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Some of our greatest presidents were not so great.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't)

Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game

by Alvin S. Felzenberg

Basic Books, 480 pp., $29.95

Should Andrew Jackson, founding icon of the Democratic party, be ranked 27th out of 39 rated presidents--below both the discredited philanderer Warren G. Harding and forgotten spoilsman Chester Arthur?

Should the widely memorialized Thomas Jefferson (one of four presidents carved out of Mount Rushmore) be in 14th place--tied with his unpopular old rival John Adams and the even less popular son, John Quincy Adams, and actually below much abused-conservative Republicans William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge?

Should two military heroes typically downgraded in presidential ratings--Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant--be tied for seventh with the much-praised Harry Truman and fondly remembered John F. Kennedy, one notch below universally celebrated Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Nearly all Americans who claim even a passing interest in their nation's history would answer with a resounding denial. Yet these are carefully reached conclusions, defended in detail by this book, and derived from Al Felzenberg's new rating system that is intended to replace unsubstantiated declarations from the halls of ivy.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is not just some guy seated at the end of the bar, mouthing off about what he thinks he has learned from the History Channel and C-SPAN3. He has been a state and federal government official (most recently spokesman for the 9/11 Commission), congressional staffer, Republican political activist, biographer, essayist, and commentator, with a doctorate in politics from Princeton. But he is not a historian, and The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't) is, in essence, a rebuttal to academic historians who, until now, have dominated the ratings racket, under the direction of the Arthur M. Schlesingers, père and fils.

What Felzenberg calls "the presidential ratings game" was started in 1948 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., professor of history at Harvard for 30 years. He asked 55 colleagues to evaluate and rank presidents, and published the results in Life magazine. That triggered more than a dozen similar surveys, including another by Schlesinger ("Our Presidents: A Rating by 75 Historians") in the New York Times Magazine of July 29, 1962. His more famous son, fellow historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., followed on December 15, 1996, in the Times Magazine with his own survey of 32 historians. The Schlesinger surveys ranked presidents in numerical order (omitting, as does Felzenberg, William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who each served less than a year) and slipped them into categories of "Great," "Near Great," "High Average," "Below Average," and "Failure."

From the start, conservatives complained that the Schlesingers were dealing from a stacked deck of liberal historians recruited as presidential judges. The panel selected by Schlesinger Jr., himself a JFK White House aide, included just one conservative (Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama), numerous former aides to Democratic officeholders, and two Democratic politicians who were historians only because they wrote about history (Mario Cuomo of New York and Paul Simon of Illinois).

Not surprisingly, the Schlesinger polls downgrade Republicans, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Grant is a "Failure" and Coolidge "Below Average." The 1962 survey has Dwight D. Eisenhower ranked 22nd or "Average," defined by Schlesinger Sr. as "mediocre." The subsequent 34 years, when his presidential papers were opened, were good for Ike on the left, because he climbed to ninth place in 1996. That made him "Above Average," alongside the flawed presidencies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But Ronald Reagan took Eisenhower's place in the lower reaches with a No. 24 ranking, making him "Average," along with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The historians forgave the failings of Democratic household gods Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman to rank each in the top 10 as "Near Great" presidents.

No objective standard can be divined in the historians' rankings except, perhaps, which past president would be booed and which one would be cheered at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner of the Democratic party. It is as if arguments about the all-time ranking of baseball players were not guided by statistics (batting average, number of homers and runs batted in, slugging percentage, etc.).