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.