New Book Reopens the Presidential Rating Game

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In November, we will definitively rank our two presidential candidates, but whoever wins the election will eventually be subject to yet another ranking effort -- that of historians who, every decade or so, compare all the U.S. presidents from the Founding to the current day. Inevitably, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington end up at the top of such lists, and Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan -- both notoriously ineffectual, among other things -- at the bottom. But the judgments of historians can often seem arbitrary not to mention politically weighted, making the whole effort seem like a mysterious parlor game.

Alvin Felzenberg is not an academic historian, although he holds a doctorate in politics from Princeton. He has also held senior staff positions in Congress and most recently served as the spokesman for the 9/11 Commission. A conservative, he nonetheless reserves some of his harshest ratings for GOP presidents such as Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover and Warren Harding. Conversely, he thinks John F. Kennedy should be tied for being the seventh best president.

But his major goal is to demystify presidential ratings and open them up laymen with an interest in American history. He wants to restart the conversation about what we want in a leader. It is a good time to ponder such things.

In "The Leaders We Deserved (And a Few We Didn't)," published by Basic Books, Felzenberg draws up a report card for each U.S. chief executive, assigning numerical scores to six categories. Three have to do with what a president brings to the office: character, vision and competence. Three try to capture what he actually does while there -- his policies in foreign affairs and economics and his efforts to preserve liberty, especially at home. Felzenberg adds up his category-numbers and arrives at an individual score (30 is the highest possible number), allowing for an easy comparison of presidents across the years. He doesn't grade W.H. Harrison and James Garfield, because they served less than a year, or George W. Bush, because he is still in office.

And, yes, Lincoln tops the book's list with a perfect 30, based in part on his integrity and his great role in ending slavery -- a victory for liberty that more than offsets, in Felzenberg's view, his wartime emergency measures. Lincoln also, Felzenberg notes, set in motion the Homestead Act, which opened up the West to settlers and gave them a property right. George Washington follows with a rating of 28, earned in part because he created the citizen presidency and in part because, by mixing the advice of rival advisers -- Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson -- he set the U.S. economy on a course toward prosperity without radically lurching toward either a centralized or a libertarian extreme.

After such chestnut judgments, Felzenberg begins to diverge from the academic consensus. Franklin Roosevelt, who usually follows Lincoln and Washington, slips to sixth place, marked down for arrogance (Felzenberg says that he often "forged ahead with ill-considered policies") and for his spotty record on human rights. FDR, as Felzenberg reminds us, did little to help Jewish refugees and egregiously violated the rights of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Felzenberg thinks that, except in the cases of Lincoln, LBJ and Nixon, historians pay scant attention to civil rights and liberties when they judge a president's record. His emphasis on them leads him to surprising conclusions. Woodrow Wilson, a hero to all sorts of historians, slips in his estimation because Wilson resegregated parts of the federal government, locked up citizens for opposing American involvement in World War I, and arrested and deported thousands of people (often on hearsay evidence) as part of a postwar "Red Scare." By contrast, Ulysses S. Grant rises in Mr. Felzenberg's esteem because he reversed the racist policies of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, and was the last president until Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops to the South to enforce the rights of black citizens.

A key lesson of the book is that historians tend to give high marks to an "activist" presidency without judging whether the activism had good or ill effects. Take Andrew Jackson, a dynamic leader who almost always figures in the historical Top Ten. But in Jackson's own Farewell Address, in 1837, he cites as his three main accomplishments: destroying the Bank of the United States, forcibly evicting Indian tribes from the lands granted them by treaty and preventing South Carolina from nullifying federal law. "Two out of three were clearly mistakes, and shouldn't gain much credit," Mr. Felzenberg drily says, granting the rightness of only the antinullification policy.

Some presidents routinely receive too little credit for the best parts of their record. When it came to economics, John F. Kennedy followed the advice of Walter Heller, and not that of John Kenneth Galbraith, by dramatically reducing marginal tax rates. "Kennedy demonstrated a decisiveness that FDR (and other presidents) often lacked on the economy," Felzenberg observes. He praises Calvin Coolidge for similar fortitude, not merely for his tax-cutting record but for being something of a reformer. Coolidge called for federal anti-lynching laws and a greater federal role in furthering black education.

Written in a breezy style, "The Leaders We Deserved" is clearly intended for anyone who wants to learn something about U.S. history while observing presidents compete with one another for top rankings. It is useful to be reminded, for instance, that the now obscure Millard Fillmore rigorously enforced the loathsome fugitive slave law and that he thought the Compromise of 1850 would be the "final settlement" of the conflicts roiling America. This, Felzenberg notes, "proved to be one of the shortest-lived presidential predictions in history."

Felzenberg is the first to admit that he doesn't have the final word on which leaders were brave or callow or independent-minded or overly beholden to special interests. But his book is certain to inform this year's debate over "the leader we deserve."