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The Schlesinger Syndrome, Updated

Alvin Felzenberg rethinks the presidential rating game.

By From the October 2010 issue

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The Leaders We Deserved (And a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game
By Alvin S. Felzenberg
(Basic Books, 486 pages, $19.95)

In this updated and revised version of the original edition, first published before the presidential election of 2008 and therefore not including an analysis of George W. Bush as a leader we did or didn’t deserve, Alvin Felzenberg gives us some 50 additional pages containing “an early assessment” of the Bush presidency.

The inspiration for taking a fresh look at the way we arrive at approved presidential ratings first hit Felzenberg, appropriately enough, on “a cold, dreary December day in 1996. As I sat down to breakfast with The New York Times Magazine, its cover story caught my attention. The article, ‘The Ultimate Approval Rating,’ by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., contained the results of a survey he conducted, in which he asked leading historians to evaluate U.S. presidents.”

For most of us, no doubt a depressing scene, something out of Sartre -- a dreary winter morning, the New York Times, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- enough to drive ordinary men to the liquor cabinet or back to bed, to await the first football game of the day.

But Mr. Felzenberg is no ordinary man. Among other things, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins; earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton; was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School; and served as principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, a job that required strength of character and the ability to think clearly and objectively.

Felzenberg has spent significant time in the academy, but isn’t an academician. He has also served as a congressional staffer and government official and is known as a Republican, but not identified with any one wing or faction. Clarity of thought, independence, a strong measure of objectivity -- in short, just the qualities needed in someone sufficiently irreverent to question the premises and methodology underlying the Schlesinger syndrome.

In that New York Times Magazine article, Felzenberg notes, “Schlesinger Jr.’s survey replicated and updated those that his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., conducted in 1948 and 1962.” In those surveys, both Schlesingers asked a selected group of historians -- they did the selecting -- “to place presidents into one of five categories: great, near great, average, below average, and failure.” No criteria for ratings within these categories were suggested, and the result was -- and is -- a “presidential rating game” in which winners and losers are determined by bias or unthinking acceptance of the approved conventional wisdom. And since the raters are Schlesinger-approved academics, no conservatives need apply.

Then there’s the matter of a general historical dumbing-down. “The popularization of Schlesinger-style surveys,” writes Felzenberg, “freed journalists, political commentators [he might have mentioned bartenders], museum curators, and students of all ages from having to offer evidence in support of their opinions.” All that was necessary was “to cite the collective assessments of the ‘experts.’” Thus is conventional wisdom transmitted.

Toward the end of that New York Times article, Felzenberg writes, “Schlesinger dropped any and all pretense to objectivity when he presumed to advise the recently re-elected Bill Clinton on how he might raise his grade in subsequent surveys,” by dropping that “New Democrat” persona he’d adopted and returning to that old-time liberal religion. “‘Only boldness and creativity, even at times foiled and frustrated,’ Schlesinger mused, ‘would earn Clinton a place among the immortals.’ ”

If so, Felzenberg notes, whatever else may be said about Clinton’s successor, “George W. Bush’s willingness to wage preventive war, his undertakings to spread democracy in the Middle East, and his readiness to act unilaterally on the international stage were certainly ‘bold and creative,’ even if they were at times ‘foiled and frustrated.’”

Does that qualify Bush for “immortal” status somewhere down the road? Of course not. The jury’s been fixed. As Felzenberg points out, one of Schlesinger’s jurors “wrote a cover story for a popular magazine, declaring Bush the worst president in history. Others seconded this opinion in other forums. Again, it would seem that presidential greatness lies in the ideological eyes of their evaluators.”

TO COMPENSATE FOR SUCH FAILINGS, and perhaps to restore some measure of balance, “to distinguish policy from process” and to see presidents whole rather than in part or caricature, Felzenberg has designed his own rating system, ranking presidents on three criteria -- character, vision, and competence; and their handling of three policy areas -- economic policy, the protection and expansion of liberty, national defense and foreign policy. “Taken together,” writes Felzenberg, “these six components provide readers with a thorough and consistent standard against which to measure presidential performance.”

They also result in “some surprise verdicts.” Andrew Jackson for instance, a special favorite of the Schlesingers, was a president of great consequence. But his economic policies plunged the country into a major depression, and his treatment of American Indians was unconscionable. Felzenberg drops Jackson to 27th place, two slots above George W. Bush’s preliminary resting place, and just behind Warren G. Harding.

Ulysses Grant, however, who has long received an undeserved bad press among academic historians moves up to 7th place, tied with John F. Kennedy. “Mistakes and all,” writes Felzenberg, “the old soldier had done his duty. He deserves better in the pages of history.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose great sin among the Schlesingerites was to have drubbed Adlai Stevenson, the favorite of the liberal establishment, moves to 5th place, one ahead of FDR. And Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan tie for 3rd place, behind Lincoln and Washington, in that order.

Conservatives and Republicans will find many of these revisions overdue and welcome. But there are those (Ben Stein and this reviewer, to name two) who believe Richard Nixon deserves better than 35th place, especially in the category of vision. Although Felzenberg seems not overly impressed with the results of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, it in fact threw the Soviets so badly off balance they were never able to recover. As a direct result of Nixon’s visit and the new relationship with China, there was a distinct and lasting shift in the global balance of power -- as Margaret MacMillan has pointed out, a rare example of a statesmanlike vision successfully shaping reality.

But no matter. Feltzenberg’s rankings, which made the first edition of this book both predictably controversial and surprisingly popular, are a welcome release from the group-think evaluations imposed by several generations of Schlesingerite academics. This new and revised edition should also prompt strong reactions for its early assessment of the Bush years and its preliminary observations on the early days of the Obama administration.

“Forecasting how history will ultimately regard George W. Bush’s presidency so soon after he left office is a fool’s errand,” writes Felzenberg. “As Bush noted, what future historians will write about him rests to a large degree on his successor.”

An astute observation, borne out by the historic record. Had Eisenhower not found a way to bring the Korean War to a minimally successful end, for instance, history would probably have judged Truman, who committed us to participating in that war, much more harshly. Similarly, if Obama is able to hold the Bush-led victory in Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, he will not only strengthen his own standing but validate the Bush approach, to which his escalation of the war has committed him.

As Felzenberg points out, much the same situation pertains in other aspects of Obama administration policy. Despite the campaign promises, Guantanamo remains open for business. Education programs are little changed, as are “faith-based initiatives.” On the economy, “Obama continued Bush’s policy of purchasing stocks with tax payers funds” and “expanded upon Bush’s initiative to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into Chrysler and General Motors.” Obama continues to draw on the economic advice of golden boys from institutions like Goldman also favored by the Bush economists. In other areas -- immigration, executive prerogatives, “signing statements” -- there seems little difference.

In short, at least for the first term, Obama, much to the dismay and anguish of his neo-romantic young supporters and most of academe, seems intent on bringing the programs and policies initiated during the Bush administration to successful conclusions. One school of thought has it that he doesn’t know what else to do. But whatever the motivations, an evaluation of Bush as president depends to a somewhat surprising extent on the successes or failures of the Obama presidency.

IN HIS PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS of Bush as president, Felzenberg enumerates those idiosyncrasies that so infuriated his enemies. At Andover, where he was known as “the Lip,” Bush “began a lifetime practice of addressing peers by nicknames, often derisive…He also acquired what appeared to be an omnipresent smirk.” As president, Felzenberg continues, mercilessly, “Bush occasionally reverted to the quirky behavior he had displayed as an adolescent.”

There was the wink at Queen Elizabeth and the “unwelcome back rub” administered to Angela Merkel. And in accepting his party’s nomination for the second time, “Bush drew attention to the strut some detected in his gait. ‘In Texas, they call this walking,’ he said.” (And good for him, some murmured, perhaps remembering Richard Nixon in Latin America, confronting rock-throwing demonstrators, climbing up on the hood of his car, grinning, flashing the victory sign, and telling an aide: “This’ll drive them up the wall!”)

But Bush was also a man who grew, writes Felzenberg, who developed considerable strength of character -- an “attitudinal conservative” who despite a privileged upbringing instinctively and emotionally sided with “ordinary Americans”; an executive who “valued brevity and consensus”; a model husband and father who stopped drinking and sincerely embraced religion. “Religion…brought out Bush’s sense of empathy. Stories about his demonstrations of kindness and generosity toward wounded soldiers, surviving relatives of victims of terrorist attacks, and others abound.”

Felzenberg gives Bush a 3 out of a possible 5 for “Character” on his ratings chart, tying FDR and, of course, beating Clinton. He also earns a 3 for “Preserving and Expanding Liberty,” tying, among others, Jefferson, both Adamses, and his father. Under “Defense, National Security, and Foreign Policy,” he beats out Carter and ties with Nixon, Jackson, and others. His worst rating is a 1 for “Competence,” owing in large part to the Katrina fiasco.

In all, in his early assessment of the Bush presidency, Felzenberg leaves us with this: “However history may fault Bush for his decision-making process and his handling of the war in Iraq for much of his time in office, it may also credit him for the courage he showed in pressing for Petraeus’s surge in the face of almost unanimous opposition. Future president Barack Obama predicted in 2006 that the surge would fail and denied in 2007 that it was working.”

But it did work. And now, three years later, President Obama is pressing for his own surge in Afghanistan. And he has chosen General Petraeus to lead it.

“Finally,” writes Felzenberg, “while historians will for decades debate the soundness of Bush’s actions…they will note that Bush’s defenders were correct in at least one respect: after September 11, 2001, for the rest of Bush’s presidency, no further attack upon Americans took place within the United States. That too will remain an important part of Bush’s legacy.”

It most certainly will, especially now that it’s difficult if not impossible for academics to play the ratings game by simply echoing approved ideological judgments. Of course, as long as there are liberals and academics, the Schlesinger syndrome will be with us. But it will never again be as potent as it once seemed on that dreary December morning, when Alvin Felzenberg decided to take it on. 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).