Lincoln, Washington, and ... Reagan?

Lincoln, Washington, and ... Reagan?

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In Alvin Felzenberg’s new book, The Leaders We Deserve (and a Few We Didn’t) we get a revisionist take on an academic parlor game: ranking the U.S. presidents.

Al is of a conservative bent, so it is no surprise that three Democratic Party icons–Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson–get a good mugging here.

Or that his top five presidents are Republican (with the lone exception of George Washington.)

Or that Abe Lincoln tops the list.

Or that Ronald Reagan is in a tie for third with Teddy Roosevelt, just a whisper behind Washington and Lincoln.

(I have a vision of Al and Grover Norquist, jackhammers in hand, heading toward Mount Rushmore . Alert the curators at Monticello .)

Felzenberg contends that previous ratings–like the celebrated surveys of Harvard historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.–display the liberal bias of American historians. And Al, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University , will have none of that.

As a liberally-biased American historian, I have more than a few reservations about the Felzenberg ratings: like the way he rounds out his top 10 with Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor and William McKinley, placing them and Republican mediocrities like Calvin Coolidge and Benjamin Harrison above guys named Jefferson and Adams and Madison and Monroe.

Eisenhower at Number 5?

McKinley at Number 7? For what? Fattening the wallets of the robber barons and conquering the Philippines ?

Gimme a break, Al.

I’d place Washington with Lincoln , trailed by FDR and Jefferson and Adams and Monroe : the presidents who most ably led the nation when its existence was at stake.

And then there’s a bunch of good guys like Teddy and Woodrow Wilson and Reagan and Jackson and maybe Ike and Harry Truman.

When demoting Democrats, Al offers one new, reasonable, rationale. In his criteria, he judges the presidents on their attitudes toward African-Americans. Democratic presidents like Jefferson and Wilson, sons of the Solid South, tend to fare poorly, while Republicans like Grant get a boost for kicking the Rebs around.

In the end, Al tends to prove his point that all ratings are subjective. (How else could that giant of the civil rights movement, Ronald Reagan, replace Roosevelt, Jefferson and Jackson at the pinnacle of presidential performance?)

And, looking ahead, one interesting tidbit caught my eye.

The president who entered office with, arguably, the most relevant experience for the job was James Buchanan, who ranks dead last in the Felzenberg rankings, and in the ratings of most historians.

And the man with the least relevant experience? That would be Lincoln , at Number One. The guy with the biggest monument of all.

So what, Al, does that say about Barack Obama?