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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

Presidents: From the failures to the greats


PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: RATING THE BEST AND THE WORST IN THE WHITE HOUSE. Edited by James Taranto and Leonard Leo. Wall Street Journal Books. 280 pages. $26.

Books that deal with any kind of list are fun. There is always some ranking or comment to question. This one is no exception. The editors are James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal's online editorial page, and Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a libertarian and conservative group.

Various editors, authors, and think tank denizens have written essays on each president. There are also several essays on presidenting at the end.

Three are rated "great." They are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In some other rankings Lincoln is first because he held the Union together. Washington generally leads because he was the first president and led the country into nationhood.

Roosevelt is ranked third for shepherding the country through the Depression and World War II.

Writing about FDR is Robert H. Bork, the conservative judge whom Senate Democrats refused to confirm to the federal appellate court during the first Bush presidency.

Bork attributes FDR's ranking to "temperament, personal charm, and luck." He says, "Roosevelt's performance during the Depression was not impressive. His economic measures have been compared to the economic policies of fascism . . . "

Another of the controversial 20th century presidents, Richard M. Nixon, ranked 33rd and among the below average. Writing about him is Kenneth W. Starr, Whitewater special prosecutor and Clinton nemesis.

Starr devotes his essay to Watergate, certainly the key element of the Nixon years. But he fails to discuss Nixon's opening to Red China and how that began the thawing of Cold War relations between the East and the West.

Only a vehement anti-Communist like Nixon could have done that and brought the country along with him. Had liberal Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey won the 1968 election and reached out to China, he would have been pilloried as being "soft on communism."

The four presidents considered failures are Andrew Johnson, who was impeached but not convicted, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, and at the bottom, James Buchanan. Pierce and Buchanan served the two terms just before Lincoln, when strong leadership might have averted the Civil War.

Bill Clinton, the other president to be impeached but not convicted, ranked among the average presidents at No. 24, just ahead of Calvin Coolidge.

John F. Kennedy was ranked No. 18, the last of the above average. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in describing JFK, says, "History will take a cool-eyed look at John F. Kennedy and his accomplishments and failures only when all who were alive when he was alive are gone."

Reagan ranked No. 8, among the near great, ahead of No. 9 Dwight D. Eisenhower, and behind No. 7, Harry S Truman. Other near greats are Thomas Jefferson, No. 4; Theodore Roosevelt, No. 5; Andrew Jackson, No. 6; James Polk, No. 10 and Woodrow Wilson, No. 11.

George W. Bush is not ranked because he is still in office. William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield were not ranked because they died shortly after taking office - Harrison 31 days later and Garfield after six months. Garfield was shot when he had been in office only three months.

If nothing else, Presidential Leadership will supply a stray fact for your next trivia game.

Jules Wagman was book editor of the former Cleveland Press. He now reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.

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