BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents’
There can be little doubt that Americans today consider the presidency to be the most captivating and meaningful institution in American politics. Creative works devoted to the presidency have enjoyed special popularity in recent years. The NBC series “The West Wing” performed well in the cutthroat world of TV for seven seasons, and a number of books on presidents within the past decade have received broad popular and critical acclaim - Ron Chernow’s “Washington” and David McCullough’s “John Adams” are just two examples.
Outside of pop culture, historians and media publications have conducted no fewer than 17 national polls rating the presidents since 1948, reflecting a nationwide interest in the subject. And, of course, there was the unprecedented mania over Barack Obama in the run-up to the 2008 election.
Yet the presidency is by the same measure perhaps the most misunderstood institution in American government. Media spin, political biases and ever-shifting criteria for greatness have resulted in a confused national understanding of what makes a good president.
Thankfully, Steven Hayward, a prolific scholar of all matters conservative at the American Enterprise Institute, has penned “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidency: Wilson Through Obama” - the latest tour de force in the well-received “Politically Incorrect” series. Though the title might suggest a volume laden with slapdash doses of angry, ill-considered snark, Mr. Hayward has produced a lucid book that is scholarly but not pedantic; acerbic in its criticisms, but never coarse.
According to Mr. Hayward, the Founding Fathers would be “appalled” by the modern office of the president. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has progressively absorbed authority it was never intended to have. As an illustration, the Grant White House had six staffers, and today’s presidents now make more than 3,000 federal appointments per term. Conversely, the primary duty of the president as envisioned by the Founders, being a faithful executor of the Constitution, has mostly become a decidedly lesser consideration.
So Mr. Hayward sets out with aplomb to determine which presidents post-Taft are worthy to be considered true greats. To him, “… the single most important factor that should be considered in evaluating presidents and would-be presidents [is]: “Does the President take seriously his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of United States?” Using this as his rubric, Mr. Hayward treats the reader to an excoriation of every Democratic president of the 20th century. All except Truman and Kennedy receive an “F” under Mr. Hayward’s grading system.
Special ire is reserved for Woodrow Wilson, “the first President to repudiate the American founding and hold the Constitution in disdain.” To Mr. Hayward, Wilson’s embrace of a Hegelian statist political theory engendered a gross increase in executive power during World War I, and Wilson’s Darwinian worldview legitimized his desire for, in Wilson’s own words, “wresting the Constitution to strange and as yet unimagined uses.”
Moreover, Wilson’s practice of personally addressing Congress in an annual State of the Union address, instead of merely delivering a letter, marked the beginning of the presidency as a bully pulpit for pushing a legislative agenda, and the transformation of the president into what Harry S. Truman sardonically described as “a glorified public relations man.”
Though difficult to consider today, where hardly a day goes by when the president does not address the public in some way, the first presidents hardly ever addressed the public: Washington averaged three speeches per year, John Adams one, Thomas Jefferson one, and James Madison zero.
Vociferous criticisms of other Democratic presidents follow. FDR is taken to task for “[doing] more than any other President to undermine the Constitution and create the sharply polarized atmosphere of partisan politics that today’s liberals deplore.” Lyndon B. Johnson had his extravagant war on poverty that “destroyed the social capital that was holding together neighborhoods and families in some of the poorest parts of 1960s America.”
Republicans are generally treated with more favor, particularly Warren Harding (“the most underrated modern President”) and Calvin Coolidge, who reoriented the presidency to its constitutional limits after Wilsonian assaults, and presided over an era of peaceful relations abroad. George W. Bush (B+) is “very strong” in his adherence to the Constitution. But Mr. Hayward does not spare Republicans from criticism either. Richard Nixon is hit hard for his domestic liberalism (“federal spending grew faster under Nixon’s term than Johnson’s”), Ronald Reagan (A-) and George H.W. Bush (B) are rebuked for their shortsighted Supreme Court appointments.
I won’t tell you the letter grade that Mr. Hayward assigns to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but Mr. Hayward’s description of him as “exactly the type of demagogic president the Founding Fathers feared” is an apt indication of his summary judgment. If the book lacks anything, it is a nuanced treatment of contemporary conservative forces shaping the presidential question, such as Ron Paul and the Tea Party. For a book that insists on the importance of a constitutionally faithful presidency, they deserve more than a quick gloss as “throwbacks.”
But this is a trifle. Mr. Hayward’s well-defined standard for judging the presidency is helpful to anyone who wants to understand and restore the founding ethos of the American republic.
David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.