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Rating Updating

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.).

Felzenberg attempts to remedy this by inventing a numerical rating system, one through five, in each of six categories: "character," "vision," "competence," "economic policy," "preserving and extending liberty," and "defense, national security, and foreign policy." He gives each president from one to five points in each category.

Only Lincoln is six-for-six with a perfect five for 30 points. Felzenberg drops George Washington one point each for "vision" and "economic policy," giving him 28 points for second place. Thus, his point system, with a one-two finish for Abe and George, duplicates the historians' judgment. They also largely agree about who should rank lowest: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon.

But their agreement does not extend much farther. Republican Felzenberg tried to rate the presidents objectively, which is more than can be said of the Democratic historians, whom he accuses of "bias." He gives Theodore Roosevelt and Reagan 25 points each, to tie them for third place. The historians did rank TR as "Near Great," but Felzenberg lifted Reagan from mediocre status in the last Schlesinger poll.

The historians rated Franklin Roosevelt as "Great," along with Lincoln and Washington, third in 1962 and tied with Washington for second in 1996. Felzenberg drops FDR to sixth place, contending he "fares less well when his character, experimentation, and human rights practices are considered." Roosevelt's fall, however, is modest compared with what Felzenberg does to other Democratic icons. Jackson and Wilson, top-ten "Near Great" presidents in the historians' view, are rated 27th and 14th respectively, illustrating that this five-point rating system is really just as subjective as the Schlesinger method and cannot be a political version of RBIs or batting averages. It all depends on what the rater thinks is important.

Paradoxically, conservative Republican Felzenberg evaluates through the lens of race as a defining issue for the country, but one the liberal academic historians ignore. Wilson, at heart, was a southern segregationist who fought black rights advocates and sowed the seeds of World War II when he "used his influence at the Paris Peace Conference to block a Japanese-initiated amendment on racial equality." Jackson was a racist, an unapologetic champion of slavery and brutal persecutor of Indians who always expressed pride in his forced relocation of Native Americans beyond the Mississippi River. That included the infamous Trail of Tears, where "about a quarter of the Cherokee nation perished enroute"--ignored by Schlesinger Jr. in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson.

Race is the overriding reason James K. Polk, Jackson's protégé who was rated eighth and "Near Great" in the Schlesinger surveys, is 20th on Felzenberg's list. While he is given a five out of five in "competence," he gets only a one in "character" and a two in "preserving and extending liberty" because of his massive expansion of American territory through the Mexican War. Felzenberg sees Polk's policies as crafted to benefit slaveholders: "Polk's vision for his country proved harmful over time, igniting the fuse that would set off the Civil War."

Felzenberg's racial focus also explains his unexpectedly high ratings--especially 23 points for Zachary Taylor, considered mediocre by the historians, to tie him for seventh place. If he had not died in his second year as president, Felzenberg writes, "Taylor might have been able to draw upon his personal standing to bring to the fore sufficient numbers of Southern moderates to hold the 'fire-eaters' at bay." He contends that Taylor "might well have killed secessionist agitation in the cradle."

The Felzenberg rating system also gives 23 points to the maligned Grant, contending that he was trashed by reformers who neglect to praise his reversal of Andrew Johnson's racist policies. Grant was the last president to send federal troops south to enforce the law for African Americans until Eisenhower did so in 1957.

"So let the game begin," Felzenberg tells readers as he begins rating presidents, indicating he does not take his new rating as seriously as academic historians regard their Olympian pronouncements. He implies nobody needs a Ph.D. in history (or in politics) to play this game, and I--with just a bachelor's degree in English--will give it a try.

I would reverse the rating system's evaluation of Jefferson (tied for 14th) and Theodore Roosevelt (tied for third with Reagan), opposites who are forever joined on Mount Rushmore. (TR considered Jefferson one of the worst presidents, and the insult surely would have been returned by Jefferson if he had known TR.) Felzenberg undervalues Jefferson's bold purchase of the Louisiana Territory, his opposition to the noxious Alien and Sedition Acts (approved and enforced by John Adams), and his suspicion of an overreaching federal government. Roosevelt's legacy includes gunboat diplomacy, the first federal police force, interference with markets, and advocacy of big government.

I disagree with Felzenberg keeping both Franklin Roosevelt and Truman in the historians' top-ten stratosphere. I would drop each into the middle range of presidents at best. FDR's performance on human rights for American blacks, Japanese Americans, and Hitler's Jewish refugees was abysmal, his high-tax economic policy unnecessarily extended the Great Depression, his handling of intelligence about Japan led to the Pearl Harbor disaster, he betrayed Poland at Yalta, and this book deplores "the inattention and lack of concern Roosevelt paid to warnings that Stalin ordered agents to infiltrate the highest reaches of the American government."

Similarly, Truman sloughed off communications intelligence about Soviet espionage. Felzenberg does not mention that, or Truman's deplorable performance as commander in chief during the last two years of the Korean War. Felzenberg lifts Coolidge to 12th from 29th in the historians, but I would make him a top ten president by raising the very low marks in "defense, national security and foreign policy."

On his way to the ratings, Felzenberg delivers a rollicking 377-page survey of American history, replete with surprises. Unfortunately, he defers a verdict on the unfinished tenure of George W. Bush. But I will, using the rating system of The Leaders We Deserved: Three for "character," two for "vision," one for "competence," four for "economic policy," one for "preserving and extending liberty," and two for "defense, national security and foreign policy." That's 15 points, which would tie him for 22nd place with William Howard Taft and Clinton in this book's tally--not very good, but predictably better than Schlesinger's historians would give him.

We'll have to wait for the paperback edition to see what Al Felzenberg thinks.

Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist in Washington and the author, most recently, of The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.