Rankings of presidential performances are common, and usually irritating: liberal academics love to place Ronald Reagan near the bottom and the likes of Slick Willie near the top. But now editors from two stalwart conservative organizations — the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society — have put together Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House.
This is the first examination of presidential performance that includes a significant number of conservatives in the group of judges. Each president receives a ranking, and the rankings are refreshingly free of the worn-out liberal biases that mar most similar studies. Ronald Reagan ranks as “Near Great” and eighth best president of all time. Nobel laureate and “great ex-President” Jimmy Carter? Below average – just one notch above outright “Failure.”
James Taranto of the Journal and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society include essays on each president, plus several broader thematic essays on presidential leadership. The authors include such conservative luminaries as Victor Davis Hanson, Peggy Noonan, Robert Bork, Paul Johnson, Edwin Meese, Christopher Buckley, Kenneth Starr, Lynne Cheney, Theodore Olson, Richard Brookhiser and many more.
A few highlights of Presidential Leadership:
- Paul Johnson on Bill Clinton: “The printed record of his doings, misdoings and omissions is unarguably deplorable from start to finish”
- Bush I: his “presidency was defined by the core values he brought to the White House: honesty, decency, and a commitment to do the right thing” — Pete DuPont
- How Ronald Reagan set out, according to Harvey Mansfield, to renew the nation that “Roosevelt and his successors had corrupted by rendering the American people too dependent on government”
- Jimmy Carter: how he undercut his own human rights rhetoric by behaving obsequiously in the presence of bloodthirsty dictators
- A thought-provoking analysis of the Watergate scandal from Kenneth Starr
- Richard Brookhiser: Why George Washington still deserves his status as America’s greatest president
- ?”There is a cowardly imbecile at the head of the government . . . Disgust with our government is universal” — today’s media on George W. Bush? No, Civil War-era newspapers on Abraham Lincoln!
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: why few men have been as well-prepared for the presidency as he was
- Andrew Johnson: how his presidency reveals problems with the contemporary understanding of American politics
- Peggy Noonan on JFK’s fundamental weakness: “Kennedy never seemed to believe in anything”
- Robert Bork on the Left’s greatest hero, FDR: “Viewed objectively, Roosevelt’s performance during the Depression was not impressive”
- Herbert Hoover: why, although “most scholars have chosen to remember the gibes” about him, he “deserves better from history”
- Why historians consistently — and wrongly — underrate Ronald Reagan’s hero, Calvin Coolidge
- John DiIulio, Jr., on why Chester Alan Arthur is one of our most underrated presidents
- Woodrow Wilson: spectacular achievements in domestic policy, spectacular failures in foreign policy — and lasting influence in both spheres
- John McCain on Theodore Roosevelt: when he became our youngest president at age 42, he had already “lived a life so crowded with variety and activity and accomplishment that it would have exhausted most modern-day Americans long before our fortieth birthday”
- The early president whom every succeeding president has tried to imitate
- Thomas Jefferson: why he did not want to be remembered as a president, but as the author of the Declaration of Independence
- The one-term Republican president who, despite being overwhelmingly defeated for reelection, was actually quite effective and made the nation stronger
- The little-remembered president who was the principal creator of the Democratic party – although the Democrats prefer to pretend that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson did the deed
- The president who, despite being remembered today chiefly for his involvement in a scandal, was actually one of the most morally upright men ever to hold the office
- Franklin Pierce: how, although no president may have been able to avert the Civil War, he “did his best to bring it on”
- Zachary Taylor: how his disastrous tenure led to the nation’s abandonment of political solutions and headlong rush into Civil War
- The first failed Democratic president to do what most Democratic presidents did thereafter: write a book blaming everything on the Republicans
- The forgotten president who brilliantly oversaw a complex balance of military, diplomatic and domestic affairs during a period in which the fate of North America was decided
- Weekly Standard publisher Terry Eastland on why the authors of the Federalist Papers would have been pleased with Harry Truman
- JFK’s legacy according to Peggy Noonan: “President Kennedy did not mean to, but he ushered in the age of political weirdness, the age when it became a clich? that to be a president you had to be media-savvy, compelling, stylish”
- Plus: Robert P. George on presidential leadership and the judiciary, Robert L. Bartley on presidential leadership and economic policy, Victor Davis Hanson on presidential leadership in wartime, and more
You may not agree with all the judgments these experts make. Robert Dallek writes of LBJ’s calamitous Great Society that it “included more constructive measures that continue to serve the national well-being to this day.” Bill Clinton’s presidency is rated as average — a far cry from the over-hyped estimation of his army of hagiographers, but still not the hefty heaping of opprobrium that the Slick One deserves.
Nevertheless, Presidential Leadership contains a solidly conservative perspective that acts as a healthy corrective to the dreary lockstep of liberal historians. Combining statistical information with an all-star team of writers, this is a lively, provocative book that is at once a solid reference and an engagingly readable collection.
Tags: James Taranto, Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House