In 1996, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asked 30 fellow-historians and two politicians to rate U.S. presidents in the following categories — Great, near-great, average, below average, failure. The poll replicated two by his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 and 1992.
An active liberal Democrat, Schlesinger Jr. had assembled a panel whose members, save one, shared a liberal worldview. Not surprisingly, the greats and near-greats were Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts and Truman. President Reagan received a “below average” ranking.
What most of those chosen for the top ranks had in common was the expansion of the role of the federal government.
The Schlesinger survey was widely publicized and, as Alvin Felzenberg notes in “The Leaders We Deserved - And a Few We Didn’t,” it perpetrated two problems: First, the panelists, in rating presidents, had failed to make a distinction between policy and process. And, “the popularization of Schlesinger-style surveys … freed journalists, political commentators, museum curators and students of all ages from having to offer evidence in support of their opinions.”
Thus, Mr. Felzenberg designed a new, more objective rating system based on six criteria. He rates all presidents except for William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, both of whom served for very short times before their death, and President Bush since he is still serving. He judges separately their character, vision, competence, economic policy, their work in preserving and extending liberty, and defense, national security and foreign policy.
Mr. Felzenberg is not a professional historian; however, he holds a Ph.D. in politics and has been a fellow at the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; and has taught at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University. He is a scholar in the true sense, a learned person questing for the meaning of people and events that make up history. The presidency has been a nearly lifelong focus of his study.
The author is dispassionate and as free of bias as one could wish in his analysis of the presidents. In each of the categories, he rates each president from one point to five. He gives summaries of several in each section.
Unlike the Schlesinger ratings, based on the opinions of the raters, the Felzenberg method allows shifts in ranking. For example, James Madison, who gets a five for character, rates only a one for competence and economic policy.
After he has analyzed the six categories in detail, the author in his final chapter sets out to answer the question, “What Does it All Mean?” Based on his analysis of past presidents, he describes six things to look for in presidential candidates: A sense of purpose, how they met adversity, broad life experiences, a natural curiosity, a well-developed sense of integrity and a craving for humility. He then summarized “What to Avoid in Presidential Candidates”: Cynicism and complacency, whining, know-it-alls, narrow focus, bearers of grudges and tendencies toward bald assertions of power.
Finally, at the end of the book, he tallies the scores for his six categories. You’ll have to read the book to see all the rankings. Suffice to say that Lincoln and Washington are at the top. Mr. Reagan is tied for third. Grant does better than the Schlesinger panel rated him; Wilson does worse. Nixon is lumped toward the bottom with Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.
While no human being can be 100 percent objective, Mr. Felzenberg’s open-minded approach and his categorical ranking comes far closer than did the ratings of the Schlesinger panel, lacking as it did a detailed examination of each president. The author’s writing style is clear, straightforward and reveals a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of presidential history. In this election year, anyone interested in the future of the nation’s leadership will find this examination of the past a useful guide.
Peter Hannaford, a Reagan adviser, is the author of seven books about U.S. presidents.