On January 20, George W. Bush lifted off from the Capitol lawn in a helicopter bound for Texas. There may be little rest in retirement, however. His departure marked the unofficial start of the second season in presidential life: wherein his standing among his 42 predecessors (remember, Cleveland counts twice) will be decided. Comparing presidents has been a national pastime at least as far back as 1948, when Arthur Schlesinger Sr. published the first modern rankings, but one can imagine early citizens debating, on the day John Adams left office, whether it was he or Washington who had acquitted himself better.
Convinced that presidential rankings have grown stale, Alvin Felzenberg, adjunct professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, reshuffles the deck in his recent book, The Leaders We Deserved (And a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He places some familiar names at the top (Lincoln, Washington) and the bottom (poor James Buchanan), but makes some major revisions in between. In a conversation with the Gazette, Felzenberg ventured early assessments of George Bush and Barack Obama, and explained why Ulysses S. Grant might not have been as bad a president as we think.
You talk in your book about surveys that have come before yours, beginning with Schlesinger’s in 1948 and going through about a dozen since. You say they have their limitations and you try to approach the rankings differently. How do you do that?
They have their limitations because they don’t give definitions. They’re also limited because, from list to list, it never seems to change. I said that one way to help lay readers would be to grade presidents along six criteria. Except for Abraham Lincoln, and maybe George Washington, we’re not all equally good at all things. In my own reading of American history, three internal components matter: character, sense of vision, and competence. And then I run them through three issues that every president deals with: managing the economy, handling national security questions and—what I think is most important—whether they expanded or constricted liberty during their time in office.
You spend a lot of time discussing the presidents’ childhoods. Is there a type of background that tends to make for better presidents?
I think it helps to have varied experiences and to have a tremendous sense of curiosity. Lincoln had a tremendous sense of curiosity. He’s the only president who holds a patent—for farm machinery. He spent the entire war at the War Department, reading telegraphs. This is also the good part of Jefferson. One of the great incentives for him to make the Louisiana Purchase was so that we could explore it. I think we have a lot of this in Obama right now.
The Founders take a pretty big hit in your book. Only George Washington cracks the top 10. Why?
I found most of them wanting on the race question. Jefferson knew it was wrong, but couldn’t deal with it because he was terrified of slave rebellions. Washington comes out on top because he decided to free all of his slaves in his will. Imagine if he’d done that as president. It’s clear to me that Madison and Monroe didn’t give a hoo-haw about it. They never lamented slavery, never questioned it. But Jefferson knew better. And because he knew better, he’s damned more.
Andrew Jackson is very often considered a top-10 president, but you demote him to 27th. Why was Old Hickory worse than he’s made out to be?
My favorite punching bag. What is Jacksonian democracy? Jacksonian democracy means more people vote, first past the post wins. Lincoln said that some things you can’t put to a vote. Jackson wanted to have a Union that was slavery everywhere, based on popular sovereignty—we should let the people decide. Lincoln said that you don’t decide evil [by a vote]. The Jacksonian view was hanging chads in Florida, rioting in the polls, inch by inch, anything to win.
Zachary Taylor—Southerner, slaveholder, strong Unionist—averages middle of the pack or worse in most polls, but he’s tied for seventh in yours. You make a provocative argument about him. You write that had he not died in office in 1850, he might have prevented the Civil War.
This was your Nixon-goes-to-China moment of the 19th century. It took a Southern slave owner to say that slavery is not coming into California. He basically said slavery is a bad thing because it creates divisions. Taylor was the Eisenhower of the era. Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock. Taylor came out of the Mexican War with that kind of reputation, and that’s why he was elected president. He carried every section of the country, and if he had said ‘no’ to slavery ... I don’t know what would have happened, but I do think that Taylor had the makings of a great president.
No one did better in your poll than Ulysses S. Grant, sometimes considered our very worst president because of corruption in his administration. You bump him all the way up to number seven, tied with Taylor. What have historians missed?
Grant had an impossible situation. On the one hand, his slogan was: “Let us have peace”—put the war behind us. But the problem was, how do you do that while you fulfill the goal of the war, which by 1865 was restoring the Union without slavery. Grant said there was no way he was going to allow freedmen to be forced back into peonage. Grant destroyed the first Ku Klux Klan with federal force. Was Grant’s administration any more corrupt than the environment at the time? I don’t think so. I’m not apologizing for it, but his nobility has been lost when it comes to the race question.
You didn’t rank George W. Bush in your book because he was still in office at the time of writing, but in a recent article you graded him a C-minus. Where does that situate him?
I think in the end he may come in a little better than Carter [#33], but he won’t come out as good as his father [#14], or Bill Clinton [#22].
Now we’ve just inaugurated our 44th president. Three of your six criteria are things the president brings with him to office, so how does Obama look?
Obama’s problems are so great that the chances of success are much more likely. He has to make just a few dents in some of these terrible problems to be seen as extremely successful. Success breeds success, so a few early wins [would set him on the right path]. That’s his challenge. I’m hopeful about this presidency, yet I also know enough about history to be careful about raising expectations too high.
Looking at the overall scores you hand out, they tend to get better over time. We’ve been choosing presidents for more than 200 years now. Do you think we’re getting better at it?
I would say no. I think the challenges of the job have increased. A president is more of a force in American politics than used to be the case. Therefore they’re bound to have more consequence. But also, more of us are voting than did in earlier elections, when women didn’t vote and people without property didn’t vote. Have we gotten better at choosing presidents? I want to say no, but I do think the American people are pretty good judges.
Election 2008 from the inside
Staff cuts at Penn Museum
More proof on origin of Zeus worship
Wharton’s class on the crisis
Lies and their tellers
Remembering John Pryor
Rethinking presidential rankings
Different tune in basketball