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Rating, Ranking, and Reviewing the Presidents
A Review of Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House, edited by James Taranto and Leonard Leo
by: Douglas E. Hill

Anyone with an interest in American history or politics will enjoy reading Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House. Editors James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society have combined the work of a lot of interesting people into an informative book on the presidency. The book provides three different things: ratings and rankings of the U.S. Presidents by a panel of scholars chosen for "ideological balance," a collection of essays on each U.S. President, and a shorter collection of essays on more general issues involving the presidency. Anyone doing serious research will need to read further, but this is a fun read which could offer a good starting point for discussion or student research.

All the Presidents are ranked except for William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, because of their very brief tenures, and George W. Bush, because the survey was completed in 2000, before Bush took office. I appreciated that this book did not just rank the presidents and list the rankers, but it also explained its methodology. The collection of scholars was chosen to reflect the ideological make-up of the country in order to correct for a perceived bias in previous studies. The order in which the presidents are ranked does not offer too many surprises, but an analysis of the data from which the rankings were computed offers some interesting results. That two of the three most controversial presidents (among current scholars) are Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan is not surprising, but that the second most controversial President (as measured by the standard deviation of his rankings) is Woodrow Wilson is surprising to this reviewer. I would have expected that the historical view to be more settled on this Chief Executive who served almost a century ago. The men are ranked by their accomplishments as presidents, so that their often impressive accomplishments before taking that office are not (or at least should not have been) considered.

The collection of essays on each U.S. President includes biographical information on each president, along with a Wall Street Journal-style drawing of each leader. Every president is covered, including W.H. Harrison, J. Garfield, and G.W. Bush. After reading this, the more obscure presidents are no longer just names on a list. All of the essays are interesting, and many offer alternative views to the commonly received wisdom that the non-expert (such as this reviewer) may have been exposed to in history class. These essays, as products of individual scholars, are often at odds with the collective wisdom that is reflected in the rankings. Thus someone researching Presidents will often have to look further to understand the more popular view of some of the more well-known presidents. However, these views are quite refreshing.

This collection gives some examples of how Presidents have interpreted aspects of the presidency that we may now take for granted but that was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution. For example upon the death of William Henry Harrison, Vice-President John Tyler "insisted that he was the president," rather than merely assuming his "Powers and Duties" as vice- and acting-president (p. 56). Andrew Johnson successfully argued that impeachment be viewed as a criminal rather than a political procedure; that is, it should only consider whether he broke the law and not whether Congress considered him fit to remain in office (pp. 92-93). George Washington owes his top ranking in part to how he established so many aspects of the presidency, such as presidential etiquette and how to work with the Senate in making treaties (pp. 16-17).

As the work of many authors, this collection suffers some inconsistencies. For example, the biographical information in the entry on Ulysses S. Grant states that he held no other governmental offices (outside of his military experience) while the article states that he served as one of Andrew Johnson’s Secretaries of War (pp. 94, 96). Also, the lack of references makes this book an easier read but limits its value for research.

The smaller collection of essays on "Issues in Presidential Leadership" deals with how presidents have dealt with issues such as economics and war. Of current interest will be "Presidential Leadership After Disputed Elections," contributed by editor James Taranto, which deals primarily with what happened during the elections of 1824, 1876, and 2000. (Each of these elections was resolved quite differently.) It offers a nice exposition, but the title is a bit misleading. It deals more with what happened during these elections and how the winners got them resolved in their favor, than how they governed afterwards.

I enjoyed reading this book. With its list of presidents, as well as presidential elections (including the electoral votes, and where available, the popular vote percentages) this book provides a handy reference on the history of the presidency. I hope that sometime after the end of George W. Bush’s first term, the panel can be reconvened in order to include him (as well as to consider the final days of Bill Clinton’s second term) in their ratings. I also hope that most of the minor inconsistencies will be corrected in future editions.

James Taranto, editor, discussed this book on September 7, 2004, on Campus Talk UCI. To listen, click here.

Douglas E. Hill, Ph.D., hosts Campus Talk UCI, Tuesday mornings at 9 am on KUCI 88.9 fm. He is also the alumni advisor of Students for Science and Skepticism.

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