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Authors worked to keep bias out of book on presidential trios

Sunday, January 5, 2014
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Q & A


“We collected all this data, and I said to Tom [Kelly], ‘There are a lot of books about presidents. How do we make this one unique?’ ” says Doug Lonnstrom. “We started talking about three in a row, the three greatest, the second three greatest and the three worst in a row.”
“We collected all this data, and I said to Tom [Kelly], ‘There are a lot of books about presidents. How do we make this one unique?’ ” says Doug Lonnstrom. “We started talking about three in a row, the three greatest, the second three greatest and the three worst in a row.”

In Doug Lonnstrom’s personal list of favorite things, history seems to come in a distant fourth behind his love of golf, his passion for flying and his fascination with numbers. Or does it?

Perusing the past, you could argue, is actually a pretty big deal to the Siena College statistics professor, who seems to weave history into just about everything he does.

“U.S. Presidents: From Awesome to Awful,” his latest book from Three Lakes Publishing, co-authored by Siena College colleague Tom Kelly, is another indication of how Lonnstrom looks at much of the world through the prism of history.

In this case, he and Kelly came up with a unique ranking system that put presidents into groups of threes, in particular the best three in a row and the worst three in a row. The two men created 20 different categories to help ensure the rankings’ lack of political or cultural bias, and after Lonnstrom distilled well over 200 responses by presidential experts from around the U.S., Kelly, a retired history professor at Siena, did his best to explain the findings.

This is not Lonnstrom’s first venture into the realm of nonfiction books. He wrote “A History of Golf in New York’s Capital Region” in 1998 and “JFK Jr. — Ten Years After the Crash — A Pilot’s Perspective” in 2009. His fourth book, which may include something about the history of airplane manufacturing, is in the early stages.

Native of Brooklyn

Lonnstrom was born in Brooklyn, and at the age of 3 moved to the Albany area with his family. He spent much of his youth in the town of New Salem and graduated from Voorheesville High School before heading to Drew University, where he majored in math. He then earned an MBA from Siena and a doctorate in Urban and Environmental Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

He began teaching at Siena in 1979 and created the Siena Research Institute the following year. The results of the SRI surveys attract attention from all the nation’s leading newspapers, including The New York Times and the Wall St. Journal, and are also used by all the major television networks. While he still comes into the office to work at the institute, Lonnstrom is officially retired and was replaced by Donald P. Levy as director.

During the golf season, that game takes up a lot of time in Lonnstrom’s life, and along with getting out on the course every other day, he is host of Time Warner Cable’s “Tee Time,” a local golf show that airs in the Capital Region and the Syracuse area 12 times a year.

Q: Why the book on presidents?

A: We were wondering where all these presidential rankings come from, and when I looked at the first one, with Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in the late 1940s, I found out he surveyed all his closest friends, including his own son, so to me it seemed that it had to be loaded with bias. I started working with Tom on 20 different categories to rate the presidents, and we sent out surveys to political science and history professors all over the country. So we collected all this data, and I said to Tom, ‘There are a lot of books about presidents. How do we make this one unique?’ We started talking about three in a row, the three greatest, the second three greatest and the three worst in a row based on the information we collected from our experts. We didn’t use our own opinion. I came up with my findings, and then Tom Kelly knows more about history than anyone I know, so he discusses why they came out the way we did.

Q: What were some of the questions you asked your experts?

A: I feel like the 20 categories we came up with really erased any bias from the survey. We asked who had the best background to be president? Who had the most integrity? Who made the best court appointments? Who had the best relationship with Congress? Who was best in foreign affairs? We even asked who was the luckiest president?

Q: We won’t reveal the answers to the major questions your book poses. But give us an idea of some of the information that’s in it.

A: Well, all three of the groups, the two best and the worst, are related to significant events in the history of the U.S. And, if you look at the rankings, and we’ve done surveys five different times, the top five are always the same. They may shift a little bit, but there’s usually a little gap between number 4 and number 5, and then a big gap between the first five and the rest. The bottom five also stay roughly the same. That’s why you won’t see Lincoln on any of our three in a row lists. He came after Buchanan and before Johnson, two of the worst presidents, so there’s no way he’ll make the list.

Q: How current is your list?

A: We thought that Bill Clinton would be a good cut-off point. There was a lot of emotion when Bush got elected in 2000, and it’s obviously too soon for Obama.

Q: What does the Siena Research Institute consist of?

A: We get a couple of hundred students manning 40 calling stations, and we also have some full-time employees who are not students. I’ve been retired five years now, but I still come in and do some work, like the New York State Consumer Confidence Index. It grew so much it got to be a little too much for me, so I hired Don Levy as director and he does a great job for us.

Q: When did you realize the Siena Research Institute was going to be a big success?

A: Tom and I worked on our first presidential poll when Reagan was in office. It got tremendous exposure for Siena College, and they loved it. We were on CBS, CNN and C-SPAN. Then my wife came up with the idea of rating the first ladies, and that has really blossomed into something. C-SPAN came to us recently and said let’s update the first ladies series, so we’re going to be doing something with them on the new first ladies rankings in February.

 
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