Historian, teacher, and politico Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of a new book on the presidency. In The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), Felzenberg criticizes the “ratings” games of the past and judges presidents on big issues rather than on first impressions. He talks to National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez about leaders past and present.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: I didn’t even realize there was a presidential-ratings game. Is this anything like the Nielsens?
AlVin Felzenberg: No, it is not exactly like the Nielsen. What I call the “rating game” began in 1948, when Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., asked a panel of a few dozen of his fellow historians to put the nation’s presidents into one of five categories: “great,” “near great,” “average,” “below average,” and “failure.” The survey exempted the then incumbent president, Truman. Schlesinger repeated his poll in 1962. His son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote three favorable accounts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and who served as White House intellectual under John F. Kennedy, repeated his father’s survey in 1996. In the years between the various Schlesinger surveys, and ever since, news outlets, pollsters, and historians repeatedly barrage readers with the latest surveys about presidential greatness.
I found this entire exercise wanting in several respects. First, once a president lands into a certain category, his reputation, based on whatever panel of “experts” evaluated him, remains more or less fixed in granite. (The only presidents whose evaluations changed considerably are Andrew Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. I discuss the reason for this in my book.) This tends to freeze the debate among scholars and laymen and women alike. Second, none of the surveys I have seen supply criteria against which panelists assessed all the presidents covered in their respective surveys. All we get from them is that “X” was great, “Y” was not, and “Z” was somewhere in between. We are not told why. Finally, most such surveys reflect the ideological and other biases of the graders, which, when we are talking about historians, is virtually always to the left of center. Even if one controls this by broadening the pool of evaluators to include conservatives, moderates, and others, the other two problems remain.
What I attempt to do in my book is to provide six criteria and assign each president a grade in each — just as educators do students on report cards. My categories are: character; vision; competence; management of the economy; handling of national security, defense, and foreign policy; and whether they extended or restricted liberty, especially at home. Thus, a president, such as Lyndon Johnson can receive an “A” in such matters as civil rights and an “F” on foreign policy. I find this a better approach than merely averaging his handling of what political scientist Aaron Wildavsky called the “two presidencies” (foreign and domestic). All who have studied LBJ agree that, whatever else could be said about him, there was nothing average about him or in anything he did.
Lopez: They don’t get voted off the island, but they do get voted out of office. How many high-ranking presidents were denied a second term? How many deservedly so? How many not?
Felzenberg: Of the presidents I consider the 12 best, none were defeated at the polls, although two died before they could seek reelection, and two were assassinated after winning re-election. This leads me to conclude that voters have shown greater intelligence when it comes to evaluating presidents than have many historians, providing further evidence of the wisdom of William F. Buckley Jr.’s remark that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. I should note that in early polls after they left office, both Eisenhower and Reagan scored in the “low average” category in the 1962 and 1996 Schlesinger surveys. That both have since risen considerably in recent surveys leads me to conclude that, with the opening of their papers and the publication of excerpts from their letters, diaries, and other writings, historians are finding out what voters already knew; that these were men of extraordinary abilities.
Lopez: Who did we deserve?
Felzenberg: We certainly deserved Lincoln, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan, Ford, and — brace thyself — Coolidge, among others. As he did with so much else, Ronald Reagan knew precisely what he was doing when he ordered Calvin Coolidge’s portrait hung in the White House cabinet room. At the time he did so, the chattering classes of his era cited his action as evidence of Reagan’s historical ignorance. The president’s action helped spur several new Coolidge studies and conferences. Hardly anyone laughs any more when “Silent Cal” (soon to be re-dubbed “St. Calvin”) is mentioned in serious conversations about the office he held.
Lopez: Who didn’t we deserve?
Felzenberg: We could have done without Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and quite a few others. More problematical were Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, FDR, and Nixon. All of these achieved monumental successes as well colossal failures.
Lopez: How did THEY manage to get there then?
Felzenberg: Most of those we deserved outlined a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move the nation in the course of four or eight years. T.R., Coolidge, Truman, and Ford — all underestimated — became presidents upon the death (political, if not biological) of their predecessors. Of the presidents we least deserved, most proved especially adept at mastering the electoral machinery of their respective eras and, sadly, at little else. (The first President Johnson became president after Lincoln was assassinated.) Herbert Hoover was elected president primarily as a result of the successes he had achieved in his previous roles. Unlike what most of us learned in school, he failed as president not because he sat idly by during the “Great Depression” and had a passion for laissez-faire economics, but because he attempted to do too much of the wrong thing. We should think of him as an FDR ahead of his time.
Lopez: Who do we deserve this year?
Felzenberg: We deserve the continued brilliant coverage of the campaign by National Review Online and of its parent magazine.
Lopez: Good answer! What president from our past is Obama most like?
Felzenberg: Obama scores high in the vision department. His problem may well be that he may embrace the wrong vision for the country. He appears to approach issues with a natural curiosity, something the incumbent president appears to lack. Yet, his instincts, always lead him in a left-of-center direction, much as Reagan’s, even when he was a Democrat, pulled him rightward (especially on taxes and national security). Obama was onto something when he noted that Reagan was a “transformational” president, whereas Nixon and Clinton were not. Unless he tempers his inclinations, Obama, in seeking to be the Reagan of the Left, may come to office with policy ambition no less gargantuan than FDR’s or LBJ’s. Like they, he may also see several hare-brained New New Deal schemes hatched at liberal think thanks and at universities blow up in his face. (For the umpteenth time, it was the deficit spending of World War II and not the New Deal that pulled the United States out of the Great Depression.)
Lopez: What president from our past is McCain most like?
Felzenberg: Although trained as a naval officer, McCain as president may come to resemble two soldier presidents, the first Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Both kept the nation they led strong. Both exuded integrity. The world came to know that both meant what they said and were prepared to back up their words with decisive action. Both earlier presidents were seen as above party and attracted millions of votes from citizens Ike proclaimed “discerning Democrats.” McCain, as president, can be counted on to stabilize Iraq, scale down the American presence with honor, and vigorously pursue the enemies of the American people elsewhere. At home, he may be able to usher in a fourth “era of good feeling” in the tradition of not only TR and Ike, but also of James Monroe.
Lopez: Ratings aside: Who is your favorite president and why?
Felzenberg: Lincoln and Reagan are my favorite presidents. Born in a cabin with a dirt floor, Lincoln rose to the highest office in the land, primarily through his own efforts. He then used the powers of his office, under the Constitution, to make the American dream a reality to million of his fellow citizens and aspiring citizens. Helping set free four million Americans born into slavery was only a part — however important a part — of his story. If the United States still placed a priority on what used to be called “public diplomacy,” it would translate Lincoln’s speeches and words into multiple languages, and have them posted and broadcast to the four corners of the world.
Reagan, through the force of his own will, rid the planet of one the most oppressive regimes in history. And as Margaret Thatcher observed, he won the Cold War without firing a shot. That was no small order. But then again, there was nothing small about Ronald Reagan or about anything he attempted. “We did more than mark time,” he said in his farewell address as president. Indeed.
Lopez: Least favorite president, and why?
Felzenberg: James Buchanan qualifies for this distinction. On his watch, and largely because of how he conceived of his role as president, the nation drifted toward civil war.
Lopez: What’s the best presidential story most Americans don’t know?
Felzenberg: Zachary Taylor, a southerner and a slaveholder, prior to his death in office, declared his intention to admit California and other territories acquired from Mexico in the war with that nation as free states and hinted that he might not approve the fugitive slave law. He also proclaimed that he would hang would-be secessionists with greater pleasure than he had, as a general, executed deserters and traitors. Had he lived to fulfill his promise, the nation might have been preserved without having to fight a civil war that took the lives of 620,000 Americans. Such an act would have been the 19th-century equivalent of “Nixon going to China.”