Ranking the Presidents; A History of Competency
Byline: Peter Hannaford, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In 1996, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asked 30 fellow-historians and two politicians to rate U.S. presidents in the following categories: Great, near-great, average, below average, failure. The poll replicated two by his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 and 1992.
An active liberal Democrat, Schlesinger Jr. had assembled a panel whose members, save one, shared a liberal worldview. Not surprisingly, the greats and near-greats were Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts and Truman. President Reagan received a below average ranking.
What most of those chosen for the top ranks had in common was the expansion of the role of the federal government.
The Schlesinger survey was widely publicized and, as Alvin Felzenberg notes in The Leaders We Deserved - And a Few We Didn't, it perpetrated two problems: First, the panelists, in rating presidents, had failed to make a distinction between policy and process. And, the popularization of Schlesinger-style surveys ... freed journalists, political commentators, museum curators and students of all ages from having to offer evidence in support of their opinions
Thus, Mr. Felzenberg designed a new, more objective rating system based on six criteria. He rates all presidents except for William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, both of whom served for very short times before their death, and President Bush since he is still serving. He judges separately their character, vision, competence, economic policy, their work in preserving and extending liberty, and defense, national security and foreign policy.
Mr. Felzenberg is not a professional historian; however, he holds a Ph.D. in politics and has been a fellow at the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; and has taught at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University. He is a scholar in the true sense, a learned person questing for the meaning of people and events that make up history. The presidency has been a nearly lifelong focus of his study. …