Alvin Felzenberg is dissatisfied with the criteria historians use to rank U.S. presidents. His concerns range from the rating methods to the biasing effects of historians' political ideologies. Felzenberg collects his own ratings "...according to six criteria I have developed. The first three are internal attributes: character, vision, and competence. These often determine how a president approached the next three important policy realms in which all presidents engage: economic policy, the preservation and extension of liberty, and national security and defense." A panel of historians rated each U.S. president using these criteria.
The book is structured around the six rating dimensions. Each of six chapters ranks the presidents (from Washington to Clinton) by their score on one of Felzenberg's dimensions. It then reviews the lives and legacies of selected high- and low-scoring presidents. Across the six chapters, each president is profiled once. Felzenberg makes his assessments without favoring the political right or left. He sometimes credits a president with achievements which undo the work of a previous "great" president. Readers might examine how well Felzenberg achieves objectivity by comparing his profiles of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. These two very different presidents appeal to voters at opposite ends of today's political spectrum. Each receives both credit and criticism for his attributes and policies.
The last two chapters apply the books rating framework. "What Does It All Mean?" constructs a candidate evaluation checklist from traits that distinguish between high- and low-scoring presidents.
Americans should endorse candidates who:
- Articulate specific goals
- Have overcame adversity
- Have broad life experiences
- Exhibit curiosity about the world
- Have a strong sense of integrity
- Temper confidence with humility
We should avoid candidates who:
- Exhibit cynicism or complacency
- Whine and complain
- Won't take advice
- Have a narrow focus
- Cling to an ideology or agenda
- Hold grudges
- Aggressively assert power
The author's use of the six rating dimensions is consistent and thought-provoking. He encourages multi-dimensional thinking about what constitutes presidential success. A few presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, score well across the board. Others, like James Buchanan are uniformly poor. Most presidents' ratings vary across the dimensions, sometimes dramatically. This book is highly recommended to those interested in comparative analysis of U.S. presidents. It is also of significant value to any voter open to a non-partisan approach to assessing presidential candidates. Such readers might also benefit from Steven Rubenzer's Personality, Character, and Leadership In The White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents