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Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House

Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House

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Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House

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Jul 30, 2004


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.
Jul 30, 2004

Informazioni sull'autore

William J. Bennett served as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H. W. Bush and as Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Reagan. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Williams College, a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Texas, and a law degree from Harvard. He is the author of such bestselling books as The Educated Child, The Death of Outrage, The Book of Virtues, and the two-volume series America: The Last Best Hope. Dr. Bennett is the former host of the nationally syndicated radio show Bill Bennett's Morning in America and the current host of the popular podcast, The Bill Bennett Show. He is also the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute and a regular contributor to CNN. He, his wife, Elayne, and their two sons, John and Joseph, live in Maryland.

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Presidential Leadership - William J. Bennett



The Presidency, Federalist No. 10,

and the Constitution

by Steven G. Calabresi

Americans are fascinated by the presidency and have been ever since George Washington became our first president in 1789. The presidency plays many of the symbolic roles for us that the monarchy plays for the British, and for that reason alone it has always been the object of mixed feelings of admiration, awe, and fear. Every age defines itself by its heroes, and in the United States our foremost heroes (and villains) are our presidents. It is for this reason that the Federalist Society set out together with The Wall Street Journal to do a current turn-of-the-millennium look at who are America’s most admired presidents. The results of that survey, which appear on pages 11 to 12 and 249 to 266 of this book, are of great interest because of what they tell us about our own age.

There are, however, two other reasons why I personally thought it important to launch the survey of the presidents that this book reproduces. These reasons also explain why I have devoted much of my time as a law professor to writing about the presidency. First, I think the presidency is an important moderating force in American life for reasons my hero, James Madison, set out in Federalist No. 10. Second, the presidency plays a vital role in maintaining the Constitution, a subject I am inherently interested in as a law professor.

The presidency is and almost always has been an important moderating force in American public life. This is in part because the president and the vice president are the only two officers of the national government who are elected by a nationwide constituency. Senators and representatives are elected to office by small constituencies consisting of a state or a congressional district. As Madison argued in his brilliant essay in Federalist No. 10, it is comparatively easy for small factions to dominate congressional districts or states. Some states and districts may be dominated by farmers while others may be dominated by manufacturers. The senators or representatives elected from those constituencies will all too often be very attentive to the interests of the farmers or the manufacturers they represent. The president and vice president, however, must win a nationwide election, and to do that they will have to appeal to both farmers and manufacturers, and to a whole host of other interests besides. Because of that, the president and vice president are less likely to be captured by special interests than are senators and representatives.

Madison offered Federalist No. 10 as a cure to an ancient problem of democracy, evident to the Framers in the turbulent history of the Greek city-states. The Framers knew that democracy had failed there because all too often it degenerated into mob rule and violent contest between vicious factions. In addition to this sorry history, the Framers feared democracy could never work in a continental-size republic because the representatives of the people would not follow the popular will. Madison, however, argued that this way of conceiving things was exactly backward. He pointed out that if you extend the size of a democracy you take in an ever-larger number of factions or interest groups. In a large democracy, Madison noted, no one faction would ever be big enough to always dominate the national political process. This would mean that national politics would have to be dominated by ever-shifting coalitions of factions rather than by one majority and one minority faction. As a result, a large democracy would be less prone to interest group capture and majority tyranny than were the Greek city-states. Thus, the expansive size of the proposed new United States was not a problem for American democracy. Rather, it was the cure to the ancient problem of factional turbulence that had doomed the Greek city-states.

Madison’s argument is widely known, but few people appreciate its implications for the presidency. The president and the vice president are the only elected officers of our national government whose constituency is a national majority coalition. Representatives and senators may be able to get reelected by pleasing a few powerful local or state interests, but presidents can get reelected (or see an ideologically sympathetic successor elected) only if they please a whole national coalition of interests. This means that presidents are less likely than senators or representatives to be captured by any one interest, and they are more likely to take positions that are vague and are calculated to appeal to the moderate middle, which decides most national elections.

What this means is that American presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, tend to have a moderating effect on our body politic, even when they are leading us in some new direction. This point can easily be illustrated by the examples of just a few recent presidents.

Ronald Reagan charted a bold new course in foreign and domestic policy in a host of ways, but it was clear to me as a political appointee in his administration that he always worked hard to pull together a broad national coalition. Reagan forged an alliance of economic conservatives, social conservatives, anti-communists, and moderate and even liberal Republicans, as well as many conservative Democrats. He kept this coalition happy by having different officials in his administration to appeal to different constituencies. Conservatives looked to Ed Meese, Cap Weinberger, Bill Casey, Bill Bennett, and Donald Hodel, while moderates looked to Jim Baker, George Shultz, and later Howard Baker. The whole enterprise was a balancing effort, and different factions were represented in the administration in different ways.

Reagan’s policies too were more balanced and nuanced than many appreciated at the time. His anti-communism was balanced by the stunning and fateful rapprochement he achieved with Mikhail Gorbachev. His tax cuts were balanced by the 1986 tax reform bill and by some unfortunate but necessary tax increases. His social conservatism was tempered by an instinct for appealing to younger, more libertarian suburban Republicans. In sum, Ronald Reagan was nothing less than a genius at tending to the needs of the broad Madisonian coalition that elected him. And in the process of tending to the needs of that broad coalition he emerged as a far more moderate and effective president than anyone would have expected when he challenged Gerald Ford in the primaries of 1976.

Now fast-forward to Bill Clinton. He began his career as an unabashed McGovernite liberal. (He was also, in my judgment, corrupt and pathologically dishonest, and I thus advocated his impeachment.) Nonetheless, he was a surprisingly moderate president in a few notable respects. He signed landmark welfare reform legislation and a capital gains tax cut. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, albeit at midnight when no press could record the event. He committed U.S. troops to war in the Balkans, even though in his youth he sympathized with those who had come to loathe the military. He signaled to the American people that the era of big government was over, thus legitimizing the Reagan Revolution in much the same way that Dwight Eisenhower legitimized the New Deal. His two Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, were relative moderates who attracted little Republican opposition. He repositioned the Democrats as being tough on crime.

Why would a politician with basically left-wing instincts do all of these things? Because he was tending to his reelection and to the hope that his vice president would be picked to succeed him, and that meant he had to keep a Madisonian coalition happy. The genius of the American political system forced Clinton to be a moderate president even though his ideology tugged him constantly in the other direction.

James Madison’s argument for extended, continental democracy in Federalist No. 10 was as right and as influential as any essay in political science could ever hope to be. Critically for this book, however, it explains why the presidency is so often and so surprisingly a force for moderation in our national life. In an era when most House seats are redistricted to be safely Republican or safely Democratic, the presidency remains an institution that neither party can quite permanently capture. The moderation and centrism of our presidents are features of the presidency that make it an admirable institution and that have served this country well.

A second feature of the presidency that is underappreciated is the role the president plays in the development and exposition of our constitutional law. We all know that every new president takes a special oath of office when he assumes the presidency in which he swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, but few of us know that the Framers in Philadelphia put more stock in the president as a defender of the Constitution than they did in the Supreme Court. What was it about the presidency that made the Framers think that the president would play a bigger role in preserving our constitutional order than the Supreme Court?

To begin with, the Framers rightly thought that the major threat to our constitutional order was foreign invasion or domestic insurrection, and since 1789 the presidency has been a stalwart backstop against both of those two threats. More broadly, the presidency has an almost unchallenged role to play in the foreign affairs area, where the Supreme Court tends almost always to defer to presidential judgments about issues of constitutional meaning. In the whole critical area of foreign policy and domestic security, therefore, the president is the dominant interpreter of the Constitution.

In domestic affairs, the president is the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, and he sets the policy priorities that largely determine whether the laws are faithfully executed. Moreover, the president is the font of constitutional law because he nominates new justices of the Supreme Court and new judges of the one-thousand-member lower federal judiciary. Two-term presidents can expect to name, on average, three or four Supreme Court justices and some 40 percent of lower-court judges. That is almost always enough to tip the balance on the federal courts in some new direction. While senatorial advice and consent sometimes slows the president down, the fact is that each new president gets to move the courts decisively in some new direction and two-term presidents can almost always change the direction of the courts, unless they face a Senate controlled by the opposite party.

The net result, as Mr. Dooley famously said, is that the Supreme Court follows th’ iliction returns, and the returns it mainly follows are those of presidential elections. That is why it matters so much for domestic policy who wins presidential elections even though the president does not have much leverage over Congress aside from the veto power. The Supreme Court is basically a caboose on the train of government with the presidency functioning as the locomotive. Whichever direction the president goes, the Supreme Court will eventually follow, even if there is a bit of a lag. The president is, thus, as the Framers expected he would be, the font of our constitutional law. Anyone interested in constitutional law or the Supreme Court must also be interested in the presidency because that is where constitutional law gets made in the first instance.

These two underappreciated features of the presidency help explain why Americans are right to be fascinated by this uniquely important American institution. The presidency is as important as Americans think it is, and we are justified in making our quadrennial presidential elections the big national town meeting of our democracy. It is my hope that this book, with its study of the forty-two men who’ve served as president, and with the reproduced survey ranking of the presidents, will contribute to a better and deeper understanding of this incredibly vital, distinctively American, institution.

Mr. Calabresi is a professor of law at Northwestern University and co-founder of the Federalist Society. He would like to thank Gary Lawson for helpful comments and suggestions.

The Rankings

In October 2000, the Federalist Society and The Wall Street Journal asked an ideologically balanced group of 132 prominent professors of history, law, and political science to rate the presidents on a 5-point scale, with 5 meaning highly superior and 1 meaning well below average. Seventy-eight scholars responded, and the presidents are ranked in order of mean score. For more details, see Appendix 1.

Note: Because of their brief tenures, William Henry Harrison and James Garfield were excluded from the rankings. The survey was conducted a month before George W. Bush’s election, so he could not be included.

The Presidents






BORN: February 22, 1732 (February 11, old style), Westmoreland County, Virginia

WIFE: Martha Dandridge Custis

RELIGION: Episcopalian

PARTY: Federalist

MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Virginia militia (colonel), Continental Army (general and commander in chief)

OTHER OFFICES HELD: Member of Virginia House of Burgesses (1759–74), delegate to Continental Congress (1774–75), president of Constitutional Convention (1787)

TOOK OFFICE: April 30, 1789


LEFT OFFICE: March 4, 1797

DIED: December 14, 1799

BURIED: Mount Vernon, Virginia

by Richard Brookhiser

In February 1789 presidential electors met in the capitals of their states to cast the first ballots ever to fill the office of president. Every one of them voted for George Washington (a sweep that would be repeated when he won reelection, and never since). Congress, meeting in New York City, the nation’s capital, counted the ballots in March, and informed the victor in early April. Washington’s trip north from Mount Vernon was a pageant of acclaim, marked in every town and city he passed by banquets, songs, and parades, and culminating in a ceremonial barge trip across New York Harbor that was accompanied by booming cannon and leaping porpoises. He was not elated by his triumph, however. Before he set off, he wrote that he felt like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.

Thomas Jefferson believed that Washington was naturally inclined to gloomy apprehensions. Yet there was much to apprehend in the spring of 1789. Two serious problems faced the Washington administration, and another was in the offing.

The first problem was unique to the first presidency: What exactly does the president do? The Constitution had given him the executive power, and defined certain aspects of it, chiefly diplomatic and military. But many details were still fluid. The president could make treaties, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Did that mean he should formally consult them before negotiating with foreign powers? In August 1789 Washington appeared before the Senate to tell them what he proposed to offer the Creek Indians. The senators began asking questions, which carriages rattling on the street outside made inaudible. The discussion bogged down, and Washington, showing rare public irritation, left. Though he returned on a later day, he vowed never to submit his bargaining positions to the Senate—one bystander recalled him saying he would be damned if he ever went there again—a precedent his successors have followed.

Washington also had to establish presidential etiquette. His behavior at weekly receptions struck some guests as stiff. Yet he was accessible and peripatetic, making a point of visiting all thirteen states (most of the ubiquitous Washington Slept Here signage on eighteenth-century American buildings is probably accurate). In a world of divine right, he had to define the manners of republican authority. Once he defined them, he had to enact them with conviction. Americans, well versed in ancient history, knew that many aspiring tyrants had honored republican forms on their way up. But, as Tacitus wrote, grand sentiments of this kind sounded unconvincing. Washington had to get etiquette right, and he had to mean it.

The second problem Washington faced was America’s shaky finances. This was an old story. As commander in chief during the Revolution, he had struggled with faltering supplies and chronic arrears in soldiers’ pay. Postwar efforts to pay off the debt had led to crushing state taxes and severe rural discontent. Even so, the government could not pay its bills. By 1789 American obligations were trading as low as 25 percent of face value on European money markets.

Most of the Founding Fathers were planters and lawyers, with little understanding of commerce, and less of finance; reading what John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had to say about banks and banking is hair-raising. Washington shared their ignorance. But he knew, from his wartime experience, that the debt problem required bold solutions; and he had met, on his staff, a bold young colonel, Alexander Hamilton. Washington tapped Hamilton to be the first treasury secretary, and he let him work. Washington had the great gift of leadership: he knew what he knew (war and politics), and he knew when to rely on others.

When Hamilton’s economic program, which included an excise tax on distilled spirits, provoked the Whiskey Rebellion on the Appalachian frontier in 1794, Washington had to rely on his own talents. The Whiskey Rebels thought they were justly defying an oppressive tax. But Washington saw their defiance of a legitimately passed law as a violation of republican government. [If] a minority…is to dictate to the majority, he wrote, then all laws are prostrate, and everyone will carve for himself. Washington sent troops to the scene, five times as numerous as the army he had led across the Delaware in 1776; the show of force prevented further bloodshed. Good government and sound finances were saved. When Hamilton stepped down in 1795, American public securities were trading at 110 percent of face value.

The third great problem of the Washington administration began three months after his first inauguration, with the fall of the Bastille. Despite its bloody excesses, the French Revolution looked at first like an exercise in liberal constitutionalism. The Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s idealistic comrade-in-arms, was one of the early leaders, and Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense, was elected to the French legislature. By 1794, however, Lafayette was in exile, Paine was in jail, and the guillotines were doing their work.

The French Revolution began a quarter century of superpower conflict. The principal belligerents both had long-standing ties with the United States. Britain was the former colonial power, now a major trading partner. France was an ally in the throes of chaos, intent on exporting its ideology. Washington’s guiding principle throughout the conflict was to keep the infant United States out of harm’s way. He issued a proclamation effectively declaring neutrality, thus spurning America’s obligations to France, though he softened the blow by avoiding the word. When a bumptious French diplomat, Citizen Edmond-Charles Genet, tried appealing over the president’s head to the American people, Washington held his tongue until Genet over-stepped himself, and then demanded his recall. He negotiated a new treaty with Britain, to resolve issues left unsettled by the Revolution, and pushed it through a reluctant Congress. In his farewell address, Washington looked forward to a time when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by our justice shall counsel. But for the time being, he declared, it was our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.

Foreign war also became a topic of domestic strife. Like boxing fans with ringside seats, Americans chose sides. Jefferson, the first secretary of state, took a view of the French Revolution that was sanguine, in both senses of the word—hopeful, and bloodthirsty. Rather than it should have failed, he wrote, I would have seen half the earth devastated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is. Hamilton believed that U.S. prosperity depended on an understanding with Britain. We think in English, he assured a British diplomat. Jefferson and Hamilton’s disagreement and rivalry—they came to dislike each other personally—formed the nub of the first two-party system, the Republicans (ancestors of today’s Democrats) and the Federalists. The Founding Fathers viewed political parties with distaste—James Madison wrote disdainfully of factions—yet they all joined one or the other.

Washington inclined to Federalism—in his view of the world, France, albeit a republic, was more aggressive and therefore more dangerous than monarchic Britain—yet he only inclined to it. He did not want Americans to take sides on foreign policy. In his farewell address, he warned Americans against both inveterate antipathies and passionate attachments to other countries. As president, he steered between contending pressures and weathered several ugly domestic storms. The United States finally slipped into the French revolutionary wars—by then the Napoleonic wars—in 1812, and the experience was disastrous. But the country was strong enough to weather it, thanks to Washington’s early firm hand.

Washington performed his last service in March 1797 at another inauguration, when he witnessed John Adams taking the oath as second president. Americans had fought a revolution against a king, yet they were not completely weaned from royalist yearnings. Washington Irving makes the point comically in Rip Van Winkle: Rip sleeps through the American Revolution to find, when he wakes, that the image of George III on the sign outside his favorite tavern has been changed, by painting in a cocked hat and a sword, to that of George Washington. Had he been a different man, the American George could easily have been reelected to a third term and died in office; had he been a very different man, he could have angled to become king or leader for life (the suggestion was made to him).

But Washington was who he was. When John Adams was an old man, he thought of poor mankind, so often deceived and abused by their leaders. But such is their love of the marvelous…that they will believe [the most] extraordinary pretensions to selflessness and public spirit. Adams quoted a cynical Renaissance pope: If the good people wish to be deceived, let them be deceived. A dark thought. Then he added: Washington, however, did not deceive them.

Mr. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (Basic, 1996) and, most recently, Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (Free Press, 2003).


John Adams



BORN: October 30, 1735 (October 19, old style), Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts

WIFE: Abigail Smith

RELIGION: Unitarian

PARTY: Federalist


OTHER OFFICES HELD: Massachusetts colonial legislator (1770–71), delegate to Continental Congress (1774–78), vice president (1789–97)

TOOK OFFICE: March 4, 1797

VICE PRESIDENT: Thomas Jefferson

LEFT OFFICE: March 4, 1801

DIED: July 4, 1826

BURIED: Quincy, Massachusetts

by Matthew Spalding

An early advocate of American independence and a significant political and intellectual leader of the Revolution, John Adams was a weak president. The descendant of three generations of farmers, Adams attended Harvard and taught grammar school before passing the bar and comfortably settling into the practice of law in Boston. But his abiding interest in constitutionalism, government, and history drew Adams to the brewing controversies of imperial rule and colonial self-government.

Adams’s first prominent writing was A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), opposing Parliament’s recently enacted Stamp Act, the first direct tax levied on the colonies. Adams viewed it as an intrusion into local affairs that exposed the coercive and arbitrary character of English politics, and he advocated a renewed spirit of liberty in response. Yet his principled stands didn’t always make him popular with fellow patriots. In his first high-profile case, in 1770, Adams defended the British soldiers who had fired on a Boston crowd in what came to be called the Boston Massacre—as important a cause as ever was tried in any court or country of the world, he wrote.

By the summer of 1774, when he represented Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress, Adams—though never quite as radical as his cousin Samuel—was arguing that Parliament lacked the authority not only to tax but also to legislate for the colonies. But it was at the Second Continental Congress that Adams made his greatest contribution. He chaired the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence and dominated the debate in the Congress during the first days of July 1776, defending the document and demanding unanimous support for a decisive break with Britain.

Thomas Jefferson called him our colossus on the floor. Another delegate wrote, "The man to whom the country is most

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  • (3/5)
    An interesting effort to rank some of America's greatest and worst presidents. There are sufficient arguments for both sides that are presented by the various authors. Nevertheless, it is impossible to rank ANYTING withouut disagreement.