Who was the greatest president of the 20th century?
Steven F. Hayward doesn’t quite answer that in his new book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama,” but he comes pretty close.
Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow in Law and Economics at the American Enterprise Institute, dissects every president from Woodrow Wilson forward in the book, ultimately rendering a verdict on them in the form of a grade. He also discusses how the presidency has changed from what the founders intended.
“It has become a much more populist office, whereas the founders thought it would be a bad idea for presidents to be speaking constantly to the public,” Hayward told The Daily Caller.
“The sheer size of the office — hundreds of people now work at the White House, up from about six for President Grant or just twenty or so for William McKinley — makes it unmanageable. ‘President’ derives from the Latin for ‘preside,’ like the chair of a committee; today ‘president’ is regarded as a synonym for ‘leader,’ taking us to new destinations.”
Hayward talks to TheDC about his book and justifies his grades in an interview below:
Why did you write the book?
The president is at the apex of American politics for both left and right, and I thought there was a need for an iconoclastic book (“politically incorrect”) that re-evaluated the modern presidency against what the founders envisioned for the office which was much more modest — and evaluated individual modern presidents, who changed the character of the office, according to their “constitutional performance.”
You have graded the presidents from Woodrow Wilson onward, giving Fs to five presidents: Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. You also give President Obama a provisional F. What does it take to get a failing grade?
Article II of the Constitution is fairly short, but it contains the specific oath of office to “protect and defend” the Constitution. My three-fold criteria for giving a constitutional grade to presidents according to how well or badly they did in living up to the oath is simple: do they understand — and agree with — the principles of the Constitution as the founders understood them; were their actions in office consistent with the founders’ constitutionalism; and third, were their Supreme Court appointments faithful to the founders’ constitutionalism, or were they liberal judicial activists? Many Republican presidents did very poorly on this last criterion.
Doesn’t FDR get any brownie points for his leadership during World War II? And was Clinton really as bad as Carter!?
If I was grading on wartime leadership, FDR would have indeed done well (as would Obama so far on defense issues), but I chose to apply my grades only to their constitutional performance. Clinton was as bad as Carter but for different reasons. Carter thought the office of the presidency was inadequate, and he sympathized with the view that the Constitution was obsolete and ought to be changed to make the office more powerful. Clinton’s low marks were due largely in part because of his two Supreme Court appointments.
You give Calvin Coolidge the highest mark, an A+. Why was he the best president since Woodrow Wilson? What don’t Americans know about him?
He had the best substantive grasp of, and the most sympathy for, the founders’ constitutionalism, which is evident in his speeches and his autobiography, few people ever read any more. (This is a shame since they are quite good; “silent Cal” is a grave injustice.)
Ronald Reagan came in second with an A-, but was only slightly ahead of George W. Bush who received a B+. What makes George W. Bush almost on the same level of presidential greatness as Ronald Reagan in your mind and why don’t very many people recognize that?
Reagan would have earned an A or an A+ if two of his Supreme Court nominees (Sandra O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy) hadn’t been so inconsistent; both of Bush’s Court picks were home runs for conservative constitutionalists (so far at least). Both Reagan and Bush understood and expressed strong support for the founders’ view of the natural rights basis of the Constitution, and its crucial linkage to the Declaration of Independence, making them true heirs to the tradition of Lincoln. Also, Reagan and Bush contested Congress over some of the “gray areas” of the separation of powers in the Constitution, and defended the executive branch against encroachments by Congress.
Are there important characteristics great presidents generally possess? Do you see any of them in the GOP candidates currently running for the job?
There are many important characteristics, among them having a clear central idea or perception of the moment that matches up with the political problems of the time, and an understanding of the Constitution that informs their approach to the office. None of the current GOP candidates, with the partial exception of Newt Gingrich, do very well on my scoresheet.
How are, as you write, almost all text books about the presidents wrong? Why is yours right?
Many of the leading books about the modern presidency evaluate the job like it is the political equivalent of a corporate CEO. Some are very good and illuminating of useful aspects, but some leading textbooks have no discussion at all of the president in relation to the Constitution — often no discussion at all of Article II. Some leading textbooks on the presidency don’t even have a single index entry for “Constitution.” James Madison or Lincoln — even Woodrow Wilson — would have been amazed.
Some have called for the abolition of the Electoral College, especially after the 2000 presidential election. Why is the Electoral College important?
A complicated question, but among the reasons the Electoral College is a good institution is that it requires winning candidates to achieve a geographically diverse majority, instead of just winning highly populated urban areas, for example. This requirement makes the winning candidate accommodate a wider array of citizen opinion which makes for more stable politics. A subtle point, perhaps, but an important one lost in the shuffle today. And there are other practical effects it has that are beneficial.
Do you have a couple of presidential facts you could share that you found particularly interesting while researching the book?
Gerald Ford’s real name was Leslie Lynch King. He took his adoptive father’s name as a young man. On a more general level, Harry Truman, a southern Baptist, was much more devoutly religious than most biographies capture (or his salty language would indicate). He read the Bible daily and conceived the Cold War in large part as a religious struggle against the Soviet Union.
Four of our last five presidents were left-handed, which is statistically odd given that only about 10 percent of the population is left-handed. (The lefties were Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Obama.)