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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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.