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  • Presidential Leadership

       June 28, 2004

    I'm a big fan of the Wall Street Opinion Journal. If you don't already receive Best of the Web Today, I strongly encourage you to sign up.

    The editor of that feature, James Taranto, along with Leonard Leo, have put together Presidential Leadership, which rates all of our Presidents. In addition to ratings, short essays on each President are written by the likes of John McCain, Robert Bork and Peggy Noonan.

    I like the book, but it's hit or miss. The essays on Presidents from the mid-twentieth century on suffer from one-sidedness. For example, Robert Bork's essay on FDR concentrates on his domestic failures and frankly, glosses over his leadership in WWII. Similarly, the essay on Reagan rather begrudgingly praises him for winning the Cold War, but completely ignores his domestic tax cuts that set the stage for a 20-year boom. FDR and Reagan are the two giants of the 20th century. Their records deserved to be examined by people who could at least pretend to be objective, otherwise their high rankings just look misguided at best.

    The essays on some of our more regrettable and/or forgetable Presidents are more enlightening. My favorite passage in the book relates to Herbert Hoover (ranked 29th, by the way):

    Hoover's image was slightly rehabilitated by Harry Truman in 1945. Learning that Hoover was in Washington, staying in a hotel, Truman telephoned and asked if he would come and see his "old home." Hoover accepted, so Truman sent a car. Hoover walked into the White House and broke into tears when he was asked to survey world food supplies. "Mr. President," he said, "since 1932 no one has asked me to do anything for my country. You are the first one."

    Hoover's administration wasn't a success, but that doesn't mean he was evil, an idiot or didn't have good ideas. I liked the Hoover essay because, what I wanted to read about, in addition to an evaluation of the President, was an evaluation of the man. But, too many of the profiles deal with specific policy decisions and results. But, leadership isn't just about results. No one really writes about the intangible qualities of leadership, yet, most of the highly ranked Presidents had it.

    The essays on various aspects of Presidential leadership are better than the individual profiles, particularly the essay on leadership in economic policy by the late Robert L. Bartley. With a few exceptions, he argues that either Presidents didn't believe they were in the business of setting economic policy or they were grand failures at it.

    All in all, it's an interesting read, but it could have been so much more. I'd give it a 6.5 out of 10.

    Posted by at June 28, 2004 08:22 AM

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