franklin’s aid, he too would likely be killed in the early stages.  Barack Obama’s skin color would not only make him conspicuous, but also would incite the hatred of several presidents, including some of the most lethal fighters.

Expertise in Hand-to-Hand Combat:  Important at every stage of the battle, probably the single most important criterion in determining who still has a chance in the later stages.  Some presidents grew up on the untamed frontier; some were professional soldiers and presumably received training in hand-to-hand combat; some were amateur athletes who pursued combat sports.  Some, notably James Monroe,  Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor, were in more than one of these categories and deserve very high scores.

Badass Quotient: Demonstrated willingness actually to stick bits of metal into people.  Andrew Jackson is in a class by himself under this heading, although George Washington, James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman also have strong scores.  As a boy, Millard Fillmore walked away from a shop where he was an indentured servant.  He later explained that if he hadn’t left, he would have picked up an ax and chopped his boss to bits.  So he might be entitled to some points for homicidal rage.  Several of the generals and lawyers who look good under other headings fall down here.  For example, Ulysses Grant had a famous distaste for the sight of blood; Richard Nixon had a tremendous amount of difficulty telling people they were fired.  It’s hard to imagine that either of those men would act without hesitation when called upon to stab George Washington.

Physical Fitness: Mr Micks specifies in his hypothesis that the presidents will meet “in the best physical and mental condition they were ever in throughout the course of their presidency. Fatal maladies have been cured, but any lifelong conditions or chronic illnesses (e.g. FDR’s polio) remain.”  This criterion tends to favor early presidents.  Someone like James Madison, for example, never showed an inclination to athleticism, but would routinely ride a horse for many miles through conditions of near wilderness, simply because there was no other way to get around.

Spatial Awareness: Very important for judging the likely outcome of the later stages of the battle, when the field would be littered with corpses and slick with blood.  George Herbert Walker Bush qualified as a Navy fighter pilot in World War Two; presumably that reflected a high level of spatial awareness.  Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt could both take credit for notable achievements in architecture, earning them some points (but not telling us all that much about how they would do in an extremely fluid, spontaneous situation.)  Washington, Monroe, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, James Garfield, and Truman all showed sufficient tactical ability as field commanders that we can safely say that they should be ranked no lower than the middle of this category.  Football players Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan should also receive fairly high scores here.  “Motor moron” Richard Nixon is among those who should receive the lowest rankings under this heading.

So, I whipped up a spreadsheet, rating each president on a 1 through 5 scale under each of those six headings.  The six lowest totals went to Grover Cleveland (8,) William Howard Taft (8,) Chester Arthur (9,) Richard Nixon (11,) and Barack Obama (11.)  The seven highest went to Abraham Lincoln (22,) James Garfield (22,) Harry Truman (22,) Theodore Roosevelt (23,) James Monroe (24,) Andrew Jackson (24), and William McKinley (24.)

Here’s the whole spreadsheet, for what it’s worth:

President Coalition Building Visual Inconspicuousness Hand to Hand BQ Physical Fitness Spatial Awareness Total
Washington 5 2 4 4 3 3 21
J Adams 2 5 1 2 4 2 16
Jefferson 5 2 1 2 5 4 19
Madison 2 5 1 1 4 2 15
Monroe 3 3 5 4 5 4 24
J Q Adams 3 3 1 2 5 3 17
Jackson 5 1 5 5 3 5 24
Van Buren 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
W Harrison 2 3 3 3 1 4 16
Tyler 1 3 1 2 5 3 15
Polk 1 4 1 2 1 3 12
Taylor 2 2 4 4 2 5 19
Fillmore 2 4 2 3 3 3 17
Pierce 2 2 1 2 3 3 13
Buchanan 2 4 1 1 2 3 13
Lincoln 5 1 5 4 4 3 22
A Johnson 2 3 4 3 3 3 18
Grant 3 4 3 3 4 4 21
Hayes 3 1 2 2 5 4 17
Garfield 4 3 3 3 5 4 22
Arthur 2 1 1 1 1 3 9
Cleveland 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
B Harrison 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
McKinley 3 4 4 4 4 5 24
T Roosevelt 4 1 5 4 5 4 23
Taft 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
Wilson 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
Harding 3 3 1 1 2 3 13
Coolidge 2 4 1 2 3 3 15
Hoover 3 4 1 1 5 5 19
F Roosevelt 3 1 3 3 1 4 15
Truman 2 3 3 4 5 5 22
Eisenhower 4 2 3 3 3 4 19
Kennedy 2 1 2 2 2 3 12
L Johnson 4 1 2 3 2 3 15
Nixon 1 3 1 1 4 1 11
Ford 3 2 3 3 5 4 20
Carter 1 3 2 2 5 5 18
Reagan 3 2 2 1 1 3 12
G H W Bush 2 2 2 3 4 5 18
Clinton 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
G W Bush 2 2 2 1 5 4 16
Obama 1 1 1 1 4 3 11
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