- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

There is one accurate generalization about American presidential elections, and that is that no two elections are ever alike. This certainly goes for 1912, when four candidates made a serious bid for the presidency. Well, perhaps three.

In James Chace’s crisp account of that momentous year, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 336 pages, illus.), we learn how the Republican Party broke apart. The incumbent William Howard Taft was the choice of the party regulars, while his predecessor in office, Theodore Roosevelt, took the progressive faction from the GOP and formed the Bull Moose Party.

Woodrow Wilson, the eventual winner, was a first-term governor of New Jersey who had difficulty in defining himself — or rather in redefining himself, but he did well enough to win, thanks to a divided opposition.

As for the fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, Mr. Chance makes him a sympathetic character whose 900,000 votes were the high-water mark for the Socialist Party and all of the radical counterparts that followed it.

The real question about the 1912 election is: Why did T.R. do it? I am not sure Mr. Chace has answered that question fully. Perhaps no one can.

The consequences, however, are quite plain: the splitting of the Republican Party, which is evident even today. This election also meant the handing of the presidency to the Democrats and to Woodrow Wilson, who chameleon-like became a “progressive,” much to the consternation of white Southern Democrats.

In the end, of the 1912 Four only Taft would find relative happiness, even in losing. He never wanted to be president in the first place. When Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921, Taft achieved his life’s ambition.

Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, never did. Although he would make a bid for the presidency again, his health failed him long before the 1920 election.

Wilson’s end is better known: living out his second term in a twilight, too sick to be president, too stubborn to resign. Harding would succeed him in a Republican landslide while Debs barely got more than half the vote he had won in 1912.

Harding, of course, raises the whole question of rating presidents in the first place. As even schoolchildren know, the man from Ohio is consistently rated as one of the worst chief executives in history, right down there with Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. A few disagree, including this reviewer, but now is not the time to explore that question.

• • •

And this brings us to the most recent attempt to rate our presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, James Taranto and Leonard Leo’s Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House (Wall Street Journal Books, $26, 304 pages).

The twist this time is the rating procedure, devised by a group of more or less conservative students of the presidency. In the past, such lists have been compiled by liberal academics — something that annoys conservatives to no end.

The book is divided into three parts. First, there are thumbnail sketches of each president, which come in handy when dealing with the likes of Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur. The quality of these sketches, each written by a different author, varies considerably.

One of the toughest to write — who can say anything new about Abraham Lincoln? — is one of the best, however. In little more than seven pages, Jay Winik gets the man exactly right.

Second come the actual ratings; the surprise here is that there are really no great surprises. The great presidents remain Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (Franklin Delano, that is). The worse are the familiar Pierce, Buchanan, Harding and Andrew Johnson, who are all described as failures.

The problem with this parlor game, though instructive, is that it is somewhat subjective (although in this schema, the methodology is spelled out).

Should one complain? Sure. I think everybody consistently overrates Thomas Jefferson as president. The reason is simple: No one is going to rank the author of the Declaration of Independence with Ulysses S. Grant. That may be flattering to writers, but it is still a cheat.

Incidentally, I think Grant here as usual is rated well below his real worth to the nation. But then I might be confusing Grant the Warrior with Grant the President.

In its third section, “Presidential Leadership” gives us stimulating essays by the late Robert Bartley (on presidential leadership and economic policy), Victor Davis Hanson (on war presidents), Robert George (on presidents and the judiciary), and James Taranto (on presidential leadership after disputed elections). The last of these, after the near-disaster of 2000, could prove all too timely again.

• • •

Americans tend to think about leadership solely in terms of their own experience — hence the preoccupation with rating our chief executives, over and over again. A better approach is to study other nations and their leadership problems. A good start is Richard Sakwa’s Putin: Russia’s Choice (Routledge, $29.95, 307 pages).

If Americans think about President Vladimir Putin at all, they tend to debate one question: Is he really a democrat, given his KGB background? And the answer to that question usually changes radically with every shift in Russian politics as it is filtered through the American experience.

Mr. Sakwa is keenly aware that Russia is not America or an America in the making. Russia is Russia, with its huge, dark, and complex history.

This is not a beginner’s book. The prose is often dense and there are detailed accounts of, for example, Russia’s regionalism issues; these could cause reader burnout. But if discussion of today’s Russia ever gets beyond the usual chatter, then this account of Mr. Putin becomes a must read.

Consider the Hydra-headed problems Mr. Putin faced upon unexpectedly reaching the presidency in 2000. He had to clean up the mess left behind by a sick Boris Yeltsin. He had to pull Russia out of an economic tailspin and build a market economy on the foundation of a constitutional order.

He had to create a democracy where it had never existed before. And, oh yes, he had to do something about Chechnya. In little more than four years, Mr. Putin’s successes have been astonishing, considering Russia’s past.

The author, however, does not underestimate how far Russia’s president and Russia have to go before becoming a normal, that is, a Western-style representative democracy. Russia may not even get there. Surely its economy remains fragile as long as it depends on high oil prices.

But Mr. Sakwa leaves little doubt that the Russian president is clear on where he wants to go. No more revolutions, no more dictatorships of a single party or an individual, a self-styled genius like Joseph Stalin.

Achieving any, much less all, of this will not be easy, but for the moment the movement is largely in the right direction. And as for foreign policy, Mr. Putin has made his choices. Despite differences over Serbia and Iraq, Russia is once again aligning itself with the West and not just on the war against terrorism.

For this Americans should be grateful, although it should be clearly understood that Mr. Putin’s actions are firmly rooted in Russia’s best interests. All this could change; of course, first-term presidencies no matter where can often be the ones best remembered.

Still, Russia’s president is not likely to rest on his oars. He has little choice in the matter.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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