Saturday, 15 November 2008

“The Leaders We Deserved (& A Few We Didn’t)”, by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Basic Books)

Felzenberg-LeadersWeDeserve

A new look at the presidential rating game

With George W. Bush on his way out, and the inevitable presidential post-mortems that will follow his departure from the White House, it’s good to look back at his predecessors and consider how successful they were at the world’s most powerful and difficult job. Will Bush be like Truman, who left office with rock-bottom approval ratings, only to be redeemed by history? Or will he be remembered like James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson – both considered to be failures in office?

Felzenberg does not include George W. Bush in this, his take on the presidential rating game. Looking instead at the other 42 men who have held the office, he attempts to inject more of a scholarly, even scientific approach to grading them. In the introductory chapter, Felzenberg gives a quick account of previous rating polls (conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Snr. & Jnr.), discusses the difficulties in conducting an unbias evaluation, and proposes a better approach.

Where previous attempts, according to Felzenberg, have been little more than opinion polls, here he identifies six criteria with which to grade past presidents (with scores out of five):

  • “Character”, “Vision”, “Competence”, “Economic Policy”, “Preserving & Extending Liberty”, and “Defence, National Security & Foreign policy”

For each criteria, Felzenberg has a chapter which focuses on those he rates the highest and also the lowest. This allows for a varied spread of examples and analysis, for the most part. Some of the usual suspects crop up in all or most of the chapters (Reagan, Jefferson, Lincoln), but it is also refreshing to read about some of the lesser-know – some might say “forgotten” – presidents, such as Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes. The short treatments of the presidents in each chapter – all written in fluid, tight prose – make the book far more accessible and easily digestible. Looking at each president through the lens of each criteria also makes for interesting, varied reading throughout, and Felzenberg’s analysis is often insightful and illuminating. Another first, the author is also able to make the chapters on policy interesting, holding the reader’s attention throughout (even for economic policy, which many people might automatically skip over).

Even if you do not agree with Felzenberg’s ratings, reading The Leaders We Deserved will provide you with a wealth of historical detail and analysis that will certainly expand your knowledge of the presidents, as well as make you question your natural biases depending on your political philosophy. For example, I agree with most of his top 12 picks, but I would not rate Reagan any where near as high as Felzenberg has (5/5 for economic policy… really?).

His giving Abraham Lincoln the top spot would be difficult to argue with, but his considerable down-grading of presidents such as Truman and Lyndon Johnson might strike some as bizarre. This, I think, is where Felzenberg’s rating system is most flawed: each of the categories carries the same weight. As a result, presidents with good characters can be rated higher than presidents with bad characters, but who also got more done in office (Taft is higher than both Lyndon Johnson and also Bill Clinton, for example).

Inevitably, those presidents he rates most highly, as already mentioned, crop up in most chapters. Unfortunately for some, this means limited examples with which to draw on – this is more the case in the first three chapters than the latter three. The discussions of Jefferson are always interesting and colourful, but the sections on Reagan do become a little repetitive. In fact, I would say that Felzenberg’s obvious fondness for Reagan has not allowed him to make as balanced an argument for the 40th president as he might hope. His treatments of some of the "lesser" or "forgotten" presidents - such as Benjamin Harrison, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge - are pleasantly fair and instructive, suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't be so forgotten after all.

Ultimately, though, I think Felzenberg has succeeded in his ultimate aim: to stimulate debate. His conservative/republican preference is clear in the final rankings, making his work considerably different from existing polls, which had a tendency towards liberal/democratic bias. Not only will this book stimulate debate (and no doubt a few of heated arguments), but it’s main strength is that it will offer presidential scholars and amateur history buffs alike a proper framework with which to consider the legacies and impacts of past US presidents.

Intelligent, in-depth and rigorous, The Leaders We Deserve is an important book for all those with an interest in the US presidents and their legacies, as well as those seeking a source for historical detail on a broad range of presidents. Highly recommended, and highly enjoyable.

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