The Good, the Bad, and the Bleh | Book Review | Chicago Reader

The Good, the Bad, and the Bleh 

Ranking presidents is a popular pastime for liberals and conservatives alike. But what's the point if everyone agrees?

Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House

Edited by James Taranto and Leonard Leo

Wall Street Journal Books/Free Press, $26.00

In the historical hit parade of presidents--the perennial indoor sport of ranking the best, the worst, and the forgotten--Washington, Lincoln, and FDR dominate the top three spots, their greatness subject only to occasional challenges from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. Republican presidents, as a rule, rarely break the top five. To correct this perceived injustice, Steven Calabresi, a conservative law professor at Northwestern University and cofounder of the Federalist Society, undertook his own survey ranking the presidents. The results were published by the Wall Street Journal in 2000, and then again this summer in Presidential Leadership. A book apparently intended to kick up an election-year fuss, it had about as much impact as the confetti swept away after Tuesday's election. Sure, it was partly old news, but the book is also less an analysis of the presidency than a manifesto of how a particular right-wing group views the world.

The first formal ranking of presidents was done by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. for Life magazine back in 1948. He surveyed 55 historians who placed Washington, Lincoln, and FDR atop Mount Olympus and put Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding in the hell of presidential failure.

At least eight subsequent surveys produced nearly identical results--a top three, a few "near greats," a string of mediocrities, and Grant, Harding, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and one or two others in the cellar. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. repeated his father's project in 1996, polling historians, who installed the usual trinity on top and Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, and Harding at the bottom. Different surveys might quibble over the relative merits of those in the middle, but by and large the groupings of great, near great, average, below average, and weak were remarkably constant.

Calabresi and editors James Taranto, editor of the WSJ's editorial Web site OpinionJournal.com, and fellow Federalist Society officer Leonard Leo, saw a vast left-wing conspiracy behind these assessments. Were not the Schlesingers notorious liberals? Were not most historians members of the knee-jerk liberal academy? That would explain the veneration of FDR and the downgrading of Republican chief executives. As the right-wing writer George C. Leef said in 2001, "Most historians have a statist bias that makes them prone to regard as 'great' presidents who expanded the power of the federal government."

Calabresi invited 132 people to rate the 42 men who have served as president, expanding the survey pool to include not just historians but also law professors and political scientists, supposedly balanced between left and right. Responses were returned by 30 historians, 25 political scientists, and 23 law professors. And guess what. The survey results almost exactly mirrored Schlesinger's of 1996--a correspondence that goes virtually unexplored in the book.

The new survey's major exception is Ronald Reagan, who ranked 25th in 1996 but comes in at number 8 here. The higher standing might not reflect ideological balance so much as historical distance from the man who won the Cold War. But 291 pages are a long way to go just to boost Reagan 17 spots or for that matter nudge Dwight D. Eisenhower from tenth to ninth.

So what is the purpose of this book? It claims to be a novel and ideologically balanced ranking. It isn't novel, given that the Journal first published the survey results four years ago. And even if you accept the editors' claims to ideological balance (no supporting data is provided), the question of why the ratings are so consistent, no matter which experts are assigned the job, goes unanswered, not to mention that of why we play this rating game in the first place.

Presidential Leadership couldn't claim even to be the first survey from a conservative viewpoint. To James Piereson, who runs the right-wing John M. Olin Foundation, Schlesinger's 1996 survey was "just one more elaboration of the central assumptions of modern liberalism--namely, that progress can only be achieved through an interventionist federal government that sponsors programs to redistribute income and promote equality." Accordingly, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another right-wing group, queried 38 conservative scholars in 1997. Results: Washington first and Lincoln second, with Jefferson bumping FDR from the number three spot, though he still made the list of "near-greats."

Calabresi's survey invited the respondents to judge the presidents on a scale of one to five (Washington scored 4.92, Buchanan 1.33). "In deciding how to rate a president," stated the guidelines, "please take into consideration the value of the accomplishments of his presidency and the leadership he provided the nation, along with any other criteria you deem appropriate." As a methodological template, that's a thin reed--a compendium of conventional wisdom is still just conventional wisdom.

In fact, the book devotes only 22 pages to the methodology and data of the survey. The rest is mostly taken up by a string of brief essays on each of the presidents, apparently added to bolster the book's claim to our attention. Like our presidents, they range from superb to mediocre to poor. Unsurprisingly, most give proper whuppings to the Democrats.

A sampling: humorist and novelist Christopher Buckley is amusing on the hapless Buchanan. Clinton special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is surprisingly insightful on Nixon. Arizona Senator John McCain notes once again, as he did in his memoirs, that Theodore Roosevelt was a two-fisted, stand-up guy--kind of like John McCain. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan displays exquisite sensitivity to the Camelot image by writing only about JFK's image, noting his use of sunless tanner because "he thought it made him look vigorous and windblown" and neglecting to mention the Peace Corps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. George W. Bush was not rated. Nonetheless, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul A. Gigot contributes a glowing profile twice as long as the treatment of FDR.

The rest of the book is ideological filler. William J. Bennett's foreword laments that the "politicization of American colleges and universities" has "corrupted our history, and the understanding of it--including our presidency." There are also four essays on "Issues in Presidential Leadership" and an introduction by Calabresi on "The Presidency, Federalist No. 10, and the Constitution."

Calabresi's bio is as revealing as the book's actual contents. One of three founders of the Federalist Society at Yale Law School in 1982, he clerked for former appellate judge Robert Bork (who bitterly critiques FDR in the book) and for Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Later, he was a speechwriter for Dan Quayle. A member of the Northwestern law faculty since 1990, he continues to serve as national cochair of the Federalist Society.

On its Web site, the society describes itself as "a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order [and] founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be." Among the contributors to the book who are major figures in the society are Bork, Starr, and former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson. Other members include Attorney General John Ashcroft, energy secretary Spencer Abraham, interior secretary Gale Norton, and Senator Orrin Hatch, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee reviews the nominees for federal judgeships.

Oddly, despite its pervasive influence in the White House, the Federalist Society gets little attention in the media. By publishing this book last June, the Wall Street Journal might have intended to raise the group's profile. OpinionJournal.com has promoted the book heavily and Taranto has been interviewed on several talking-heads shows, but for the most part the media have ignored it.

What the book does show is that if you want to win the presidential popularity contest, you need to win a major war. Presidents considered "near great"--in particular, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman--were fierce partisans who shifted the direction of both their party and their country. But even given the war factor, we're still only allotted one indisputably great president per century: Washington in the 18th, Lincoln in the 19th, and FDR in the 20th. Those who get bogged down in foreign wars--McKinley in the Philippines, Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam--never make the top of the pops. Sorry, George.

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