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Incomplete Analysis of Presidential Greatness
on March 5, 2010
Americans are fascinated with rankings. From sports teams to cities, we enjoying making and reading lists of rankings based on some semi-objective criteria. Thus, it's no surprise that we'd also make lists ranking the effectiveness of our Presidents. Up until now, most Presidential rankings have been greatly influenced by Arthur Schlesinger's list that was created several decades ago. However, the rankings on that list were created using little more than the collective opinions of several historians. In his book The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn't), Alvin Felzenberg attempts to add a bit more objectivity to the process than Schlesinger provided. Felzenberg's innovation is to evaluate the Presidents on the basis of six criteria: Character, Vision, Competence, Economic Policy, Preserving and Extending Liberty, and Defense/National Security/Foreign Policy. Felzenberg weights each criterion equally, thus giving the evaluation of a Presidency a well rounded impression that is consistent across the Presidents. Felzenberg also takes pains to define the elements of each criterion so that the reader has a clear understanding of the basis on which each standard is applied.
While the methodology and criteria are well defined, I found this to be an incomplete analysis of Presidential effectiveness. The reason the book falls short of its goals is that Felzenberg assigns scores to every President for each criteria, but inconsistently explains the reasons why he assigned those scores. The scores assigned to some Presidents (Reagan, FDR, Lincoln) are exhaustively explained, giving the reader a good idea why they earned certain scores. Other presidents (Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, Coolidge) are only discussed under one or two criteria. Still other presidents (Tyler, Cleveland, John Quincy Adams) are not discussed in detail at all. Thus, Felzenberg relies on the reader's knowledge of US history to "fill in the gaps" and extrapolate why some presidents earned the scores that they received from him.
The book would've been more effective if Felzenberg had spent one chapter laying out the methodology and criteria, and then dedicated a chapter to each President, where the score assigned in each measure is explained. But, as the book is currently organized, The Leaders We Deserve (And A Few We Didn't) is an unsatisfying application of an intriguing theory.