This book undertakes to rate the U.S. presidents, using a survey methodology thought to be superior to the usual technique, as used by C-SPAN in its surveys. C-SPAN surveys historians, giving each a list of ten qualities, and asks the responders to rate each president on each of these ten categories on a scale of one to ten. The figures are then added up to arrive at the final result for each president.
The C-SPAN methodology suffers from the fact that each of the ten categories are presumed to be equal in importance. This is a huge flaw. The editors of this book improve on this methodology by asking the responders simply to rate each president on a scale of one to five. Additionally, these editors, who represent two conservative organizations, the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, seek to broaden the base of responders by choosing not only historians, but also political scientists and law professors. Also, an attempt is made to survey an equal number of respondents from the left and the right, correcting what the editors perceive as a liberal bias among historians generally.
The survey results are still hopelessly wrongheaded. But in addition to this basic problem, the essays on the presidents are each written by a different writer, some of whom agree with the survey results and some of whom do not. Consequently, there is no coherence to the book, no consistent standards used to evaluate the presidents.
There are so many internal inconsistencies that one hardly knows where to start. The essay on Andrew Johnson by University of Texas professor Jeffrey K. Tulis points out the folly of judging presidential success by how effective the president was in achieving his stated goals. Tulis states that if this standard is used, then Johnson was a "remarkably successful president". But Tulis believes that Johnson was in fact "an awful president", and evaluating Johnson's presidency "reminds us how cramped and inadequate is a notion of success confined to power and shorn from the ends for which power is deployed". In other words, the ends have to be legitimate and worthy.
How in the world, then, can John Adams be ranked 13th, and Lyndon Johnson be ranked 17th? Adams saddled the country with the odious Alien and Sedition Laws, which made criticizing the president a jailable offense. Indeed, when Adams left office, there were dozens of journalists languishing in prison for criticizing the government. What could be more unAmerican than that?
Similarly, the rank of LBJ in the top half is ludicrous. Every independent factfinder Jonson ever sent to Vietnam always came back with the same pessimistic report: it was an unwinnable war, and we had no business being involved in it. Yet, he continued on with his war, do only to his out-sized ego and his basic insecurity. LBJ should be ranked near the bottom, yet the ratings and the essay on his presidency support the top-half rating.
A basic principle of evaluating the presidents is that the evaluation should be based on their presidencies, and not their accomplishments outside their presidencies. Only the failure of the editors to observe this basic principle can explain how James Madison, William Howard Taft, and John Adams can all be ranked in the top half. All were mediocre presidents, though all had accomplishments during other parts of their lives which mus have entered into the thinking of those who offered opinions for this book.
Then we have the problem of blaming presidents for economic collapses that were caused by their predecessors. Thus, we have Martin van Buren (23rd) and Herbert Hoover (29th), both of whom were inexplicably rated lower than their predecessors: Andrew Jackson at 6th, and Calvin Coolidge at 25th.
The laissez-faire philosophy of the conservative/libertarian editors is shown in the essay on Bill Clinton, which contains this line: "the nation thrived mightily, as always when the White House does nothing". Yet, this principle is violated repeatedly when strong, activist presidents are routinely placed higher than they deserve. Andrew Jackson is the worst example of this. To place him 6th is a bad joke. Jackson destroyed the monetary system with his repeated vetoes of the bills presented to him by Congress, leading ultimately to a horrible depression which his successor had to deal with. When Andrew Johnson thwarted the will of Congress, the book claims that this justifies his presidency being rated a "failure"; but when Andrew Jackson does it, for some reason his administration is nevertheless labeled as "near great".
The essay on Jackson mentions only in passing Jackson's forced removal of Native Americans west to present-day Oklahoma. His "Trail of Tears" saw a considerably higher percentage of deaths than the infamous Bataan Death March during World War Two. The essay does not even mention at all Jackson's infamous response to the Supreme Court decision in Worcester v. Georgia, when he supposedly said "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Whether Jackson actually said these exact words or not is irrelevant, as it clearly expressed his views that the law meant nothing to him when it came to the forced removal of Native Americans to land unwanted by White settlers. For editors supposedly dedicated to limited, constitutional government, it is odd indeed that Jackson's efforts to deliberately violate a decision of the Supreme Court pass without a mention in this book.
And finally, we have the problem that presidents who returned the country to normalcy following the turbulent and error-prone tenure of their predecessors are routinely under-rated. In this category we have James Monroe, Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren Harding, and Gerald Ford.
To understand how important the Monroe years of tranquility were, one must understand how horribly disruptive were the years of his predecessor, Madison. Madison took the country into a completely useless war, the War of 1812, a war which accomplished nothing, ended in a stalemate, and triggered a serious secession movement in the New England states. The people surveyed for this book seem to think that the "Era of Good Feelings" under Monroe happened by accident. To the contrary, Monroe made every effort to personally travel to every part of the country, and to appoint cabinet members from every part of the county. His foreign policy pronouncement, the Monroe Doctrine, represented a giant step forward in the U.S. taking a proactive approach to foreign affairs, in contrast to the reactive approach of Adams and Madison, and the doctrine still resonates to this day. To rank Monroe only 16th is to say that no president can be ranked higher than that unless he has had to face a huge crisis. I reject this narrow-minded thinking.
Similarly, Hayes represents a period of healing with the ending of reconstruction. Hayes also represents one of the most principled men to ever hold the highest office; he stated early on that he would only serve one term, because he didn't think a president should govern with an eye towards his re-election, and he kept his word on this.
Similarly, Harding represents a needed healing time after Wilson's ineffective presidency, and Ford represents a healing time after Nixon's nightmare of a presidency. These two, along with Monroe and Hayes, are all grossly underrated.
The book I would like to see is one that presents the criteria to be used right upfront, and then consistently follows through on rating presidents based on those state criteria. This book, by contrast, is all over the place.