Monday, February 20, 2012

The Leaders We Deserved

Well, it's still Presidents' Day, so why not take a look at the folks who hold that position?

Ranking Presidents is always a bit of a peculiar pastime. Presidents are each rather singular in their personalities, and times change so quickly it’s difficult to judge one era from the next. Of course, we’re also always biased by our own historical worldviews and (for more recent presidents) our ideological positions.

Still, historians feel they have a decent grasp of context, which is probably the most important aspect of ranking our Presidents. Even such things we judge as universal traits, such as competence and character, are still a creation of their times. The mundane tasks of the modern President, for example, were extraordinarily important to the first few chief executives, since everything they did was unprecedented. So I tend to take presidential rankings with a grain of salt. They are interesting enough, but, to me, it’s nearly impossible to pit Lyndon Johnson up against, say, James K. Polk.

Last fall I read a book called The Leaders We Deserved: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, by Alvin S. Felzenberg. Most presidential ranking systems were developed, or closely followed, Arthur Schlesinger’s original rankings, done in the late 40's. Felzenberg’s method isn’t too terribly different, but there’s enough uniqueness to his views to be notable.

The book separates the performance of a president into six parts. Three are personality-based: Character, Vision, and Competence. The other three are policy-based: Economic Policy, Preserving and Extending Liberty, and Defense, National Security, and Foreign Policy.

As for a review of the book, it’s fairly interesting. The original generation of Presidential rankers were a fairly liberal lot, which is not horribly unusual given the time. Popular history has had the pendulum swung towards a more moderate approach, as historians are more sympathetic to the context of the times the Presidents lived in. 

Felzenberg is by no means a conservative apologist, but it’s clear that he views each of the six facets in a decidedly conservative light. “Economic Policy” has more to do with laissez-faire and less about income inequality, for example. But by and large his standards aren’t too far outside of the mainstream, and does give a sizable amount of credit to those Presidents who advanced the cause of civil rights.

As such, I was a bit surprised that his list is largely the same as others—which means that there is, in fact, a fairly rigid standard that all of history judges our past Presidents. Felzenberg does have a few anomalies, however; he ranks Zachary Taylor quite high, odd for a president normally ranked in the mid-to-lower tiers. Oddest of all is Ulysses S. Grant, seen by most historians as in the bottom five; Felzenberg places him at #7. His reasoning is basically sound—the scandals involving his administration were bad, but Grant never profited, and unlike most scandals did not seem to have a lasting impact on any aspect of our history. On the other end of the scale, Felzenberg lists poor James Madison waaaaay down at #29, faulting him for his economics and competence, assessing that a lot of damage was done by many of his decisions, and likewise compromised our international reputation. 

Aside from these three—and some new views on some old, standard President—there isn’t much new. Washington and Lincoln are still on top; Buchanan and Pierce trawl along the bottom. But I’m still not convinced that this means very much. Buchanan, for all his faults, was a victim of his timing; nearly any President , regardless of character, vision, or policy, was getting forced into a no-win situation. The mere election of his successor, Lincoln, was in and of itself a signal to the South as to what direction the nation was taking. Now, he certainly was a failure, since he did practically nothing to mitigate the worst of the war. But it’s no accident that of all the Presidents in the 20 years preceding the civil war (Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan) all save Polk are ranked dismally. Did we really manage to elect six horrible Presidents in such a short time span? (And even Polk has the asterisk of the Mexican-American War, without which he would most likely be joining their ranks.) Or were they all victims of the impending civil war, hobbled by a young and inexperienced government? I’m still inclined to agree with historians—they all collectively failed to stop the civil war—but one wonders if judging them too harshly for circumstances out of their control is productive.

Adding to this is the development of the modern world. Post-war presidents find that their reputations get reassessed nearly every decade or so, for good or bad. Both Eisenhower and Truman famously got huge rises as the century rolled on, as the consequences of their decisions finally rippled through the world. Since the President has near total control over foreign policy--and must share duties with Congress and the courts for domestic issues--foreign policy plays a disproportionate role in their historical assessment. And since much of the historical fact will come out decades later--either due to necessary secrecy or because the effects take generations to reach fruition--many foreign affairs-minded Presidents will find their reputations slowly increase over time. 

In the end, I do recommend the book. It’s an interesting read, and the format (going through each of the six factors he uses to judge, highlighting a different set of case studies in each one) lends itself to easy comparisons, rather than what could have been a rather dry chronological survey. Still, while I recommend the book, I encourage readers to read a different Presidential ranking book simply as a good way to see how different people reach a different set of conclusions from essentially the same data.

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