The Magazine

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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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.