What makes a president great? Two of America's most prominent institutions, The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, with the help of a wide array of eminent scholars, journalists, and political leaders, tackle this question in Presidential Leadership, the definitive ranking of our nation's chief executives.
Based on a survey conducted by the Federalist Society and the Journal, Presidential Leadership examines presidential performance in this collection of provocative, enlightening essays written by a distinguished and diverse group of authors.
The survey included seventy-eight liberal and conservative scholars, balancing the sample to reflect the political makeup of the U.S. population as a whole. It represents the first national survey in book form that provides a complete ranking of the presidents, along with an appendix that explains the methodology in detail and includes a wide range of valuable data. The result is an important, fresh, and engaging book, rating the presidents from Washington to Clinton and including an early assessment of George W. Bush's presidency by Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot. Nearly fifty contributors provide their insights, with one essay on each president or on a broader issue of presidential leadership. Among them:
Forrest McDonald on Thomas Jefferson
Lynne Cheney on James Madison
Douglas Brinkley on James Polk
Christopher Buckley on James Buchanan
Jay Winik on Abraham Lincoln
John McCain on Theodore Roosevelt
Robert Dallek on Lyndon B. Johnson
Peggy Noonan on John F. Kennedy
Paul Johnson on Bill Clinton
Their compelling essays, packed with fascinating and often surprising insights, analyze the best and worst of our commanders in chief. Presidential Leadership is the lively result, at once a valuable reference and a tremendously readable collection.
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August 02, 2004
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Excerpt from Presidential Leadership by James Taranto
It's probably just as well that James Buchanan was our only bachelor president. There are no descendants bracing every morning on opening the paper to find another headline announcing: "Buchanan Once Again Rated Worst President in History."
Their only consolation is that political scientists occasionally tire of ranking him last and, just for the heck of it, bump him up to next-to-worst president, with Warren Harding (temporarily) assuming the bottom slot on the greasy pole. But then what can one hope for, of an executive whose most famous utterance was to his successor on the day he handed over the reins of the fractured nation: "My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed" And how would you like to be followed by Abraham Lincoln, number one or two on the top ten list of great presidents
Considering Buchanan's curriculum vitae leads one to ask, What, oh what, went wrong His achievements and honors positively shimmer. He was an excellent lawyer pulling down $11,000 a year, no small sum in the 1820s. He was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, then to the U.S. House. He was elected chairman of the Judiciary Committee, appointed minister to Russia (by President Andrew Jackson, in order to keep him from running for vice president), elected to the U.S. Senate and reelected twice, appointed secretary of state, appointed minister to Britain. James Buchanan was a r sum god, a nineteenth-century George H. W. Bush. If only he'd stopped there. But whom the gods would make worst president in U.S. history, first they convince to run for the White House.
An essay on Buchanan by the historian Jean Harvey Baker in a collection entitled -- ironically, in his instance -- To the Best of My Ability contains the following phrases: "ill suited...undermined his pledge...advice of cronies...inflammatory position...improperly intervened...infuriating...limited himself...passed over for renomination...schism in the party...vacillating...rudderless...bungled...presidential failure...erratic trimmer...twisted...stubbornly...deaf ear...feckless...exculpatory vehemence."
The Greatness That Was the Buchanan Era included Dred Scott, the economic panic of 1857, secession, and Fort Sumter. You have to look hard to find four more dismal nodes in American history. Open the Buchanan file to any random page and you'll find such accolades as: "never regarded as a brilliant speaker," "neither a brilliant nor visionary thinker," and even "expelled from college." The one woman about whom he was serious was the daughter of Pennsylvania's leading ironmaster, who, by the way, didn't like Buchanan and tried to break up the courtship. After he fumbled the romance, she committed suicide. Later on, there were rumors that his persistent bachelorhood was owing to an abiding Uranian affection for Alabama senator -- and, briefly, vice president under Franklin Pierce -- William Rufus King.