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The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game Hardcover – June 10, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Wall Street Journal
“Written in a breezy style, "The Leaders We Deserved" is clearly intended for anyone who wants to learn something about U.S. history while observing presidents compete with one another for top rankings.”

Washington Times
“In this election year, anyone interested in the future of the nation's leadership will find this examination of the past a useful guide.”

“Felzenberg has crafted a very interesting and worthwhile read.”

James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
“Alvin Felzenberg has written an incisive, readable book in which he offers detailed evaluations of presidents according to several key criteria. His rankings contain some surprises, with which not everyone will agree, but all readers will be stimulated and will come away better informed than before.”

Harold Holzer, Co-chairman, U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
“Alvin Felzenberg puts Lincoln and several other presidents in the full context of their times and ours, shedding much new light on those we thought we knew well, and taking a fresh look at some we need to know better. The sections on Abraham Lincoln, the most elusive of all presidents, adds much to the field of Lincoln studies and should not be missed."

Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
“This book goes beyond the parlor game of rating presidents and digs deeply into what qualities truly matter. By doing so, Al Felzenberg has produced a smart and fascinating look at the impact our great presidents have had.”

John J. DiIulio Jr., Frederic Fox Leadership Professor, University of Pennsylvania
“This book sets a new standard, not only for presidential studies but for leadership studies generally. In an enlightening and entertaining fashion, Felzenberg lays bare how and why some presidents have translated vision into transformational and sustainable action while others have not. For political scientists and anyone else who thinks understanding leadership matters, this book is not only must-reading but must-knowledge.”

National Review
“Felzenberg is to be credited with bringing to the presidential-ratings game a quality that had been sorely lacking: an opportunity to debate.”

Roanoke Times
“This book should be regarded as a ‘must read’ for its remarkable and thought-provoking insights as to how all of us as responsible citizens should evaluate our leaders -- past, present and future.”

Renew America
“Alvin Stephen Felzenberg has brought forward so much impeccable scholarship that The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t) merits the Gold Star Seal for rating presidents. As of now, it is the yardstick.”

About the Author

Alvin S. Felzenberg teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Felzenberg was the principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, an advisor to the Department of Defense and the Voice of America, and served in several senior staff positions at the U.S. House of Representatives, and as New Jersey’s Assistant Secretary of State. His most recent book is Governor Tom Kean. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465002919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465002917
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,601,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Dr. Felzenberg creates a new and useful methodology for rating U.S. Presidents. Instead of one single grade as in previous surveys, he rates presidents on six criteria. The first three are internal characteristics that each president carries into the Oval Office: character, competence, and vision. The second three reflect presidential accomplishments: economics, protection of liberty and human rights, and defense and international affairs.

Felzenberg uses his methodology masterfully to provide his readers with concise, intriguing, and often amusing portraits of all Presidents (except William H. Harrison, James A. Garfield, and George W. Bush). Felzenberg weaves recent economic and historical research into his vignettes to provide readers with new and sometimes surprising insights into many Presidents.

For example, Felzenberg demonstrates that Ulysses S. Grant deserves a far higher rating, especially for his protection of the rights of the freedmen, than most historians have granted him. At the same time, Felzenberg convincingly proves that although Andrew Jackson was an extremely competent in achieving his policy objectives, his economic policies and his disregard for human rights were very damaging to the United States.

Felzenberg brilliantly peers into the complex personalities of Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, Nixon, and Reagan. Unlike many other historians, Felzenberg's analyses of the economic policies and results of the Presidents are well grounded in sound economic reasoning and indisputable facts.

This is a hard book to put down. Every reader will learn a great deal about the men who have served in the White House. Some readers may disagree with some of Felzenberg's grades for certain Presidents in one of the six criteria or another. However, all of Felzenberg's judgments are objective and based on thorough research. In summary, this thought-provoking book is a must buy and read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Comparing presidents from over two centuries may seem to require a ton of homework at best, if it's not an impossible task altogether. But this book succeeds because:
1) The US Constitution hasn't changed much, nor the American's desire for liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
2) Felzenberg has done his homework, is insightful and is a master of concision;
3) As primary reasons for success/failure of aspects of a presidency become apparent, the book's conclusion provides a natural, clear and coherent how-to-look-for-a-good-president guide. And heaven knows, all this matters.
Like all the best history, this excellent book leaves me wanting to read more.
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Format: Hardcover
The idea behind Felzenberg's book is indeed a new approach, and one that works well. But he limits himself to only a few presidents for each of his 6 categories of measuring a president. Now surely some presidents are more important than others, and if he covered every president 6 times we would have a 1000 page book. But sometimes this approach leaves some questions open--for example, he gives Ulysses S. Grant a 5 on "Vision" then doesn't talk about Grant's vision at all. Another (minor) criticism I would have is the "Preserving and Extending Liberty" section almost exclusively deals with race, which while obviously a key factor is too narrow a definition.

Overall if you are a presidents buff and have always been interested in the ratings game as he calls it, I recommend the book. I'll make a final note: if you want to read about Lincoln and Reagan, he definitely focuses on those 2 guys more than the other 40.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Whether you agree or disagree with Prof. Felzenberg's assessments, it's difficult to dislike a book like this one. Everyone, whether a history buff or not, enjoys the presidential rating game. And Felzenberg has given us a fresh approach. Instead of just giving us the results of some survey of opinions, he makes an attempt to quantify his results. Before giving us an overall score, he rates the presidents in six separate areas: character; vision; competence; economic policy; preserving & extending liberty; and defense, national security and foreign policy. It's clever, actually. Instead of giving a vague overview of a presidency, it gives him an opportunity to criticize particular areas of a president's performance while still giving credit where credit is due.

Felzenberg does some other things right, too. He does a good job of focusing specifically on a person's performance while president, and not on his achievements outside of his term(s). Jefferson, for example, rates lower on his list because the character and ideals of liberty he espoused so well in the Declaration of Independence and in the opposition party were not carried out in his presidency. He does a good job at assessing not only the immediate but also the long-term impacts of a president's policies. Jackson, for example, suffers much in this regard. He is also very good at giving us some background on most of the presidents. We get to hear some detail about Coolidge, Harding, Polk, Fillmore and Buchanan, among others who usually get short shrift in these kind of works. (Still, Lincoln, Washington, the Roosevelts, etc. get most of the pages.)

But let's not fool ourselves. The game is rigged. All of the analysis is Felzenberg's own so it reflects his own prejudices.
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